Yeezus fucked me up, man. First time I heard it, I thought it was the worst thing ever. I mean, what the fuck are these beats, dude? Daft Punk made these? They’re all so loud! The bass feels like its gonna break my speaker! What’s up with the synths? Did all this need to be so distorted? And Kanye’s rapping about getting things shaking like Parkinson’s? Sweet and sour sauce for Asian pussy? “FRENCH-ASS RESTAURANT”? What is this trash? And why doesn’t it have a cover? What happened to Kanye West?
That was 2013. It’s 2016 now and I still don’t think we’re ready for Yeezus; despite its enormous impact on pop culture and hip-hop as a whole since its release, many would call this Kanye’s worst album, and there was a time where I’d have been eager to agree. After all, it’s so puerile and gross in a way that’s hardly likable; note the aforementioned “weird beats” and terrible lyrics, as well as its controversial release and lack of subtlety in every way. But Kanye’s never been one to beg for recognition or validation (except when he does), and one of his talents has always been pushing music, not just rap, to new frontiers without worrying about what anyone wants from him. Yeezus is the counterpoint to 808s and Heartbreak, which was an album full of slow, lo-fi pop that dealt with Kanye’s guilt over deaths in his life. This one’s got that too, but it’s mostly angry, really. Frighteningly so.
What he does care about, though, is the music, which is obviously brilliant. I shouldn’t have to tell you a Kanye West album is masterfully produced, but I’ll say it anyways: Yeezus is masterfully produced. Its ugliness is a product of the works of 26 disparate producers coming together to assemble ten tracks inspired by industrial music, noise music, house, and EDM, among other genres. This is as cohesive a project as Kanye’s ever made, and what’s so fascinating about it is that it’s one of the only hip-hop albums (and this is a hip-hop album, not a rap one, which is an important distinction in Yeezus‘ case) I’ve ever heard that is genuinely musical. Most hip-hop albums use their instrumentals to back the rapping, which is the centerpiece of discussion; Yeezus‘ beats, inversely, are the framework on which these lyrics hang. I mean, could you hear anyone BUT Kanye rapping over these? (If you say MC Ryde, I’ll choke you to death.)
And to be clear, I am not saying that hip-hop and rap is not music. The point I’m making is that hip-hop often revolves around the emcee, a convention that Kanye throws out the window in favor of a totally different approach: beatmaking first, then lyrics. DJ Shadow experimented with this on Endtroducing….. by fusing many samples and musical loops together and layering them precisely to make ambient music with breakbeats. (example). Yeezus opts for a similar strategy that puts atmosphere and song structure ahead of just rapping, in a way that makes it feel like the album, and the separate tracks, are building. Pairing that with the rapping leads to song-by-song climaxes that are much stronger than they could be as just instrumentals.
And when I said musical, I meant that. Dark and noisy these beats may be, they still grow and develop and morph in ways I can’t even begin to describe adequately; “On Sight”‘s buzzing synth progression that alters ever so slightly when Kanye begins the first verse: “Yeezy season approchin’…” and how that blippy little snare starts to stutter at the 1:38 mark as ‘Ye nears the end of the last verse; the way “Black Skinhead” sees Kanye growing ever more strained over one of his most blood-pumping instrumentals as the song pounds its way to the climax, shouting “GOD” at all of those who would dare challenge him; “New Slave”‘s simple but effective chord progression that actually can be compared to minimalism (unlike most things typically compared to minimalism), and how throughout the song it goes from a simple bass progression to a choir of horrified voices and distorted sub-bass before ending with a gorgeous section of neo-soul; “Blood On The Leaves” smashing together a Nina Simone sample, a trap beat, and a dismal-sounding horn section to achieve something close to a psychological horror film in song form, and the horrifying way the song climaxes at 2:39; “Bound 2″‘s old school soul and its absurd obsession with a “UH HUH HONEY” sample and insane lyrics that genuinely crack me up. Very, very clever shit here, mostly glossed over by people who’d have you believe this album is somehow lesser sonically than something like 808s because it’s more in your face and yet somehow less obvious – you just need to back up and look for those details, because they’re everywhere.
I probably should have mentioned, too, that Yeezus is fucking scary. Cursory listens reveal the obvious; it’s loud, abrasive, angry, and confused, but underneath lies a dissatisfaction with modern living and a need to break out of the bullshit – very punk of you, Yeezy. “I came to tear shit down…”, the screaming on “I Am a God”, “How much do I not give a fuck? Lemme show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” But he does give a fuck, and it shows. He’s sad, disillusioned, angry, and bitter. The real sadness only shows up on “Blood On the Leaves”, a track I’ve heard hilariously described as “sacrilegious” for abusing a Nina Simone sample to talk about being at a party and taking Molly. It’s the closest thing this album gets to having any subtlety… but is broken in little over a minute with Kanye wailing over a distorted and pitched Nina vocal sample and nauseating horns, freakishly describing something that “Came out of your body” and someone “Screaming that they love me”. I know I said earlier that the lyrics take a backseat to Yeezus’ beats, and certainly at times they do, but like any Kanye album you have to take them eventually, however bad they are. And when we talk Kanye lyrics, we talk quotables. I’m not gonna mention most of ’em because you probably already know them (and I mentioned some earlier). Some notable lines are the “I’m devoted / And you know it / And you know it!” hook on “Black Skinhead”, and the fantastic first verse of “I Am a God” (“Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you / Cause kissing people ass is so unlike you…”)
The quotables harm the album, though, as do many of the lyrics. This was the fist Kanye album where the puns and punchlines were often so bad they could ruin a song (“I’m In It” is basically perfect until its last second), and it takes its toll on you as go along. But as a very fine reviewer once said, “People who complain about Kanye West’s lyricism might as well complain about the acting in pornography.” We’re all here for the sounds and the atmosphere… well, yeah, and some of the crazy shit Kanye says, but this isn’t My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The College Dropout; the puns feel out of place here for the most part because of how abrasive and drugged up the beats are. But you just have to roll your eyes and move along to the great stuff.
In 2016, Kanye released the long awaited follow-up to Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, to further mixed reviews from critics who were, once again, baffled by Kanye’s new direction. Yet many warmed up to it, myself included, in a matter of weeks; as ungainly a project as it was, it had a ton of good tunes and showed a lot of maturity to his production, and showed that while he was planning on moving on from Yeezus, its abrasive sound would continue to inform his music to some extent. And it informs many other artist’s music as well; the Weeknd’s career was originally built by absorbing 808s and its depression, and now with songs like “The Hills” under his belt, along with the commercial success of Rihanna’s album Anti, it’s clear that abrasive, noisy music can work on the radio. And go on Bandcamp: you can find plenty of rappers with distorted and heavy production and yelling. So now it’s just a matter of time until audiences and critics catch up with Kanye – but hey, I think at this point he’s used to it.