Buried at the end of “Last Call”, the final track on The College Dropout, is a nine minute long interview-style recording of Kanye West recounting the crowning events that lead to his eventual signing to Roc-A-Fella Records. In retrospect this segment is probably the most captivating part of the rapper-producer’s debut album. Here was a measured, sane, Kanye speaking in endearingly giddy tones about meeting his idols — Jay, Dame, Cam, Kweli — for the first time ever. This moment symbolized the Spring of West’s pop career, a season in which his only crises were ones of the physical world: stacking enough paper to cop a Pelle Pelle and some J’s; moving sight unseen from Chicago to an apartment in Newark, New Jersey; finding enough time in his rapidly increasing work schedule to finish mundane tasks like assembling Ikea furniture. “Last Call” was Kanye at his most relatable. His most normal. His most likable.
By comparison, Yeezus, the man’s sixth studio album, finds him at his least relatable, his least normal, and, by far, his least likable. Mind you, this doesn’t preclude it from being a great album (more on that in a minute) but for the Kanye detractors Yeezus might represent everything that’s gone wrong since “Last Call”. It’s the culmination of a series of existential crises suffered by West that have, until now, manifested themselves in bizarre and loathsome displays in various public forums. From rapping disguised as a straight-jacketed Yeti in Abu Dhabi, to disparaging the Grammy’s and Justin Timberlake on stage in London, to the confounding mobius strip that was last week’s New York Times interview, Kanye has graduated from the cocky undergrad of yesterday’s Dropout to the arthouse enfant terrible of today’s Yeezus.
The new record is a glorious explosion of pure id, bursts of which we’ve actually seen before. But where the universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a calculated elucidation of Kanye West’s similar imbroglios — the trappings of fame, perceived slights by mis-projecting critics and fans, deluded romantic exploits — Yeezus is less focused, more raw, and far baser. Fantasy featured the all-star posse cut “Monster” but Yeezus is the fully realized chronicle of the beast.
The two most celebrated tracks thus far, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”, are either indictments or celebrations (probably bits of both) of materialism and gratuitous behavior by the new, affluent Black entertainment class. In either case, the R.P. McMurphy of hip hop rants finds his Nurse Ratched in the very corporations representing his financial interests. “Black Skinhead”, however, is the one song on Yeezus capable of transcending any enemy agent in particular: it works well as both an airing-out of racial and class grievances, and as a track to just workout to.
I’ve listened to the album nearly a dozen times since it leaked last Friday and in nearly as many moods and settings, including: at the gym, on my commute, at an unreasonably early hour on Saturday morning, after a long hot sunburned day at the beach, stone-cold sober on my way out for the night, and hung-over on the following afternoon. Yeezus doesn’t fit perfectly into any of these settings, but not once did I find it uninteresting.
In the Times article, Kanye tells how he employed the deft touch of Rick Rubin in an attempt to further pare down the complexity of sounds in Yeezus’s first mixes. It’s true the final compositions turned out simpler than West’s previous work, but the remaining elements have all been cranked up to a thousand. “On Sight” is a steroidal infusion of Bomb Squad distortion and Daft Punk electro acoustics. “I Am A God” is an industrial monolith that matches El-P and Trent Reznor levels of sonic bombast. It’s one of the most absurd songs here, provoking cheap thrills with a furious dancehall sample from Capleton, primal screams, and hashtag-worthy incongruities such as, “I am a God/ So hurry up with my damn massage/ In a French-ass restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants”. Natch. But why exactly would a God feel it necessary to dine French? Doesn’t the fact that he is a God eliminate the need for waiting? Or eating for that matter? These are all questions not worth asking for the sake of bearing witness to Kanye’s own precious dilemmas as a deity.
And speaking of dilemmas, Kanye’s romantic entanglements seem to have passed from the transient, fluid groupie love of “Gold Digger” to calcified impediments that demand more time than seem worthy. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Chicago Drill sergeant Chief Keef try lending disparate yet helping hands on “Hold My Liquor”, but Yeezy still can’t avoid smashing his beloved jump-off’s Corolla and then getting into an argument with her overbearing aunt. Subtract the drunkenness and troublesome hint at domestic violence and you’re basically left with an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Far more concerning is “I’m In It”, where Kanye is so embroiled in the pussy that he’s compelled to making racially bankrupt proclamations (“Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce”) and, improbably, finding a way to liken the civil rights movement to fisting. This is what I was talking about earlier when I said “least likable”.
In the end, Yeezus is basically impervious to adequate translation, at least in steadily coherent terms. It’s too busy acting like a car crash most of the time: too chaotic, too visceral, too real. Or something. Above all else it functions as an outlier to the rest of the rapper’s discography. In that context it most closely resembles the asterisk that was 808s & Heartbreak and will likely wind up being the fussy critics’ answer to “What’s your favorite Kanye album?” simply because of its aberrant qualities. (I can’t see this being the new mode for West for any significant amount of time. It’s just not sustainable.)
Ye has positioned himself so vitally in the pop culture landscape that he can pull off these types of stunts with nary a damaging blow-back, even if this record is met with disdain — which I predict it won’t be (nor deserves to be). He is hip hop’s most petulant child, armed with the biggest shoulder chip of all and with more cultural capital than the majority of his peers. Yeezus is what happens when our most sensitive, self-conscious pop star commits himself willingly, time and again, to the turbulent throes of an unjust America. Kanye’s best defense against this unrelenting appraisal isn’t the unflinching cool of a Jay-Z or the substance abuse of a Lil’ Wayne, but rather the genius of his own musical work.
To wit: “Blood on the Leaves”, with its devastating, ghostly Nina Simone vocal sample and marching, triumphal sci-fi trap score, is one of the prettiest instrumentals he’s ever done, but he nearly blows it with an overwrought dose of auto-tune. That’s the whim of Kanye West. Yeezus is the man at his most weaponized and self-destructive, but he still manages to make the shit sound gorgeous.