Monday, June 17, 2013

album review: 'yeezus' by kanye west

I think it's necessary to discuss my original plan for how I was going to write this review, both so you can get a glimpse of my process and so I can add a bit of context to this whole thing.

You see, the second I heard that Kanye West was going to title his next album Yeezus, I got the immediate idea that it might be kind of fun to frame the review like a letter to Kanye West, to discuss his ego exploding out of control in a way that can only lead to cataclysmic disaster at some point down the road (bear in mind I still suspect this'll happen at some point - hell, I've been predicting it since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). You know, frame it like an intervention, a bit like the way I wrote my little letter to Taylor Swift that doubled as an a review of her album Red.

And make no mistake, I would have had plenty of material for this letter, because Kanye West's career has been one of the most intriguing adventures to watch for the past several years. He burst onto the scene as a hit producer and made three reasonably solid rap albums that I like a fair amount to this day. Granted, I didn't think they were anything all that special - Kanye's gift for sampling and production always made his instrumentation a treat, but his weaker flow and clumsy lyricism never really impressed me all that much. In that, I was content to slot him into the list of acts I considered good, but not great.

And then something happened to Kanye West. His mother passed away, his relationship ended badly, and the resulting crises of faith and loneliness drove Kanye to make one of the most influential hip-hop albums of the past five years, 808s & Heartbreak. A choice to dive straight into introspective, autotune-layered electropop split his fanbase violently and was hastily predicted by most to be a flop, but the subsequent critical acclaim and surprisingly strong sales proved them wrong - mostly because the album is incredibly good. Kanye's choice to use autotune as more than just pitch correction and instead use it to emphasize his loneliness and the isolating feelings of grief do wonders for the atmosphere of this album. And in contrast to the majority of fans and critics, I found 'Robocop' (which had a bizarre yet compelling tonal juxtaposition between lyrics and instrumentation) to be my favourite song on the album. There was grief there, but there was also light at the end of the tunnel, as it felt Kanye was finally gaining some context and moving towards something brighter.

That didn't happen, after an infamous incident with Taylor Swift, Kanye descended deeper into the nightmarish rabbit hole and made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which achieved incredible critical acclaim, with many critics declaring it his magnum opus. It took the mad genius of Kanye's production and married it to eclectic samples, a host of guest stars, and lyrics that didn't just expose Kanye's insanity, but brandished it proudly before the masses. 

Now I've had a, well, let's call it complicated relationship with this album. When I originally reviewed it on Facebook, I pissed off a lot of people by saying it's really not all that great, and certainly not the perfection that so many critics had claimed it was. And while I tend to revisit the album about once a year - sometimes you need unfiltered insanity and darkness - I'm increasingly convinced that while the album contains some of the greatest highs of Kanye's career (seriously, 'All of the Lights', 'Hell of a Life', 'Power', even 'Dark Fantasy' and 'Blame Game' are mindblowing), but ultimately doesn't work as a whole. Yes, the instrumentation and production are top-notch, but I've always had issues with Kanye's flow and there are enough awkward lines to knock too many of the songs off their pedestals. And this isn't even factoring in the extremely hit-and-miss guest star inclusions, none of which I feel really add much to the album.

And that isn't even touching album themes and the twisted pathology lurking inside this album. I will definitely admit that as a slice of the insanity inside Kanye's head, it's something entirely unique, but whenever it tries to build towards a theme or a coherent driving mechanism, it feels unfocused, indulgent, and oddly sloppy at points. Kanye tries to come across as an alpha-male douchebag or seductive predator on this album (and I can't help but admit there are moments here that the asshole I was throughout 2010 and early 2011 fucking adores), but it's undercut at every turn because there's no perspective and Kanye is too honest as a performer to embrace something remotely untrue. Instead of a coherent and focused work, we get Kanye attempting to explore his darkest neuroses and eventually finding them hollow and token. It reminds me strongly on a thematic level of Nick Cave's darker material, but while Kanye only found sadness and emptiness at the base levels of his psyche, Nick Cave actually found something darker, creepier, and genuinely gripping when he looked, a real horror - and his masterful skill was making all of us realize that we had that darkness too. But with Kanye, we don't get that connection in the same way, and I left feeling oddly distant from the album at the end of it. And considering how damn hard Kanye was trying to put it all out there and create that connection to curb his loneliness (seriously, go back through his material in recent years, it's a definite undercurrent that Kanye feels he has no true peers - although I'm conflicted whether or not his choice to expose his inner demons was the best way to win people over, which might have been part of the point, loneliness being his punishment), I can't help but feel it doesn't quite work for me.

So after two albums of material (a collaboration with Jay-Z in Watch The Throne, which was solid enough but didn't really stick, and Cruel Summer, a label launchpad collaboration that just did nothing for me whatsoever), Kanye was finally back with a new album titled Yeezus. Frankly, when I heard the title, I was just expecting a continuation of the shallower themes in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, just blown up to eleven. And given his material throughout 2012 and especially on Cruel Summer, I wasn't expecting much other than Kanye to wallow in his own ego. Hence, the 'intervention-review'.

I didn't get what I was expecting.

Let me quickly get a few things out of the way: I definitely like Yeezus. I can say without a doubt that it'll likely be one of the most interesting and intriguing albums that will come out of this year. There's a lot here that resonates on a level that I certainly didn't expect. And it's the same sort of anti-commercial yet strangely accessible album that 808s & Heartbreak was in 2008.

But in so many ways, it is the complete antithesis of Kanye West and what he originally did best, and the fact it works as well as it does is more than a little bewildering. I have no goddamn clue how he made it work, but somehow, he did. However, it's also the sort of album that's going to alienate a huge chunk of Kanye's more 'mainstream' fanbase, because not only is this album violently anti-radio friendly, it's also the sort of album that aims higher than the average pop song and often hits the mark.

Let's start with the big topic in the room: the instrumentation. Unlike Kanye's previous work, which was well-known for taking dozens of samples and blending them together into a unique sound, Yeezus is a much harsher experience, at least in production. Samples slam against each other with little-to-no transitions, sound and silence drop in and out of tracks without warning, and the star cameos - what few there are - seem confined to the peripheral edges of the tracks. Unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where the guest stars' presence was very visible and intentional, Kanye instead chooses to keep their contributions minimal and refocus all of the attention on him, which is oddly fitting (I'll come back to this).

I've written before about many acts working today are taking influence from the grimier, darker underground scene, particularly darkwave - and Yeezus might be the penultimate example of how to make the genre work, fusing industrial sounds with the modern bleak electronica that Kanye pushed all throughout 2012. Now I've definitely had big issues with this choice in modern hip-hop production, mostly because it lends a strangely joyless atmosphere to hip-hop and without a subject matter shift, it really sucks the energy and enjoyment out of the songs. But here Kanye fuses that sound with gothic darkwave and invigorates it with random shots of dancehall and gospel, giving it the bigger scope and power that it needs. It all comes together to create a rush of momentum, like everything is flying out of human control, and if Kanye was looking to make his album sound like a quasi-spiritual experience with a terrifying deity straight out of apocrypha, he certainly came closer than many acts ever will.

But while all of this work surprisingly well, I think the biggest surprise here was just how much Kanye threw himself into his tracks. Make no mistake, in terms of technical rapping skill, Kanye delivers possibly his best performance yet. Yeah, there are pop culture references that don't quite click and the occasional bad rhyme, but in terms of sheer energy and force of personality, I don't I've ever heard Kanye sound more engaged and aggressive than I do on this album. He's gone on record saying that he listened to a lot of punk music in the recording of Yeezus, and I can definitely see it, both in the rougher production, the harsher, faster lyrics, and the screaming that seems appropriated from an industrial metal album.

But let's get to the subject matter, and why this album actually works. On the surface, this album might seem to indulge Kanye's typical subject matter: money, cars, hoes, how much better he is than everyone, you get the idea. But where 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were primarily inward-looking, with Kanye exploring his own emotions and inner darkness, Yeezus is outward-looking, much less introspective and more targeted at the modern state of hip-hop music. Yes, you get the songs that seem to be swollen with ego like 'I Am A God', but instead of mulling on the nature of power or simply wallowing in decadent excess, he instead chooses to talk about the modern state of hip-hop in an interesting way. And while he casts himself as often the protagonist/antagonist of the story, the story is less about his personal power and more about how his power affects others - often in the negative. 

In other words, the heavy religious themes perfectly juxtapose with the darkwave/industrial instrumentation, with the dancehall and gospel touches only adding cultural context to add real colour to traditionally white music. This is a typical Kanye West touch - adding distinctly and openly 'black' themes to his music in a way designed to be confrontational - but it lends real flavour to his cult of personality. A cult, by the way, that Kanye seems very much aware of and in a surprising coup, uses to eviscerate the celebrity and hip-hop culture in which he's very much a part. Between taking aim at the music industry in 'New Slaves', racism in 'Black Skinhead' and 'New Slaves', club culture in 'Hold My Liquor' and 'Send It Up', the nightlife hookup culture in 'I'm In It', and the 'faux-celebrity' scene in 'Blood on the Leaves' (one of the clear album standouts, along with 'Black Skinhead' and 'New Slaves'). And sure, it's a little hypocritical for Kanye to now take aim at the toxic celebrity culture that he profited off of with his wild outbursts and overblown personality, but he impressively makes it work. In fact, the only moments I'd argue the album stumbles a bit are when he chooses to tackle material that's a little more intimate and smaller. And while neither 'Guilt Trip' and 'Bound 2' are bad songs, they do feel a little weaker in comparison with the early explosions of energy (although one could make a case that 'Bound 2' is a song about his relationship with Kim Kardashian and his justified hesitation about making her his Mary Magdalene). 

But I'd have a hard time not seeing those smaller relationship songs having a place on Yeezus, because they fill a necessary purpose. As strident and purposeful as Yeezus is, with Kanye using his own cult of personality to eviscerate those entrapped by it, the smaller songs fill the role of when Kanye has to talk about when his fame and lifestyle actually begin to affect people he cares about. And while it might take a bit of the serious bite out of what might have been a virulent, targeted album, it does add a bit of human context to the endeavor that does humanize Kanye a bit, and gives the excess that came before it more layers and depth. 

So, in short, I do like Yeezus. The instrumentation matches the subject matter and lyricism excellently, and it's nice to hear Kanye reap the fruits of the musical trends he's been planting. Kanye might be steering hip-hop towards a precipice, but he's aware of that cliff edge and might just swerve out of the way in time to prove he knew what he was doing all along. As much as he compares himself to Michael Jackson, the much better comparison is with Prince, with in the highly sexual manner he presents his subject material, his tendency to blend genres with seemingly reckless abandon but in reality careful precision, and the fact that something is probably knocked loose in his brain. It takes a certain ego and brand of madness to unleash an album like this on the modern hip-hop scene, but I think he pulled it off. And while Yeezus doesn't quite reach the highest highs of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it avoids the lows and has a coherence of theme and instrumentation that raises it a notch above. 

Welcome back Kanye, it's good to see you trying again, you insanely genius motherfucker.

1 comment:

  1. I'd love if you could republish your original review on this blog, as there is basically no discussion of this supposed classic out side of "it's classic" or "it's overrated".