Kanye West – Yeezus (2013)

After a marketing campaign that relied on shadowy projections across buildings around the world, internet hype and a few cryptic videos and snippets on its official website for promotion, the build-up to the new release by Chicago rapper and producer Kanye West surprisingly lacked the pomposity for an artist so renowned for having a flair for the dramatic, opting for an approach that he described as “just the music”. The evocatively titled Yeezus sees Kanye embracing noisier, distorted, heavier beats than on previous efforts, as well as throwing in tidbits of the signature sampling style from his College Dropout and Late Registrationdays.

The only form of traditional promotion that Yeezus had was through Kanye’s performance on Saturday Night Live, where he showed off the tracks “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”, two tracks that are among the highlights of this record. I’m still as enamoured with “Black Skinhead” as I was a month ago, with its superb cross-sample of Gary Glitter and Marilyn Manson which creates an incredibly infectious and thumping beat. Kanye’s high-octane vocal delivery on this track is like nothing I’ve heard from him previously, especially during the bridge – “So follow me up cause this shit’s ‘bout to go DOWN! / I’m doing 500 I’m out of control NOW!” In contrast, “New Slaves” features a much more minimalist beat, empowering the confrontational nature of Kanye’s rap, which makes reference to the uncomfortable topics of race, segregation and the disproportionately high amount of African-Americans among America’s prison population. Kanye also vents his frustration at corporate interests trying to control him, which explains why this track was the one projected across the world – he did it to subvert the standard process of promotion.

Aside from those two tracks, the rest of Yeezus is a little haphazard. The opener “On Sight” uses an electronic, synthetic style beat that sounds like a messier version of something pulled from 808s and Heartbreak. Some of the lyrics are also the first examples of Yeezus’ borderline offensive lines, like “We get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s”, “Black dick in your spouse again”, and “But I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth”. Supposedly co-produced by Daft Punk, but their presence isn’t really felt on the track, apart from the closing lines “Right now, I need right now” which references Kanye’s 2007 hit “Stronger” that sampled the French duo.

One of the more curious tracks is the unsurprisingly braggadocio-infused “I Am a God”, which again has another 808s­ and Heartbreak-esque synth heavy beat, and is one of the more hilarious efforts I think I’ve ever heard from Kanye, particularly with the lines “I just talked to Jesus / He said what up Yeezus? / I said shit I’m chillin’ / Trying to stack these millions” It may not be the most complex track that Kanye has laid down, but a little humour is never amiss. “Hold My Liquor” showcases more of Kanye’s typically impressive production skills, with a dark, synth-based atmospheric beat, but the presence of auto-tuned vocals during the hook (by Chicago rapper Chief Keef) almost completely drags the track down. The song depicts Kanye’s descent into alcoholism while continuing to deny the damage he causes to others, almost as if he’s fallen from the rebellious state of power in “I Am a God” and “New Slaves” and has, ironically, spun out of control. Near its conclusion, he alludes to meeting someone who manages to save him, and this leads into the next track, “I’m in It”, where Kanye’s rap is double-tracked, but distorted and stretched on a very low register. It’s a bit of an awkward, boorish effort, where Kanye is illicitly describing his sexual encounters with the woman he met at the end of the previous track, with lines like “Eating Asian pussy, and all I need was sweet and sour sauce”. There’s a killer guest verse on this track by Assassin aka Agent Sasco though, who delivers it with a terrific, speedy Caribbean-style swagger.  

A track that has me both impressed and confused is “Blood on the Leaves”, that uses a terrific sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” cover, but slightly pitch shifted and placed with a blaring horn beat. But just like in “Hold My Liquor”, a rather large blemish on the track is Kanye’s auto-tuned vocals, which add nothing but a jarring effect. Also the second verse which describes Kanye’s spouse trying MDMA and running naked down a lobby isn’t what I would regard as captivating subject matter, compared to what was on offer in “New Slaves”. Still, “Blood on the Leaves” is one of the album’s more memorable moments, at least in terms of production.

“Guilt Trip” features zippy, electronica-style beats, again drawing on familiar sonic territory from 808s and Heartbreak. The track seems to just be Kanye coming to terms with his new domesticated lifestyle (travelling overseas, going skiing, pouring champagne, and so on) and combined with that auto-tuned intro (why…why do you do this, Yeezy) it just ends up as a rather dull cut. Kid Cudi’s vocals on the track are pleasant, but aren’t really enough to save it. Unfortunately the album continues to slip in quality with “Send It Up”, which uses a piercing, irritating beat that sounds like a looped air horn, and to me it reeks of Kanye trying a little too hard to be experimental. King L, another Chicago native, raps about his prowess on the first verse, followed by Kanye who also raps about… his prowess.

Yeezus does finish strongly though,  with the track “Bound 2” that acts as a bit of fan service for Kanye’s long-time listeners, playing around with a relatively obscure old school soul sample, in this case “Bound” by The Ponderosa Twins Plus One. The track’s bridge, “Close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures / One good girl is worth a thousand bitches” is one of the album’s better lyrical moments. The theme of the track seems to be an ode to Kanye’s partner, and coupled with the sample’s soothing vocals, “Bouuuuund to fall in love”  it radiates a vibe that makes the song incredibly romantic and genuine.

But unfortunately, some of the best moments on Yeezus are criminally and teasingly brief – the vocal sample halfway through “On Sight”, the soul-infused outro in “New Slaves”, the Beenie Man sample in the final seconds of “Send it Up” (couldn’t this have been a hook?) If these were fleshed out a little more, I’d probably have fewer gripes with the album. Yeezusis without question Kanye’s most experimental release, and I admire him for pushing these harsher, rougher sounds through the mainstream. But in its entirety, Yeezus plays like a work in progress rather than a coherent, cohesive effort. I’d still recommend it for any Kanye fan though, just for the fact that tracks like “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves” and “Bound 2” are among the best work he’s done since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and all the signs are positive if he continues in this vein.

B-

-Karl

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