KANYE WEST Yeezus (Def Jam Records) Rating: NNNN
Remember the Kanye West who minted a mother's day classic with Mama? And, accompanied by a children's choir, sang about sharing the bed with his cousins on Family Business?
Anyone who expected that impending fatherhood might mellow or cheer up Kanye a la Jay-Z's Glory or Eminem's Hailie's Song - maybe bring him back into the realm of light-hearted skit interlude? - were shaken out of that Ye-dream when he performed New Slaves and Black Skinhead on SNL.
But those people weren't paying attention to Kanye's career, because ever since he confounded his fans with 808s & Heartbreak - changing the way popular music sounds, maybe forever - he has never looped back on himself, (except in the most literal studio sense). Auto-Tune is back with a vengeance here (Guilt Trip), but it's definitely not Yeezus's defining characteristic.
Electronic music has been pulsing its way through rap, and with his sixth solo effort, Kanye swoops in like an alien Phoenix and mops the floor with everyone in the process. He doesn't need a Skrillex collab that sounds like every other Skrillex collab. He's going old-school acid house and Chicago 90s after-hours, making A$AP Rocky's Wild For The Night, for example, seem juvenile in comparison.
He also incorporates abrasive 70s rock, resulting in a 40-minute album that pummels you from start to almost-finish - musically and in terms of subject matter.
On Yeezus, Kanye continues to rap about racism and class divide (see: the aforementioned SNL performances). It's a subject some of his critics would rather he leave alone ("Poor rich black man" is a common between-the-lines criticism). But it's a racially divided world, and Ye won't stop talking about it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you - that's the point. He seems uneasy with the trappings of wealth-chasing he simultaneously loathes and represents.
So, if we're to think of Ye as an exposer of racial injustice, it's annoying to hear lines like "eating Asian pussy - all I need is sweet and sour sauce" on I'm In It. Because it's offensive, yes. But also because it's lazy.
If he were saying it in College-Dropout-Kanye joke voice (as opposed to his current breathless angry voice), we might find it hilarious. But Kanye could do better: a super current Ai Wei Wei reference, for example, or, at the very least, some allusion to his chocolate Pocky stick. But a 14-year old with a takeout menu could have come up with the sweet and sour sauce line. It wouldn't fly if Ke$ha were to sing about sucking black dick and washing it down with fried chicken.
The raps are carefully allotted amidst a ton of effective, choppy, rollercoaster song-splicing. And there's a noticeable dearth of Kanye zingers, hilarious disses and I-can-rap-this-whole-song-from-start-to-finish house-party anthems. Sometimes the rhymes feel like an afterthought, like he was so busy making some ridiculously innovative sounding album (success!) that he threw the words in roughshod. Ye can still make funny, boastful raps in his sleep. But some of it is becoming repetitive. On New Slaves, for instance, he says "I'd rather be a dick than a swallower." (Really? Must you be one or the other?) And he's still harping on some of his favourite subjects - your white wife who loves black men (him in particular).
Technique-wise, he employs some of his staples: Making a statement, for example, then conceding or modifying said statement, thereby rhyming a word with itself. You could call it easy. Or you could recognize it as effective, one of his signatures.
I Am A God is a bit of an eye-roll. Not for the superbly orchestrated stop-start electronic pulse or background screeching, but the "hurry up with my damn croissants" entitlement. Yeezus, Kanye. You might say that anyone who has to say "I am a God" has more self-esteem problems than the subject of All Falls Down. (We're all self-conscious I guess, and Kanye was the first to admit it.)
Sonically, the arc of the record is not dissimilar to the compilation Kanye released in September, Cruel Summer: starts hard, softens as it goes. (Insert Kris Humphries joke here, before his girl gets scooped by Kanye's harder, better, faster, stronger penis).
After being walloped by the first four tracks, just when you really, really want more of his foggy club frenetics, in come those irresistible, juicy gospel-y soul hooks. I'll be listening to Hold My Liquor for a good while, likely with a bottle of wine (or two) and a bucket of sorrows. It's the kind of moving, deep, dramatic emotional affair that fans of Cruel Summer and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will appreciate - a building emotional crescendo that prepares you for unsatisfying, yearning climax.
The best and most epic song on the album is Blood On The Leaves - cleverly foreshadowed by Kanye's repeated "I see blood on the leaves" line in New Slaves - which juxtaposes a heartbreaking Nina Simone sampling of Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday's song about lynching - this would be incredibly bold if it was anyone but Kanye) with Ye's familiar Auto-Tooned croon and a brooding, sci-fi-action-movie-trailer bass. Pray he makes a video.
Kanye tends to close his albums with ridiculous and/or bloated and/or bonus, often silly songs. They're never the tightest ones on the album, often self-indulgent, but almost always my favourite. Bound 2 follows that pattern with a plethora of interlaced 60s/70s pop samples and then abruptly interrupts them with some Michael Bolton-esque 80s version of Aeroplane (I think?). This is actually the best classic-Kanye wordplay on the album, too, like, "I know I got a bad reputation/Walk around always mad reputation/Leave a pretty girl sad repuation/ start a fight club Brad reputation." It's as close to warm and fuzzy Ye we're going to get; he hasn't abandoned his early days altogether.
Kanye West is one complicated motherfucker that continues to surprise us. Yeezus isn't his masterpiece, but it's an integral piece of an eclectic collection that will one day provide a window to an artist who will either become an insane Howard Hughesian eccentric or mellow into reality TV Kardashian fatherdom.
A little more length and breathing room would have been nice. Many will applaud him for Yeezus's compact brashness - at 40 minutes it's only about four times longer than MBDTF's Runaway. But one thing we love about Kanye is his excess and I can't help feeling like there is so much more he's not giving us.
Oh well. Maybe that's his best trick yet: Among worldwide video projections, the non-media-campaign media campaign and the swirl of US Weeklies salivating over his new baby, he's still left us wanting more.
Top track: Blood On The Leaves