Kanye West


Is that a fist pump or a clenched Afrocentric salute? A stag party breaking out in the middle of a Black Panther rally, Yeezus is the confounding, uncompromising protest record Kanye West was doomed to eventually make. Sure, he’s performed this trick before – ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ comes to mind – but it appears at last that he’s reached Houdini heights with this masterfully layered, multi-faceted release that, on the surface, seems an exercise in restraint. The big reveal gives the lie to the so-called “minimalist” tag that rabid press mutts sniffed out in advance, fortified by sentiments bandied about by both West and producer Rick Rubin in newspaper interviews. And yet, even after multiple listens, questions remain, tenaciously and magically.

Sure to be the most dissected and overanalyzed record of 2013, Yeezus opens with a disruptive robotic skronk and closes with coy snippets of patter, two indicators that maybe dwelling too much might prove maddening. As with West’s Jay-Z infused Watch The Throne, this sixth solo outing once again evokes the erratic artist’s notorious sexually charged narcissism. But Yeezus sports far too many clues, coincidences, nods, and references to simply file it away with such succinct dismissiveness.

In theory and practice, West follows in the nimble footsteps of those complex and complicated men Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, with Yeezus as ultramodern amalgam of Curtis, Roots, I Want You, and Here, My Dear. On ‘Bound 2’, the line "I turnt a nightclub out of the basement" descends from both the ‘76 Gaye aesthetic and Ernie Barnes’ emblematic Sugar Shack painting. One particularly bold tinfoil theorist could draw comparisons between Watch The Throne and Gaye’s 1973 duets record with Diana Ross, both releases having served as victory laps that preceded compelling reinvention. Where West makes the familiar form his own is his embrace of sex as power, as a way of combatting the racial impasse we seem to have reached in America today.

Revolution requires a spark, and West has chosen to be that spark, albeit one that recalls a virgin-seeking suicide bomber more than a molotov cocktail or gunpowder plot. Not that we’d expect any less from him. Yeezus, then, marks a subversive table turn of the Mandingo mythology, the trembling blackness thrust into Hampton wives as a sort of coup d’etat against the ugly and persistent status quo of culture, status, and race, a problem well-summarized by Gil Scott-Heron on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s finale ‘Who Will Survive In America’.

The militant extent to which West takes it may shock and awe. One particular instance rivals the "put the pussy in a sarcophagus" flap from that prior record. On ‘I’m In It’, West recalls performing cunnilingus on an Asian woman and wanting for sweet and sour sauce. It’s the record’s most tasteless joke, hardly on the same level as the instant meme-ready punchline “Hurry up with my damn croissants” on ‘I Am A God’.

Yes, it’s messy, and some have wasted little time in sharpening their knives against perceived misogyny. (There’s now a “Feminist Kanye” parody account on Twitter.) They are not far off, though that is essentially the point. West builds himself up as this larger-than-life lothario, bellowing to all in earshot about past conquests, superhuman virility, and an unquenchable appetite for the amorous. That vulgarity is his weapon, and he wields it expertly while inserting his member into the various orifices of one-night stands (‘On Sight’), wifey coulda-beens (‘Blood On The Leaves’), and even, presumably, the mother of his newborn daughter.

Yet West subverts the stunted, inherently sexist attitudes and proclivities of so many rappers in his juxtaposition of these pigheaded carnal pleasures with undeniable truth telling. There you are, banging your head to the Gary Glitter stomp of ‘Black Skinhead’, when he just wallops you with verses like the following:

But watch who you bring home

They see a black man with a white woman

At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong

At that moment, West’s motives become more transparent and – unless his rude approach has completely turned you off – all that relentless fornication somehow matters. The sex that he’s had and is having is already political.

West most effectively ejaculates his views with ‘New Slaves’, a soapbox screed or manifesto that addresses the counterproductive consumerism and oppressive constructs that hinder the success of black men. He shoves all this down our throats so that we might gag, that we too might prefer not to be “swallowers” as he bluntly puts it. Notably, West intones the N-word here much like Mayfield did on Curtis’ volatile opener ‘If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go’. Here, also, is the album’s first mention of “blood on the leaves,” referring to ‘Strange Fruit’, that conjures ghastly visions of lynching. Yet Billie Holiday’s disquieting tune – sampled from the Nina Simone cover – deserves better than serving as the convenient background of ‘Blood On The Leaves’, essentially a crankier version of ‘Gold Digger’. This, again, is how West opted to structure his protest album, mixing the political with the personal, though after countless listens it remains one of Yeezus’ unresolved mysteries. The beat itself is quite striking, though one might wonder what connection a Glaswegian like Hudson Mohawke, a credited collaborator on the track, has with the source material.

For all the talk of producers both high profile (Daft Punk, TNGHT) and emerging (Arca, Evian Christ), what really surprises about Yeezus is the dearth of, well, beats. ‘New Slaves’ relies primarily on a particularly bassy pulse in lieu of kicks and snares. Twee idol Justin Vernon’s mutated vocal opens ‘Hold My Liquor’, setting the stage for Chief Keef’s felonious gurgle atop a severely muted bass drum not unlike an old Wolfgang Voigt GAS track. This absence of beats, these pregnant pauses won’t satisfy the needs of commercial radio, not that West much cares.

When rhythm wriggles its way in, it degrades on contact. Opener ‘On Sight’ drowns in distortion and acid, emblematic of the hostile electronics that follow. ‘Send It Up’ makes boom bap in a fallout shelter, a caustic squelch bleeding into ragamuffin vibes. Proggy and brawny, ‘Black Skinhead’ recalls MIA’s Maya, prompting a potential reassessment of that underrated, maligned and woefully misunderstood 2010 LP.

Hell, No I.D. doesn’t even bother to punch up the Ponderosa Twins Plus One sample that encompasses the gorgeous epilogue ‘Bound 2’. Even still, the abrupt entrance of Charlie Wilson of The Gap Band by way of echo chamber marks the record’s maximalist peak, a glimpse at the sort of elephantiasis of sound that might have been if not for Rick Rubin’s intervention. West then wraps Yeezus with one last riddle: "Jerome’s in the house." Though he directly quotes the outlandish Martin Lawrence sitcom boor, the last time West used the name Jerome in a rhyme (MBDTF’s ‘Gorgeous’), it was a reference to racially disproportionate sentencing practices in drug cases. It’s that sort of doublespeak that makes Yeezus the zenith of West’s entire career. Uh huh, honey.

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