Most people seem to have fallen for Kanye after 808 & Heartbreak but I was a bit of latecomer to the church of Yeezus and it was the title song from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that finally piqued my interest with a genre-defying bolt of melancholy, humor and gloriously OTT crazy.
If MBDTF was the sound of Kanye losing his mind Yeezus is only further down the rabbit hole. Don’t for a minute be expecting that he’s found any kind of equilibrium since the last record.
I’m a sucker for artists who expose their own human flaws and generally will give a free pass on things I might not have otherwise if I know they know too. Kanye most certainly knows – Runaway was the touchstone moment for that but Yeezus continues the theme. Like all the great rock stars he is a big mess of contradictions ranging from arrogance to humility, money obsessed to anti-capitalist, misogynist to apologist. None of it makes much sense but like all great polemicists it sounds good at the time. The lyric ‘Soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you’ in I am a God seems to sum this perversity up perfectly. There is also a recurrent theme in both this and the last record of him demonising himself – referring to himself as a monster, a wolf, possessed etc and while it is glamorized there is definitely a strong air of self-loathing about it. Self disgust is self obsession, honey.
And if anyone is still under the allusion that he doesn’t have a sense of humour about it all then the 11-on-the-hamometer pastiche of American Psycho he trailered the album with should prove otherwise:
Musically Kanye West is one of the only artists, never mind mainstream artists, who can genuinely surprise me at the moment and Yeezus is sonically thrilling. Don’t expect some nice Starbucks ‘urban’ background music – strap yourself in for this one, it’s a bumpy ride. Aggressive techno, punky rock sounds, glorious melody and angry, angry rap all mixed up and never, ever doing what you expect. Just when you settle into some soothingly melodic sample it will be ripped out from under you and at other times just when you think you can’t take it anymore the relentless nastiness will be salved by a soaring top line tune. It’s basically the musical equivalent of walking through a minefield in the dark while someone alternately screams at you and feeds you cake.
On the whole Yeezus is not as lyrically sophisticated as MBDTF although it has it’s moments, and there are times when it feels he’s trotting out pat rap-isms. But musically it’s leagues ahead, absolutely blinding.
Track by track
As opening statements go this is firmly in the ‘strap in or fuck off’ bracket. Alternating between hard, dirty electro and eerie melodic samples of children singing. Yeezy’s back and he’s gunning for you.
I cannot stop listening to this song. On first listen I thought of Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part II, on second listen Marilyn Manson. It does indeed apparently sample Beautiful People and is a big, stompy, glambanger with some suitable glam-punk lyrics to match. The end section where he is shouting ‘God’ over and over reminds me a bit of Bowie’s Pallas Athena but that’s accidental I’m sure.
This video of him performing it live on SNL illustrates perfectly why he is doing a better job of being Rock & Roll than most of our current rock bands at the moment:
I am a God
If Kanye is a God then he is neither a benevolent nor a happy one. Doom-laden, apocalyptic sounding droning opens the track followed by intermittent screams and a general feeling of impending disaster. The last minute of the track is genuinely quite intense and terrifying. It does however also include a classic moment of Kanye meme-bait when he yells HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS – reminiscent of Madge’s soya latte and maybe bested only by ‘the sky filled with herons’ for my favourite Kanye lyric.
If there is any song on the album approaching something like a manifesto or a social commentary that extends outside of his own life then this it. Paralleling materialism with slavery he makes a strong case for rejecting capitalism and fashion, if not one he seems to be capable of following himself.
What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things
Used to only be niggas, now everybody playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang
And as far as shade goes ‘Doing clothes you would have thought I had help – but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself’ is a pretty smart stab at the insinuation a man like him couldn’t possibly have been involved in fashion beyond ‘cotton-picking’.
Ironically it’s this song and not ‘Blood on the leaves’ that offers the more satisfactory explanation for the troublesome Nina Simone sample as he states:
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
Drawing an explicit parallel between contemporary black commercial slavery and Strange Fruit’s gruesome lynchings is in this context perhaps hyperbolic but certainly eloquent. New Slaves is easily the lyrical high point of the album and although he seems to have ruffled a few feathers with the section where he states
Fuck you and your Hamptons house
I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse
Came on her Hampton blouse
And in her Hampton mouth
I was instantly reminded when I heard it of Pulp’s equally threatening masterpiece I Spy where Jarvis tells us he’s been ‘sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks’ and sets out his (also borderline misogynistic) plan for class revenge by fucking married posh birds:
Your Ladbroke Grove looks turn me on [..]
And every night I hatch my plan,
it’s not a case of woman v man.
It’s more a case of haves against haven’ts.
And I just happen to have got what you need,
just exactly what you need
Musically it is as relentless as the previous two tracks and in my mind completes a trilogy of sorts ending with the soaring melodic last minute of New Slaves – a welcome respite by the time you get there.
Hold My Liquor
Musically and lyrically we are back on more familiar territory with Hold My Liquor being the song that sounds the most like some previous Kanye tracks. But with a big, nasty air horn sounding after every line – just to keep you awake. Perversely this almost sounds like a love song in places. Or as close as you are going to get on Yeezus.
I’m In It
Pornographic and kind of sexy in a fairly ridiculous way.
Blood On The Leaves
Sampling Strange Fruit was always going to be controversial and it’s certainly garnered it’s column inches. Most reviewers are dissatisfied with the disconnect between the sample and the lyrical content – a sprawling, bitter break up tale involving abortion, mollys and baseball games. Musically it all fits very well and feels to me like a gothic tale of love lost and in a way seems no different to the well tread tradition of equating blood and horror with personal loss. That said this particular sample is of course a little more contentious than something like Kurt Cobain singing ‘I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black’ because it directly connects to heavyweight socio-political issues. Within the context of the album it all hangs together for me with an overarching, if slightly messy, theme of blood, horror, personal confusion and black slaveries – both contemporary and historical. Of course it’s confusing that he chose to pair this sample with these lyrics and not New Slave but maybe that’s the point?
For most people this seems to be the centrepiece track but although I love it I prefer the triple header of Black Skinhead / I Am A God / New Slave and it’s sprawling majesty doesn’t quite topple My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for me.
An enjoyable but not stand-out out track for me – although the Popcaan hook is pretty infectious.
Send It Up
I adore the queasy electronic background noise that runs through this track. Headache inducing in a great way – it’s like having your brain drilled by a drunk clown. The Beanie Man outro to the track ‘Memories don’t live like people do / They always ‘member you /Whether things are good or bad /It’s just the memories that you have’ seems to sum up Kanye’s ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ philosophy perfectly.
By the time you get to the sweet, dancehall lilt of Bound 2 you fucking need it. And it’s not just us. Poor Kanye feels the same.
After all these long-ass verses
I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept
Trying to convince a prospective lover with the promise that he’s worth it despite everything she might have heard and sounding like for all the world like he wants to give up the whole exhausting business of being Yeezy and go grow potatoes with his woman somewhere but knowing that won’t happen. Bound to falling in love. Tired of loving with nobody to love.
The world seems to be stumped as to whether Kanye is an idiot, a genius or a madman. I say an irresistible combination of all three.
Yeezus is in competition only with The Next Day for my album of the year so far.