Kanye West: Yeezus
If there’s one terrible drawback of creating or experiencing a masterpiece it’s the anticipatory period of time that follows. For me, that period lasted from the moment I finished my first listen of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the moment I started my first listen of Kanye’s new album, Yeezus . Sure, over the last three years we’ve seen the release of Watch the Throne with Jay-Z, the lackuster Cruel Summer with G.O.O.D. Music and a few new tracks, but more than anything this new material felt like a diversion from the question hanging over the heads of the fans, waiting with bated breath: How the do you even begin to follow an act like MBDTF? If you’re Kanye West the answer is simple, yet shockingly effective. You take all the elements that made your magnum opus great, smash them into pieces and stab your fans in the face with the broken shards. And if you’re Kanye West, you make them fucking love it.
In many ways Yeezus is the antithesis of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy down to the way it was promoted and released. There were no 30 minute music video epics, no hype about which guest stars were appearing or which one of a half-dozen different paintings West was going to put on the cover (this one barely even has a cover) and most notably no pre-orders or even singles. The art gallery pomp and circumstance of West’s previous effort has been forcefully stripped away, leaving behind something raw and primal in its place.
Stylistically, almost everything about Yeezus feels like the result of MBDTF being turned on its head. Its sprawling, six plus minute jam sessions have been chopped down to ten short blows to the head that clock in at fourty minutes total, West’s shortest album to date. In place of lush layers of instruments is abrasive, minimalist electronica that sounds like a bastard child between Nine Inch Nails and Daft Punk (the latter of which is unsurprising considering they acted as producers on several tracks). Vocals which were used so prominently before are now treated the reverence of a guitar at the end of a Who concert, frequently being chopped, screwed and pitch bent beyond recognition. While its sound is hardly as groundbreaking as some are claiming it to be, it doesn’t change the fact that Yeezus some of the most experimental and gleefully savage work of West’s career to date.
Interestingly enough West’s use of samples, which is one of his best skills as a producer, also stands in stark contrast to his previous work. Here selections often literally interrupt the tracks they’re featured on resulting in disjointed tonal shifts which are over just as quickly as they’re introduced. It’s a far cry from the textual decoupages featured on songs like “Power”, where West could take two unlikely songs like ”21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Afromerica” and make them sound like they were made for each other. Still, as disorienting as these abrupt transitions may be they serve as some of the most memorable parts of the album, especially on the astounding ”Bound 2”, which begins as a throwback to classic Kanye with a 70’s pop loop being incorporated into the background before inexplicably switching back and forth between the established track and a gorgeous Charlie Wilson solo piece. While not a sample itself (although I wish there were a full song attached to it) it illustrates that Kanye can utilize this new style just as masterfully as he did the soundscapes of Fantasy.
Still, the most fundamental reversal for Yeezus is Kanye’s apparent desire to repel all the listeners he managed to win over back in 2010. Aside from his more challenging, less accessible production Kanye himself tries be as offensive and provocative as possible here. His lyrics are less refined, less introspective and completely devoid of the repentance and self control found in “Runaway”. He makes broad, angry observations about racism because Kanye has clearly established himself as a foremost expert on race relations, especially with later lyrics discussing how he’s going to put his fist in a woman “like a civil rights sign” after taking out her breasts out to the tune of Martin Luther King Jr’s “Free at Last” speech. He brazenly refers to himself as a God, and even though “I Am a God” is more evocative of the last desperate moments of Scarface than the carefree bravado of Watch the Throne, West undoubtedly knows how many angry listeners will take it out of context…
And yet, despite all of this, the sheer repugnance of Yeezus is one of the things that makes it so enjoyable. Somehow West’s sardonically sadistic attempts to alienate his audience down to the packaging of the album itself (which requires you to rip what little trace of album artwork is provided to get at the virtually unlabeled CD inside) only serves to enhance the experience. As magnificent as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, there was something about West’s image that was sorely missed during its period of exquisitely arranged damage control. Seeing fans take to social media to bitterly lambaste Yeezus for any number of obvious but (in most cases) utterly stupid reasons, it’s easy to see what that was. While his newest album may not be the most lyrically poignant (or at least lyrically novel) album West has released, his ability to create something so simple yet controversial and unabashedly put it out there in a way that’s impossible to ignore is a kind of brilliance in and of itself - and of course, it helps that Yeezus is a masterwork of production and composition. It may be on the opposite end of the spectrum from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but only in style - not in excellence.