Kanye West takes a wide left turn with Yeezus and delivers another indelibly fascinating mess
The hype campaign for Kanye West's latest outsize provocation of an album, unfurled barely a month short of the release date via guerrilla music videos, an audaciously indelicate Saturday Night Live performance and a characteristically bemusing New York Times interview, hinted that the forthcoming Yeezus (his sixth full length solo effort) would be the kind of boldly anti-commercial statement that only the most untouchable artists (meaning either rarified or dispensable) can afford to make. Three of the album's first four tracks ("Black Skinhead", "I Am a God" and "New Slaves"), made available to the public through live performance and videos projected onto various structures around the globe, were skeletal, aggressive, glitchy screeds and, one tended to assume, the rest of the album would follow suit. After ten years spent bending the Pop and Hip-Hop spectrums to his considerable will, maybe West was finally done sugar coating his poison pill. Perhaps he was ready to fully embrace the outre art he's always skirted and deliver whatever unwelcoming and unfamiliar musical forms his manic muse might take, freed at last from any semblance of producer polish or label constraints. While Yeezus is certainly far from a traditional Hip-Hop record, and probably the riskiest release by a major artist so far this year, the album sounds, even through all the feral screams, Industrial-Electro squelch and spastic drops and interludes, very much like a Kanye West record, though often in gloriously transgressive ways.
As assaultive and dissident as a song like "New Slaves" is, with Kanye railing against corporate complicity in the bankrupting of Black America and the inequality of the prison-industrial complex over grimy synth, it's the (no doubt instinctual) impudence of lifting a sample from Nina Simone's cover of Ella Fitzgerald's "Strange Fruit" (one of the most impassioned protest songs of all time) to embellish a tale of sexual extortion that demonstrates what's truly radical about this record. Imagine an impish emcee like Redman or Snoop Dogg setting an ode to dope smoking against samples from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and you have some idea of the temerity behind such a bold misappropriation. The song in question, named "Blood on Leaves" after a line in the sampled song's lyrics, is the centerpiece of the album, much like the nine minute "Runaway" was to 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and in spite of the potential tastelessness of comparing lynching to alimony, it works. Mostly because, though there's no obvious analogy, Kanye treats the subject of his song with a weight that, while not exactly commensurate with that of its inspiration, feels right in the context of a record whose title grants biblical import to its author. Plus, it's a design that connects squarely with the recurring themes of Yeezus: the relationship between the abhorrent and the ecstatic; as if living one's life without an ounce of restraint might ultimately be the way to combat regret.
Elsewhere, as on the bright, joyously blown-out Electric Funk of the outro to "New Slaves" (featuring an exultant, auto-tuned verse from Frank Ocean), West gives a nod to the idea of raw expression as just another road to enlightenment. Much like the self-imploding narcissism of Fantasy, hope becomes the progeny to, rather than the enemy of, primeval frustration and moral unrest. It's an idea played out in the album's final track, "Bound 2", which is like a salve to the savage burn of the preceding nine tracks. What with it's sweet Northern Soul samples and cheeky Brenda Lee and Charlie Wilson drops, the track acts as a sort of apology and a reassurance. It's West finally lightening up (though there's no shortage of humor throughout the record), loosening his grasp and proving that he can just as easily bang out a party-starter as he can turn the latest Rap trends (there are streaks of Punk-ish Grind-Hop like P.O.S. and Death Grips all over the album, not to mention a bizarre amount of Dancehall) into complex, vivacious music. For all his semblant vanity and obliviousness, it's clear from his work that Ye's a boundlessly thoughtful artist. If Yeezy wasn't around to proclaim himself a god and recontextualize what Time magazine called "the song of the 20th century" in service to what amounts to tabloid fodder, no one would. Love him or hate him, the man is an essential component of modern music and the music world is richer for having him around, spinning his own neuroses and contradictions into singularly fascinating Pop Art.