Kanye West – Yeezus
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Record Label: Def Jam
As I eagerly made my way down to Best Buy last Tuesday to pick up the new Kanye West album, I couldn't help but wonder why exactly I felt so compelled to pick up this record. Today, you can basically get any music you want on the Internet for free, be it through streaming services or other not so legal means. However, even after hearing the leak of Yeezus, I felt like I needed to go get this album. Typically, people will purchase CD's because they want to support the artist, which is a great reason to pick up an album given the current landscape of the music industry. This urge I had, though, was much more than that. Let's be honest, Kanye West doesn't need my money, and on Yeezus he makes it seem like he doesn't even want it. I also wasn't getting it to have a physical copy of the artwork because, as you'll notice, there is none. The true reason behind my purchasing of the CD goes beyond the contents of the package and even the music itself. Kanye West has proven time and time again that he is a very important figure in music. Hell, if it wasn't for Kanye West, I probably wouldn't be writing about hip-hop music right now. That's why I needed to go buy this album. It's important.
Now, exactly why is this record important? Let's start with one undeniable fact: Kanye West does not make the same record twice. Each and every time he has put out a new album, he has not only reshaped himself as an artist, but also the entire realm of pop music in some cases. Look no further than 808's and Heartbreaks for a challenging album that polarized audiences while still managing to move a ton of units and inspire a new wave of artists. If 808s and Heartbreaks didn't exist, Kid Cud, Drake, Future, and other emo-rap artists probably wouldn't exist. Following 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably his most ambitious work to date, it became hard to imagine that this man could possibly take his artistry further, and for a while it seemed like he wasn't going to. 2011's joint album with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne, was a decent enough output for what it was, but it stayed along the lines of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, only a little bit more watered down. Which is fine, it wasn't a solo Kanye album and we knew it. The same could be said of last year's Cruel Summer, which was comprised of the G.O.O.D. Music roster. It was a disappointment, but it wasn't a Kanye West album. While whispers of a new solo album began circulating at some point, it wasn't until just a couple of months ago we got some tangible evidence that something was coming.
"June Eighteen." All it took was that one tweet from Kanye West to send the world into anticipation mode. Some wrote it off as Kim Kardashian's due date, but those close to the artist knew the album was done, or close to done. Early listening sessions reported Kanye had made his darkest album yet, and was just about ready to release it to the world. A performance on SNL and one of the most genius promotional tactics in recent memory gave us a taste of the kind of music we could expect from the album. In a lot of ways, the music represents the marketing that surrounded the album. We didn't get a single, there's literally no album art, and Kanye West did exactly one interview prior to release. The promotion and music share this one thing in common: minimalism. After going all out with the maximalist My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, something pulled Kanye toward a more minimalistic, bare bones music style; a style that he would only be able to achieve on Yeezus with the help of executive producer Rick Rubin.
Aside from the fact that new music from Kanye is almost always guaranteed to be important, Yeezus holds another quality of significance in that it is coming at a very unique time in West's life. He is now a father, and during the recording of the album he surely had the prospect of fatherhood weighing on his mind; on “I'm In It,” he confesses, “Got the kids and the wife life/But can't wake up from the night life/I'm so scared of my demons/I go to sleep with a night light.” It's one of the few moments on Yeezus where Kanye sounds and feels human, and it helps keep an album that sets itself so far above everyone else grounded in reality. It's a rare moment, because most of the album seems hell bent on making Kanye out to be the egotistical, hypocritical and arrogant person that the media seems to think he is. He puts a magnifying glass on his faults and displays them in such perverse and lewd ways that you can't help but admire him, even when he has a song called “I Am A God” on an album titled Yeezus. It's an overblown and ridiculous display of his ego, and that's exactly what he was going for.
The past few Kanye West projects have seen him using a melting pot of producers to achieve the sound he's going for, and Yeezus is no different. In addition to Rick Rubin as executive producer, Kanye enlisted an elite production team in Daft Punk, Mike Dean, Hudson Mohawke, Travi$ Scott, and many others to bring Yeezus to its full potential. The end result is a mixed bag of beats that range from the aggressive acid house of “On Sight” to the slow burning, 808's-esque “Hold My Liquor,” and everything in between. While the goal here was to achieve a minimalist sound, the songs still sound absolutely huge, despite utilizing simplistic music at times. “New Slaves,” for example, only contains about three different notes, but each synth hit helps propel Kanye West into some of his angriest bars yet as he outlines the racism he has experienced as both a poor and a rich black man, resulting in one of his most powerful songs to date. “Black Skinhead,” which was also premiered on SNL, has a 90's industrial rock feel that is carried by a drum beat that sounds eerily similar to Marilyn Manson's “The Beautiful People” (though the album credits confirm there's no sample being used). And while there are a few lines here that fall completely flat, such as “Keep it 300/Like the romans,” the song is a perfect pump-up jam that gets the adrenaline rushing.
Yeezus is at its best during moments that closely resemble 808's and Heartbreak, though it would be hard to imagine anything here really showing up on that album. Still, “Hold My Liquor” is the softest moment on the album, and Justin Vernon and Chief Keef offer their singing services to help give it that woozy, drunk at four in the morning about to pass out feeling the title would suggest. Keef is confined to an auto-tuned hook that's not too far from the more left-field material on last year's Finally Rich, and Kanye offers an emotional verse that's presumably about his struggle with Kim's friends and family not approving of him (“Then her auntie came over/Skinny bitch with no shoulders/Tellin you that I'm bogus/Bitch you don't even know us”). It's another one of those rare moments where Kanye lets his human side show, but the song really hits its stride after a breathtaking bridge from Justin Vernon makes way into a noisy, guitar-led outro. Just two tracks later, “Blood On The Leaves” starts as an auto-tune ballad with a melody that resembles “Heartless,” and Kanye flips TNGHT's “R U Ready” and Nina Simone's cover of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday into a blistering, gripping tale of a love gone wrong. It's one of the best songs of Kanye's career, and a testament to his ability to turn samples into something both unique and emotionally captivating.
But for every heartfelt moment on the album, there are about ten other moments that you would not want to play with your mother around. Towards the end of “I'm In It,” he gets introspective and personal as I mentioned earlier, but on that same song he drops lines like “Eatin' Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce” and “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” It has some of his most lewd and detestable lyrics yet, and the pounding beat, dancehall break down, and Justin Vernon-led hook all pull it together into something that works oddly well in the context of the album. Kanye West makes it known that he just flat out does not give a fuck about expectations anymore, and he even boasts about it on “On Sight” as he asks “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up” before dropping a random soul sample out of the blue. In the midst of the ugliness and brashness of the song, you'd think the sample would sound completely out of place; but somehow it feels perfect. That's one thing he'll never lose. He's still the master of soul samples, and he knows it, but he doesn't give a fuck. Though he teases us with the sample on “On Sight,” he later goes into full-on classic Kanye mode with album closer “Bound 2,” a song that was reportedly an r&b jam before Rick Rubin got his hands on it and stripped it of nearly everything besides the sample. Kanye spits some of the best bars on the album here, showing off his humor, his charm, and his more vile side. It's an odd way to close off the album, and almost makes you wish there was more, but when you look back at what you just experienced to get to this song, it's all worth it.
In his recent interview with the New York Times, Kanye made some pretty ridiculous statements by most normal standards. “I am the nucleus” is a stand out quote that will probably go on to define his legacy. He also compares himself to the likes of Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs. He's got the biggest ego around, and he knows it, but he also knows that he deserves it. He puts his ego on full display throughout Yeezus, and if anyone says they like Kanye's music but hate his ego, they're a damn liar. Kanye West's music relies on his ego, and his ego relies on his music. One does not exist without the other. This album is going to be important for a number of reasons, but above all, it's going to be important because it is a great album. Very few people in the realm of pop music, if anyone, take risks like this. The reason there was no single released before the album is because there isn't a song on here that could function even remotely well as a single. Kanye doesn't make music for the masses anymore, but his reach in the mainstream is so huge that the album will still resonate with the masses. That's a testament to just how important he is to music. We need more people like Kanye West in popular music. We need people that are unafraid to take risks, that are unafraid to show off the ugly side of their personalities, that are self-aware enough to create powerful and challenging art. We need Kanye West. And thankfully, we've got him.
On the topic of the sample in On Sight, the lyrics of the sample I think are huge but seemed to be brushed past in the review. The Sample states "He'll give us what we need,It may not be what we want". For rap fans specifically fans off his older material, they may not want an album like this but western music and op music need an album like this.