Kanye West: Yeezus
Yeezus leaked over the weekend, an agreeable arrangement. It’s the product of an artist whose most famous public moments have been framed as outbursts, his persona characterized as brilliant but sub-rational. An unintentional leak fits all-too-well into the Standard Model of Kanye, the carousel of tropes that the media brings out whenever he charges back into the spotlight. Not that West discourages these perceptions, deliberately throwing off constraints and confounding respectability at every turn. This is to his personal disadvantage and his work’s advantage.
Critics, even feline ones, admire audacity. Audiences revel in spectacle. Tigers, to their bones, pursue the thrill of the hunt. And Kanye, self-obsessed and obsessive for detail, knows and internalizes our love and our loathing of him. What comes out, though it might be viscera or bile, justifies its horror by being frighteningly resonant with our own taste. He is a talent and a terror, and Yeezus is his dark twisted fantasy–now shorn of beauty or ornament.
The closest compatriot this album has in pop music history, to this tiger’s ears, is John Lennon’s first solo album. Plastic Ono Band saw the former Beatle rejecting flourish in favour of directness and catharsis. This was rock music stripped of euphemisms, and with only guitar, drums, and bass produced with an acidic crunch to fall back on, Lennon’s voice carries the work. It creates an uncomfortable intimacy, a sense that the artist is pushing too much of himself onto the art, in the process alienating both himself and his listeners. It’s a pop music realization of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, where, as intimacy increases so do pain and distance. Lennon, who like Kanye suffered from egomania, compared his musical group favorably to Jesus, and had a troubled history with women, was capable of such rawness precisely because of his disregard for social constraints.
What we get in Yeezus is something so pared down and aggressive that it is paradoxically excessive. At ten songs and forty minutes, it prizes precision over elaboration. From “On Sight” to “Bound 2,” the album shudders and groans under its own weight. Beats rarely settle into pleasing repetitions, and most are icy and visceral, even dehumanizing. In sharp contrast, West uses a number of soulful singers and samples that resolve tracks like “New Slaves” in a melancholy haze. Justin Vernon lends his distorted voice to songs like “Hold My Liquor,” where he joins Chicago hip hop upstart Chief Keef in singing addled verses over a beat heavy on sub-bass. The only other instruments featured are a screeching synth sounding like an alarm and a sickly guitar. Yet, when considered as a whole, this disconcerting mixture of voices and Kanye’s profane, self-lacerating rapping, it presents a strange grace. Later tracks feature more Autotuned singing, reminding one of 808s mutated by the dark turns modern electronic production has taken. House and trap music inhabit many of the beats, with Daft Punk producing several tracks. When considering these tracks next to their almost excessively nostalgic Random Access Memories, we see a helpful contrast.
Where that album lovingly recreates an idealized past, this is an album of the present and of presence. Kanye emphasizes his own identity and embodied pleasures and pains, the tribal beats forcefully buoying verses about racial tension, romantic despair, and the cynical detachment he has from the very luxuries he pursued. “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “Blood on the Leaves,” address issues of blackness in an America scarred by privatized prisons and racism. All three, however, also spend more time gazing back at their creator, who never forgets how talented, wealthy, and lonely he is. Everything here is intensely personal even and especially when it is critical and political. Those looking for a bracing take on American racism from one of the world’s biggest music stars will be unsatisfied. That element of social critique is never unalloyed by private demons. None of this is news. At this point, though, it would be refreshing if Kanye could try to peak out of his increasingly unstable cocoon and see that his ego might have limits after all.
As it is, this is a startling work, at once fully at home with the Kanye we know and at odds with his previous tendency toward maximalism. There is excess and virtuosity of a different sort at work here, meaning this album, for all its brevity, feels just as definitive as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was nearly twice as long. Yeezus is a perfect portrait of imperfection, which knows better than to ignore its flaws. Instead, it, and, dare I say? its artist, incorporate them. They’re the detail work in this looming shadow, and I look forward to stalking this predacious music for a long time more.