There are times when we have trouble separating the artist from their actions. This is a common theme on Faces on the Radio, where an artist can make their music hard to take seriously, because they themselves are, in one way or another, insufferable. Kanye West is this way for a lot of people. For a lot of people, he’s the top of the list when it comes to “rappers who take themselves too seriously”, and he seems, at times, to be allergic to not making himself look like an idiot. Be it the incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (you know the one), or the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert on ABC in 2005 (you also know the one). In the lead-up to album #6, Yeezus, West compared himself to everyone from Michael Jackson to Steve Jobs. It can be hard to not cringe when you hear about the things he does.
But, for the sake of the music itself, let’s take a step aside and talk about Kanye West the artist, rather than Kanye West the entity.
A few things stand out when you first listen to Yeezus, and one of the first things you will notice is that it’s a very strange record for West. He’s no stranger to stylistic changes, such as the switch-up that occurred when he decided to follow up his brightly-produced Graduation with the autotuned, almost hypothermic breakup record 808s & Heartbreak. There are no clear singles on Yeezus, even though he performed “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on Saturday Night Live to promote the record; these songs are far too aggressive to really work on Top 40 stations at the moment, to say nothing of the content of the songs (more on this in a bit). It’s his shortest album to date, in both track listing (Yeezus is a scant 10 tracks) and album length (It clocks in at only 40 minutes, with the average length being around 3-4 minutes long). There’s only one actual guest verse (courtesy of King L on “Send It Up”), unless you count the odd instance of Frank Ocean appearing more as a sample than anything on “New Slaves”. It’s all slightly alien for an artist known for lush, jam-packed records, stuffed with guest stars, interludes, skits, the whole nine yards.
Of course, the most notable thing about Yeezus is that it’s one of the most aggressive hip-hop records I’ve heard in recent memory, easily comparable to Dalek or (most recently) Death Grips. There are a few moments that come off as almost militant, and though this is nothing new for West – see the lyrics to “Crack Music” for some of the sewn seeds that, in some ways, brought us here – but it lasts for quite a long time on the record. For all of their disco leanings, Daft Punk (who produced four of the albums tracks) spend a decent amount of time ensuring that the discerning listener will have tinnitus by the time they take their headphones out at the end of the album. “On Sight” is almost reminiscent of the intro to the aforementioned Death Grips album opener “Come Up and Get Me”, and “Black Skinhead” sounds so much like Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” that Hypetrak actually had to get the production arm of the record to confirm that they weren’t sampling Manson. Even in the last third of the album, when it simmers down a considerable amount, the production is fairly sparse and a bit alien, in terms of West’s catalog; witness as Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is twisted together with TNGHT’s “R U Ready” which snake in tandem through the six-minutes of “Blood on the Leaves”. It’s an interesting combination, to be sure.
At this point, it’s necessary to actually talk about West himself on the record. “Yeezus season approacheth / Fuck whatever y’all been hearing”, he intones right off the bat on “On Sight”. While his tone is abrasive, he’s still got a decent amount of humor: “Yeah, I know she likes chocolate men / She got more niggas off than Cochran”, “Soon as I pull up and park the Benz, we’ll get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s”. One of the biggest lyrical complaints that I have is that West takes himself far too seriously on this record, as these couple lines are really the only intentionally funny moments on the record – other than the excellent couplet “Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla”. After this, he gets angry, referencing Malcolm X more than once, and essentially compares the recording industry to a collective of slave traders. “Good Life” and “Heard ‘Em Say” feel like a million miles away. Included in the album is a massive song called “I Am A God”, in which he compares himself to Michael Jackson and Jesus himself. It’s the height of rapper hubris, even when you take into account the fact that the title itself is actually a reference to the Bible (Psalm 82:6 — “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you'”, in case you were wondering). It would be an incredibly cringeworthy track, if not for the fact that it’s likely one of the best tracks on the album.
Ultimately, Yeezus is not the album that it should be. The first half of the album is incredibly tight, but the unfortunate thing is that it begins to wander a grave amount in its back half. “I’m In It” is likely the most disposable track that he’s ever made, and “Bound 2” is, in the words of FOTR’s own Yousef Hatlani, “annoying”, with a sample that overstays its welcome approximately 45-seconds into the runtime. “Guilt Trip” and “Blood on the Leaves” are great songs, but the two seem adrift in a sea of forgettable tracks and sub-par sequencing. Then, there are the lines that plain and simple fall completely flat. Do we really need the line “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce”? Probably not, and we definitely don’t need the laughable “I am a god, in a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants”.
Can you believe it has been two-and-a-half years since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped? This far on, that album still makes everything that West puts his name on look bad in comparison. It’s incredibly possible that, while listening to Yeezus, I’m remembering how grandiose that album was, despite the fact that he made it look so incredibly easy. He’s been busy since then: he’s taken part in two albums (Watch the Throne with Jay-Z and Cruel Summer, the hit-and-miss collection put out by he and his G.O.O.D. Music collaborators), not to mention the fact that, at the time of this writing, West is likely holding his approximately-24-hour-old daughter, whom he had with his girl-who’s-a-superstar-all-from-a-home-movie Kim Kardashian. His cup is overflowing just a bit. However, if West had put in a few more months in the studio working on Yeezus, we would likely be looking at a completely different record. The run between “On Sight” and “Can’t Hold My Liquor” is one of the tightest sections of any of his records, but most of what lies beyond that feels slightly half-baked and unrealized. He’s onto something with this new sound, but it’s a little unfocused. I’ve been a fan of West since Late Registration, and while I can make attempts at looking past his non-musical antics, I get the feeling that we may have to wait a little while before he makes something jaw-dropping again.
In short: Yeezus season does not approacheth.