Review Summary: Civil rights, chopped and screwed.
As an artist reaches increasingly higher points of superstardom, it in turn becomes harder to hear what they’re saying with their music. A new album becomes more about the event
than anything else, as fans and non-fans alike take to the internet to make their feelings heard as soon as possible; whether or not they’re absorbing what they hear is anyone’s guess. But even with a solid chunk of time and zero distractions, it’s tough to listen to someone like Kanye West without giving in to your preconceived notions of him. For all the good that online connectivity has done for music, I do wish sometimes that we could go back to the days when record labels had policies to plaster an artist’s face on their album covers because otherwise nobody would know who they were (take a look at older stars’ newer albums, still with large portraits of their faces on the cover, to see how they never grew out of the habit). The point is, all you had to go on was their face and the music. And when the needle is dropped, that should be enough, but we all know that these days it isn’t.
But even given everything we know about Kanye West - the tabloid romance, the new baby, the all-caps blog posts - what the hell are we supposed to make of something like “Black Skinhead”?
It brings to mind the industrial-lite of Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People,” which is mostly to say that it doesn’t sound like a hip-hop song at all, with driving drums that place less emphasis on the low end than on driving the narrative forward. And what of the narrative? Kanye has never been the most eloquent of rappers, but he’s got his own explosive style, something that makes him great despite the occasional weak lyric. Racism becomes a platform from which he can launch more angrily than ever, with a hunger and determination in his voice that would feel more at home on a debut album than a mid-career release. It’s refreshing, to say the least, but also a little bit jarring to hear him rap so menacingly about race (it’s as if, with every line, he can sense just a little bit more white guilt to wring out of you), when he was pretty flippant about the subject in the past. And he isn’t totally above that on Yeezus
either. Case in point, when he appropriates MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to commemorate the unveiling of Kim Kardashian’s tits in “I’m In It”, it kind of diminishes the impact of some of the harder hitting songs about race. It’s been well documented that Yeezus
was a rushed production, and things like that seem to prove it more than anything.
But still, a rush job by Kanye West is better than anybody else’s rush job; that Yeezus
has such a distinct sound and packs a huge punch is a testament to the intense dedication that he has devoted to his craft over the years. The album is blanketed by a heavy, ominous atmosphere laden with industrial influences, lifted here and there by the occasional nod to his previous records, like the end of “New Slaves,” which has a catchiness that feels more like a subtle joke than anything else after the intensity of the song’s first three-quarters; “Guilt Trip,” with a spacey beat and singing by Kid Cudi, neither of which would have sounded out of place on 808s & Heartbreak
; and “Bound 2,” the record’s closer, full of classic Kanye tropes (the song is sonically similar to UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem” with sampled singing that almost never stops until the track breaks down into bass-driven bridges). Despite the striking heaviness of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” it is the more subdued “Blood on the Leaves” that stands as the definitive statement of purpose for Yeezus
. It is here that Kanye’s approach starts to solidify: the song features a prominent sample of Nina Simone performing “Strange Fruit,” one of the most powerful pieces about race ever written, but “Blood on the Leaves” isn’t about race. It’s about a relationship, and while the song is very catchy, and probably features some of Kanye’s best lyrics, the sample feels a little bit cheap. Mashing together the image of lynched African-Americans with a relationship between two self-centered rich people simply doesn’t feel right.
is a challenging album. Usually when people say that, they imply that there will be a reward for closer listening, but I’m not sure that there is with this album. It’s frankly a little annoying at times (those screams at the end of “I am a God”…yeesh). Despite some of the provocative song titles and the passionate way that he raps, Kanye doesn’t have much that’s new to say about race, and the industrialized-808s
sound of the album has probably already alienated some fans. But it will never stop being exciting to see a mega-star try to deconstruct his identity and put it back together again in a way that is unlike anything he’s done before. What Kanye has always succeeded at - despite any overarching sound he was going for - is making beats that complement the sometimes weak lyrics by questing underneath everything, morphing and growing and leaving any lyrical statement appended for the better. That
has always been his true theme, more than race or wealth or women, and what I’m left with after listening to this album is a haunting memory of the desperation that bleeds into his voice at times, as if the noose is around his neck and the chair is about to be kicked.