Kanye West returns with his first studio album in three years, Yeezus! But are his daring production choices a positive evolution or do they just distract from what a house of cards the album truly is? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "On Sight" (2:37)
2. "Black Skinhead" (3:08)
3. "I Am a God" (ft. God) (3:52)
4. "New Slaves" (ft. Frank Ocean) (4:16)
5. "Hold My Liquor" (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon) (5:27)
6. "I'm in It" (ft. Justin Vernon) (3:55)
7. "Blood on the Leaves" (ft. Tony Williams) (6:00)
8. "Guilt Trip" (ft. Kid Cudi) (4:04)
9. "Send It Up" (ft. King L and Iamsu) (2:58)
10. "Bound 2" (ft. Charlie Wilson) (3:49)
Kanye West is one of the most dividing and polarizing figures in hip-hop today. The Chicago-based producer and rapper is known as much, if not more, for his tabloid exploits and arrogance as he is his music. From the infamous Taylor Swift incident and "George Bush doesn't care about black people" to his relationship with Kim Kardashian, his legendarily egotistical comments about himself and more, West makes a compelling case of why people should hate him and pay his music no attention. The problem with that is that his music is often at the forefront of the hip-hop scene in terms of quality and innovation. West's last solo album, 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was preceded by over-the-top interviews about his inflated sense of self-importance and what many viewed as pretentious moves such as a thirty-five minute short film version of lead single "Runaway." In the end however, none of that could shy the majority of critics and fans away from hailing it as one of the best albums of the year and another landmark release from the man's career. A little under three years later there are a whole new host of names at the top of the charts including 2 Chainz, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. With a collaboration with Jay-Z (Watch the Throne) and a compilation from his G.O.O.D. Music label (Cruel Summer) filling the void in between, West now returns with his sixth solo studio LP in Yeezus, hoping to reclaim his position at the top of the mountain.
A lot has happened in West's life since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hit shelves. His business ventures outside of making new music have expanded, with his DW Kanye West fashion line starting to attract positive notice while his record label signed to a distribution agreement with Def Jam. On the personal side he's entered into a relationship with reality show queen Kim Kardashian and became a father just this past weekend. Whether the expansion of these aspects of his life had an influence on Yeezus will surely be debated, but what can be certain is that the rapper has not changed his seemingly career-long commitment to keeping his sound fresh and unexpected.
That commitment is clear right from the opening moments of the album when "On Sight" blares a distorted, glitchy synth that makes you wonder if your headphones or speakers have a short in them. It is the first of three straight Daft Punk-produced tracks on the album and it is safe to say that it will flavor your opinion on the rest of the album. The tight production value nearly distracts from West's flow but he holds his own, declaring "How much do I not give a f**k? Let me show you right now before you give it up." That stanza says worlds about the album; Kanye knows how jarring the track is when compared to his work on Fantasy and that there will be strong reactions but either way, we're all listening. The track isn't there for lyrical depth; this is West's battle cry, announcing his intention before charging in.
Following that battle cry Kanye gets down to business on the next effort, "Black Skinhead." "Skinhead" is one of two tracks that West performed on Saturday Night Live and it takes a lyrical direction to match the aggressive sound of "On Sight." With a Marilyn Manson-style beat and handclaps suggesting an army behind him, West goes into war mode and works himself up into a frenzy as he rails at perceptions of racism ("They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong"), religion ("If I don't get ran down by Catholics, here come some conservative Baptists") and perceptions of him ("If I know what I know in the past/I woulda been blacked out on your ass"). The whole thing builds to a breaking point, punctuated by primal screams, until it all falls down. It's an enthralling track that puts the listener through an emotional workout.
And then just like that, West and Daft Punk pull it back down for "I Am a God." "God" has perhaps been the most attention-getting track on the album prior to its release due to the incendiary title, not to mention the fact that it is listed as "featuring God" in the credits. The song at first glance plays like an ego-fulfilling track and let's be honest; when you're talking about Kanye West, there's a lot that needs to be fulfilled there. But another look into the lyrics, spat over a smoky and atmospheric electronic beat, suggests that it's another example of West playing with perceptions around him. When he's acting like a diva in the lyrics ("I am a God, so hurry up with my damn massage/In a French-ass restaurant, hurry up with my damn croissants") the line between sincerity and self-mocking seems incredibly blurry. But he also fires off at the way people treat him and most significantly delivers a rhyme in the opening ("I am a God/even though I'm a man of God/my whole life in the hands of God/so y'all better quit playing with God") that suggests that he's more cognizant of his place in the world and that while his musical arrogance is certainly legitimate, he's not a holy saint among a sea of unclean serfs. It's a song that is as much about keeping himself grounded, lest he devolve into the insane horror-esque screams at the end of the track, as it is about his self-perceived dominance in the hip-hop world.
Immediately after "I Am a God" is the creative high point of the album in "New Slaves." Lyrically it's the most potent album on the track as Kanye unrepentantly takes aim at the enslavement of corporations that conjure a mirage of the American dream. Starting with a quick look at the pre-Civil Rights area that his late mother grew up in, West observes that it "used to only be n***as now everybody playing." He rails at the business of private prisons and the collusion between government and business in an inspired piece of work. It's the absolute highlight of the album.
There's a point where Kanye can't keep the creative strength rising, so he switches gears in terms of content and goes from political to personal with "Hold My Liquor" and "I'm In It." The former of those is still a solid track as Kanye tells the tale of a trip under the influence to an ex-girlfriend's house for an ill-advised rendezvous. It's an emotionally vulnerable song, supplemented by Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and Chief Keef delivering solid work and melting into the bass line for a moody piece of work. "I'm In It," on the other hand, is a mess and jarringly so. Production is as tight as ever but it's lyrically banal, with West choosing the Lil Wayne route of an overtly sexual theme. Reggae dancehall DJ Agent Sasco provides a verse that seems out of place and West just doesn't seem to have the fire here that other tracks do, making the whole thing seem apathetic.
The final four tracks on the album are a mixed bag. The best of them is "Blood on the Leaves," which is actually one of the best on the LP. It's likely to attract criticism as it appropriates Nina Simone's classic "Strange Fruit"--about a racially-motivated lynching--for a story about a man who knocks up a girl on the side and laments the situation. It shouldn't work but it does and while West's lyrics are not the most subtle or clever (a theme and--occasionally--problem throughout the album) the intensity and delivery are there. "Guilt Trip" is a solid but unmemorable track where the lyrics are overwhelmed by the ever-impressive production values while "Send It Up" is the worst track on the LP. It's the one track where production falls painfully short, a warbling siren starting off fine but growing irritating by the end while the beat does nothing to impress and the lyrics are lacking. The last track, "Bound 2," is perhaps the most classical West track in terms of sound with a throwback soulful sound and great featured work by Charlie Wilson. It's a strong finish to the LP and helps erase some of the issues from the tracks that immediately preceded it.
Make no mistake: this will be THE polarizing album of the year. West's strengths are often at his finest here, particularly in production, while his weaknesses come into play as well, usually lyrically. There several times where it seems as if West is trying to distract from those weaknesses with his bold sonic choices. Make no mistake on one other thing as well: this is not an album that you can really form a fair opinion on in one listen. It takes several spins before a cohesive opinion comes together; one listen through can inspire a real love of the content while the next will turn you off. Whether you love it or hate it, West has created a dense piece of work that will inspire heavy debate among pretty much everyone as to its quality.
In the end though, all the debate doesn't answer the question: is this album a success and is it worth getting? Because that's the big question, isn't it? In terms of Kanye's catalogue, this certainly isn't an LP I can feel comfortable ranking among his best. It lacks the emotional honesty of Fantasy or the storytelling of The College Dropout. What it lacks in those however, it holds nothing back in terms of potency. It's West's boldest album and that's what will inspire the most passionate debates. It's not as simple as being an album that you'll either love or hate; more likely you'll hate it, then love it, and then find your final opinion somewhere down the line. Ultimately I think that may be, if not West's ultimate goal, a status that he's comfortable with.
Standout Tracks: "Black Skinhead," "I Am a God," "New Slaves," "Blood on the Leaves"
Skippable: "I'm In It," "Send It Up"
The 411: Yeezus is sure to be the most divisive album of Kanye West's already-controversial career. Full of bold production moves and a few questionable lyrical decisions, it will undoubtedly turn some people off while firing others up and leaving few in the middle once the dust settles. West should be commended for making a risky album that takes things to the controversial level that he often inspires. While it may not stand among the best of his work, it certainly goes for the gold and while it might not finish first from a creative standpoint, it can still stand tall when the day is done.