Review Summary: Feels as if it's testing the water with a cautious toe rather than parting the seas and paving in a bold new direction
Kanye West is one of those artists who split listeners right down the middle from the very beginning. His seemingly calculated egotism has been seen to raise considerable controversy and irritate listeners, either through his music or otherwise. On the other hand, however, this egotism and overconfidence has bled over into West’s music throughout his career, creating a hideously cocky but also impressively skillful popular rap act. With most artists, it perhaps would not be necessary to include a personality profile in an artistic review. With West, however, this is not only necessary, but it is virtually impossible to review any release in West’s back catalogue without doing so. With Yeezus
, West expands on the sound set forth in previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
, and develops a glitchy mashup of tunes that take their cues from 80’s electropop and modern dance, with some of the typical hip-hop tirades of repeated samples and a repeated female vocal present throughout. Unlike the rest of Kanye’s discography, Yeezus
features a sound different from traditional hip hop, merging the musical stylistics with West’s typically thick, simplistic flow. One of the main flaws in this is the fact that West’s style is complemented by minimalism, and hip-hop as a genre is arguably all about minimalism in terms of music. Kanye has unfortunately created a sloppy and uneven record that feels like it has two conflicting elements vying for attention, but neither one has enough credibility to pay attention to.
The record as a whole, when compared to the best releases from West’s career, seems to show a kind of profound regression; a stripped-down experience lacking any of the multi-layered appeal of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
or the impressive schoolyard-style broodiness as seen in The College Dropout
. It even lacks the pop appeal of Graduation
. What is found on Yeezus
is simply a presence; a presence made up of typical West, and repetitive, underwritten beats. Attacking the album on this front may seem a little low, as Yeezus
is clearly intended to establish a markedly different direction from anything West has done before, and in stylistic terms, it is the most distinguishable release from the artist. The truth is, though, there’s no substance to any of this “progression.” The progression is simply an artificial façade, present as a backdrop but lacking any intuitive linking with the rhyme structure or lyrics, and as a result, the progress loops back on itself and appears behind every other Kanye release. From the very outset, the “experimental” sound smacks of unoriginality, as the release doesn’t pioneer or attempt to re-invent any wheels but rather takes a stab at such genres as house music and industrial with all the finesse of a geriatric attempting to shave a cheek, and with as much success. Even the bassy house standbys of the alarm repeating rave-style is explored in “I’m In It,” along with most every other house music cliché: a quiet interlude, slowly ascending instrumentals etc. For an artist so confrontational, the album is unbelievably toothless, recycling everything from vocal patterns to rhythm. The song “Black Skinhead” features a “galloping”-style structure, which can be quite tunefully endearing. The issue here is Kanye does nothing with it, not even contributing any memorable rhymes, which is arguably the only truly important job he has.
The tragically obvious fact for the whole runtime of Yeezus
is that the cut-and-paste style of the release could have worked in the album’s favor. Kanye’s particular style could have benefited from a more understated angle; made him sound rawer and possibly more human (He declares with great pride in the opening minute of the release that he “is a God” after all). Of course, Kanye being Kanye, he decided that an expansion of his previous release was on the cards, but with less actual musical content. The album, in this case, exhibits some of the most overblown, luridly basic basslines and beats, but dresses them up in incomprehensible layers to make them seem almost grandiose in an edgy, decidedly NON-grandiose manner. Songs such as “Send It Up,” which rely on sparse instrumentation to create atmosphere rather than a “song” per se, utilize a high pitched whine being manipulated in the same manner until it bores its way into the listener’s psyche. It works as an annoyance, but bizarrely, the only thing laid over this element (aside from a plodding drumbeat) is West’s rapping- and this is perhaps the best illustration of the album. Two separate elements, where both feel as though they can carry the other. But they cannot. Even the low, bassy trance influences of “I Am A God” feel vague and unsatisfying, devoid of any artistic flair, and without the replay value of any of West’s previous releases. Even though Kanye is quintessentially a pop artist, surprisingly, especially for an album that feels it should be the least accessible, Yeezus
feels like the most commercially viable Kanye album since Graduation
. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen, but personally, it seems an all-too obvious blow to the actual music, regardless of the mass appeal.
West’s rapping style has long polarized critics, many arguing that his style is dry and too pop-influenced. Kanye always managed to maintain a deceptively calm balance with his rhyming style; simplistic flows that occasionally took a sharp turn and pleasantly surprised the listener. It’s touches such as these that give West any credibility at all, displaying that he is very capable at the old-school style of hip hop rapping. It is therefore glaringly obvious that this “old skool” style does not fit in with this hash of an “experimental” album. As regressive as I insist the album is, it still retains an inevitably futuristic sound. This sound clashes violently with West’s still-underdeveloped rapping style and causes yet another noticeable imbalance present throughout the whole release. The tacky but dance-infused beats are implemented with copycat tunes or low, repetitive basslines that West then raps over. This creates a sense of discordance and an even more obvious sense of disconnect between artist and product, and overall feels very lazy. “New Slaves” for instance, features a plodding tune amidst a dull bass-driven beat. West’s vocal style imitates the plodding tune, escalating in tension, the music becoming quieter, fading out, out, and then… nothing. The beat starts again, with little to no payoff, save a high-pitched vocal clip used at the end of the track. Much like the song, it’s an album that drowns in its own ideas before it even gets them off the ground.
At a point like this in an artist’s career, I would imagine it is a good time to backtrack a little and to really look at the progress made in the years since gone. Kanye can look back on his artistic history with something vaguely resembling pride; a promising start, a plateau, a niche. There may be a misstep here or there, but for the most part, a solid artistic output. And then there’s Yeezus
, an album so wallowing and self-indulgent in its desire for attention, perhaps it was the insistence that this was going to be THE Kanye West album that is the most insulting. The intense electronics and synths may prove satisfactory to certain passive listeners on the hunt for an intermediate between rap and electronica, but on the whole the album is a bland distraction, its pretense of “progression” and “avant-garde” musicality backfiring spectacularly with each track. The idea itself contained at the heart of Yeezus
is well-meaning and could have been developed into something far more satisfying by further developing the music and implementing inventive structures to the actual rhymes rather than recycling. The process is clearly based on its appeal to people who cannot tell the difference; people who feel they need to be told that minimalism is artistic. French artist Yves Klein once assembled an exhibit called The Void, which featured absolutely nothing on display. People read into the “art” with their own meanings, ideals and dreams, but ultimately, there was nothing to appreciate in the first place. Yeezus
is the musical equivalent of The Void: full of ideas, but utterly vacuous. Any individual elements on the release, no matter how decent, are skewered and chopped beyond recognition, having their home on a release that is neither relevant nor necessary.