Adore, album, Black Skinhead, Bon Iver, Bound 2, Chief Keef, Daft Punk, Death Grips, Elvis Costello, experimental, fame, hip hop, Hold My Liquor, I Am A God, In Utero, jay-z, Justin Vernon, kanye west, Kid A, Kim Kardashian, music, music review, New Slaves, Nina Simone, nirvana, OJ Simpson, Pinkerton, Radiohead, rap, review, Rick Rubin, Smashing Pumpkins, Strange Fruit, trap, Weezer, yeezus, Yeezy
As a result of voting across several platforms, I present you the winner: Yeezus.
Kanye West is nothing if not provocative. Even the release of the record was provocative. Barely any hype, turning his back on mainstream radio, not even an album cover, it was like he dared the music-buying public to not like this album. And while sales may indicate otherwise (debuting at number one and selling hundreds of thousands of copies in its first week, but dropping off 80% the following week), by and large we’re losing that dare. Because even while his sales are overshadowed by Big Brother’s also-recently released album, he comes out a hero, producing an intentionally abrasive masterwork that sacrifices easy-swallowing (a motif addressed in “New Slaves”) for experimentation and fuck-you bravado.
This may be Kanye’s In Utero, and nowhere does the comparison hold the most water than in the production. Loud but refined, stark but cohesive, this is by far his most experimental work, even for someone who can’t be tied down to a certain style from album to album. Industrial music plays a strong influence here, especially on album opener “On Sight,” which sounds like it could easily have been a Ministry backing track – even the abrupt children’s choir breakdown, which serves as an incredibly poignant juxtaposition to the aggressive electronica, the refrain of “he’ll give us what we need” serving as justification for any offense Yeezy might cause you. The sampling elsewhere on the record is equally bizarre and intriguing, for example, the ultra-obscure sampling of Hungarian rock band Omega on “New Slaves,” or the jarring interpolations of “bound to fall in love” set against “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink” on “Bound 2.” The aggro-experimentalism has drawn comparison to the likes of Death Grips in other publications, and rightfully so – such a brash confrontational performance would be right at home with that group, straddling the line between punk rock and hip hop so fiercely. And with production collaboration with the likes of Daft Punk and the tirelessly tinkering efforts of Rick Rubin, none of this aggression comes across as unlistenable or unfocused.
The content of the lyrics don’t get any less bellicose. “On Sight” has Kanye referencing the OJ trial, which, given his involvement with Kim Kardashian, leaves you wondering exactly how far he’s willing to go for a self-aware headline-grabber. Throughout the album, too, he references the struggle for civil rights to illustrate sexual conquests, with memorable lines like “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last/Thank God almighty, they free at last” and “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” from “I’m In It,” while “Blood on the Leaves” has Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” playing eerily in the background while Kanye ruminates on a divorce. Extremely provocative, but demonstrating an Elvis Costello-like way of relating the political to the personal with unignorable wit. On “New Slaves,” he compares the days of picking cotton and the struggle for equal rights to the slavery to wealth he sees black rappers of today being chained to. “Hold My Liquor,” the gloriously moody track which features guests Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Chief Keef, reflects on manhood and the contradictions of societal expectation and personal freedom. And on the obligatory ego-boosting “I Am A God,” with its condemnation of “high school” rappers bound to status and conformity to hip-hop standards, we’re not left wagging our fingers saying “who else but Kanye could compare himself to God! Oh Kanye…” – we’re almost compelled to agree with his claims.
While most albums that take the abrasive, reputation-denying approach tend to try to deconstruct the fame of the artist – Nirvana’s In Utero, Radiohead’s Kid A, Weezer’s Pinkerton, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore – Yeezus only serves to build up Kanye’s fame even further, defying even that expectation. Rather than insist that fame is a thing to be scorned, like with the aforementioned albums, this album reinforces Kanye’s belief in its affirming embrace and forces us to take him seriously as an artist because of it. And yes, the aforementioned albums are all in the rock genre, but really that’s the only parallel that does justice to this work. Kanye West is the biggest rock star in the world today, and that’s true now more than ever.
Recommended Tracks: Black Skinhead, I Am A God, New Slaves, Hold My Liquor, Bound 2