I haven't really paid attention to recent developments in hip-hop, and by "recent" I mean since about 1993. Much of the music I listen to these days is extremely aggressive metal that frightens most people, like this and this and this. Still, there has been much ado about this Yeezus album, so I'm curious to see what all the fuss is about. Apologists for these big-time rap stars are always waxing philosophical about how they're doing such creative and innovative things with the genre, so I'd like to find out exactly what the hell that means. And to be fair, I'm going to give this album an even-minded, unprejudiced listen, and point out anything positive, commendable, or interesting I find in it. Lest you question my thoroughness and dedication to this endeavor, I'm going to go track-by-track, start to finish. Let's get to it, bitches!
The Name and Artwork
I have absolutely no idea what the intention of the title Yeezus is. The obvious connection is with Jesus, the chief mythological figure associated with the Christian religion. I have no idea what this misspelling is supposed to imply, connote, or intimate, and I'm not even going to try to figure it out. As far as I know it's just a word that Kanye made up, as I've never seen or heard it anywhere else. If it's a reference to something, it's lost on me. (Note: I've since discovered that Kanye goes by Yeezy, so that offers some explanation. I did not know this when I began the post.)
Then there's the album art: there isn't any. Apparently this album is shipping in a clear jewel case with a sticker on it. I'm not really sure what to make of that either, although I'm sure "professional" music critics will pontificate ad nauseam about what the intended message is. To me it's interesting, a novelty, a quirk from the mind of an artist who may or may not be insane.
This album also has more producers than Miley Cyrus has excuses to disrobe. I'll admit that I'm not really sure what a producer actually does, but I can't imagine that 25 of them are necessary to make 40 minutes of recorded music. I also have no idea who these extraneous people are. (I thought I knew one of them, but after investigation it turns out that I don't know the difference between Lupe Fiasco and Bruno Mars.) And now, at long last, my much-anticipated review of Yeezus:
Oh dear. I think I've made a terrible mistake. Well, no matter, I will soldier on! I'm going to listen to the rest of this mess if it kills me. Ok so this first track... um... well, it's incredibly synth-heavy, kind of like the sort of sounds that come out of a plasticky Casio keyboard, and a full 34 seconds go by before Mr. West's vocal arrival. I'll confess that I generally hold the predictable, stereotypical white-folk view that rap/hip-hop lyrics are simply disgusting glorifications of profanity, violence, degradation of women, sexual conquest, and material culture, so I was looking forward to educating myself via this widely-celebrated release.
Unfortunately, the fourth word on the album is fuck, the fifth line mentions famous luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz, the sixth contains a distasteful simile about Parkinson's disease, and the twelfth intimates that Kanye intends to penetrate your (the listener's?) wife. The second verse finishes with the subtle line but I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth. Definitely some serious innovation going on here.
There is one slightly clever line - she got more niggas off than Cochran - although I can't be sure that Kanye wrote it, since there are 11 names with writing credits on this track. So I guess this suffices for an introduction to the new album: Kanye is a monster about to come alive again and a real nigga back in the house again. The title, though... "on sight," lacks any context whatsoever, and so I have absolutely no idea what it's supposed to mean. What's on sight? Whose sight? Does that phrase mean something when used in a vacuum like this? This hasn't gone well so far, but I have a good feeling about the next track, based solely on the title.
Ok, so... the first thing I noticed about this track is that it's basically just Gary Glitter's Rock 'n Roll Part 2 with rap lyrics over it. Seriously, I want Kanye to be quiet so I can yell "rock 'n rooollllll HEY!"
This is apparently the first "single" to drop from Yeezus, and I've seen it described as having "a strong anti-racism message." The song does have lyrics like They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong and Stop all that coon shit / Early morning cartoon shit, but that's about it. He also says that he's being persecuted by conservative Baptists and Catholics, but I'm not sure why that should be... I mean given Kanye's need to dress in fancy clothes and jam his dick into people's mouths, I think he's ripe for the priesthood. Kanye for Pope!
I must also draw attention to the lyrics in the hook (what white folk call the chorus, or what extremely old white folk call the refrain) - I keep it 300, like the Romans / 300 bitches, where the Trojans? First of all, I have no idea what "I keep it 300" could possibly mean, but more importantly, the 300 Kanye is probably referring to were Greeks, not Romans. The heights of their two respective civilizations are separated by several centuries, so it's not a trivial error. The second part of the lyric is just hack writing; everybody makes Trojan/condom jokes.
This song also displays incredibly lazy and uncreative writing. Kanye (or whoever else of the 11 people also listed as writers) frequently rhymes lines with the same word, and in the second verse, those words are almost exclusively "shit" and "bitch." Rolling Stone magazine inexplicably dubbed this track the 3rd best of 2013. They assert, "Next time someone says America is post-race, play 'em this, and watch their head explode." First of all, anyone who suggests that America is post-race probably has a learning disability. Second, from what I've heard from the first two songs on this album, Kanye is incredibly preoccupied with the fact that he's black, and everything he's said so far has reinforced negative stereotypes, not ameliorated them. If this song really does have an anti-racism message, it's presented so opaquely that I can't seem to find it. I'm really excited about the next track though, which has an even better title than this one!
I Am a God
I'm really confounded as to how "Weird Al" Yankovic's name isn't among the 15 with writing credits on this track, as it makes me literally laugh out loud. Maybe Al's using an alias because he doesn't want to ruin his white-boy street cred? Anyway... supposedly Kanye wrote this song after being told by a fashion designer that he could come to a posh runway show, but only on the condition that he not go to any others. To this he thoughtfully remarked, "Cause it’s like, Yo! Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go. Man, I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix." I'm sure if Jim Morrison were alive, he'd be happy to swap stories with Kanye about how his new fashion brand didn't take off right away either. Is this asshole serious? Does he hear himself talk?
I guess I should at least talk about the track, since a gaggle of producers slaved over a hot MacBook to ensure its unquestionable quality. There's an incoherent bit of sampling at the beginning which doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything, and then most of the track is a fuzzy, monotonous, pulsating womp punctuated with little synth noises between Kanye's hilariously tactless lyrics. He actually says I am a God / So hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants.
How am I supposed to take this seriously? This whole song comes off as a desperate attempt by Kanye to convince himself that he's powerful and relevant. I can only assume that he's the least confident person on the planet, craving attention and validation from everyone, and if he doesn't get it, he apparently goes off on a megalomaniacal tirade. There's obviously a disconnect between how Kanye feels about himself and how others feel about him. Ironically these are not the words of a god; they're the words of a person who desperately wants to be a god, but simply isn't. I bet Axl Rose never had to tell anybody to hurry up with his damn croissants. Axl always had his croissants on time, ditto Jim and Jimi. When you are a god, you don't actually have to say so, Mr. West.
This is anti-racism track number two, and certainly a clearer effort than the first. No time to waste when your songs are only a few minutes long and filled with samples of other artists' work, so Kanye gets right to it: My momma was raised in the era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself... he goes on to decry this form of "new slavery" for blacks, which is material culture. What you want, a Bentley? a fur coat? a diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things. Ok, so, you know what might be a great inspiration to these newly-enslaved people? A guy who didn't have all of those things, who didn't rap about how awesome he is because he has all of those things, when he's not rapping about how terrible all those things are. Pardon me for not taking the message seriously when it comes from someone who can't be bothered to take his own advice.
Kanye also bravely proclaims, Fuck you and your corporation / Y'all niggas can't control me, although his main goal in life seems to be to become a corporation and control other people. Then he says things like You see there's leaders, and there's followers / But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower and then simultaneously expects his message to be taken seriously. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how magnanimous and well-intentioned your message is; if you can't express it without the words nigga, pussy, dick, fuck and suggestions of rape and violence, nobody is going to listen.
Musically, the track is rather sparse for the most part, lacking a strong back-beat during the verses. It certainly pushes the vocals to the front of the mix, and thus far this track has the largest collection of lyrics, so it makes sense. There's an inexplicable, jarring break at about 2:50 when the track completely splices into some other, completely different track with auto-tuned vocals. Not sure what is going on here, and then things get even more surreal when this gives way to an excerpt from an old Hungarian pop song called "Gyöngyhajú lány." Kudos, Kanye; I certainly didn't see that coming.
Hold My Liquor
This is the closest thing to actual introspection and artistry that I've heard on this album so far. While generally it has been predictable, superficial, commercial diarrhea, this song seems to have a hint of personal truth to it. The track is rather simple, with minimal instrumentation and really just a muted pulse to keep time for the lyrics, which deal rather candidly with substance abuse. Of course if Kanye wants to be a rock star then he'd better have a drinking problem, and that's really the theme of this song.
I will say that I thought we were done with auto-tune, but it's all over everyone's vocals but Kanye's, and it's really a shame because I just find it distracting from the message of the words. Kanye's sole verse is a somber, brooding, apologetic, self-deprecating soliloquy about the all-too-common pitfalls of the rock star lifestyle, particularly the transient and ephemeral nature of alcohol-fueled frivolity. Bonus points for using the phrase "late night organ donor" to characterize a booty-call.
I think the reason that this song is the only competent one thus far is that it's the only one that's been even slightly relatable. It deals with a universal theme and actual human experiences and emotions, and all of this is related in a relatively straightforward way. I don't think there's anything particularly artful about Kanye's verse as a composition - the cadence is incredibly monotonous and unvaried, and there's nothing earth-shattering about the rhymes or language, but this is the first thing he's said that I've actually heard. Let's listen on and see where things go from here...
I'm In It
...oh. um. The next track is a brash, brazen, and bawdy account of non-committal copulation crafted with all the subtlety and nuance of a Black Friday Walmart brawl. Seriously, there's something to be said for being direct, but Kanye's dropping rhymes so tawdry they'd make Dr. Ruth turn a bashful shade of crimson. An erotic act is related with what I can only characterize as startlingly blunt detail, with such artful phrases as eating ass, eye fucking, your titties - let 'em out, and my personal favorite, put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.
Kanye's jarringly tactless lyrics are accompanied by random bouts of incomprehensible Rastafarian-sounding raspy babble, and the "hook" includes a vocal performance by someone who can actually sing, making the section between 1:40 and 2:10 the only listenable part of the song. I can't let this one go without also mentioning the profoundly stupid lyrics and the beginning (As I turn my Blackberry off / And I turn your bath water on / And you turn off your iPhone) and the very end (Uh, I be speaking Swaghili). Swaghili? Really?
Blood on the Leaves
There's really no sugar-coating this one - it's a 6 minute auto-tuned nightmare. The song begins with a sample of a music recording of the poem "Strange Fruit," which was written as a response to racism in America in 1937, and bits of the recording are inserted quite annoyingly throughout the track. This song actually has four verses, which as far as I can tell chronicle an unpleasant experience that Kanye had with some gold-digger type. The last verse (mercifully the only one not auto-tuned) has the most salient presentation, addressed affectionately to all my second-string bitches.
Generally it seems to be a commentary on the dangers of sleeping indiscriminately with every woman one encounters and then running into problems when one of them invariably gets pregnant. It is surely a lamentable situation when one must decide between paying the lawyers or the Mercedes dealer. Woe unto you, Kanye, and the contemptible wealth you have amassed! Mo' money mo' problems, amirite? This song is long, boring, and unlistenable thanks to a complete overuse of auto-tune. I also fail to see the connection between the content of the poem in the sample and the subject of this song. Somebody's gonna have to explain that one to me.
This is part 2 of the Vulnerable Kanye saga, although this one doesn't work nearly as well as Hold My Liquor does. It should work in theory, as it's a song about unrequited love, the one who got away, possibly the oldest theme in the history of songwriting. I'm just not buying it from Kanye, perhaps because he's not selling it too well. This song is light on lyrics, and we only get a superficial analysis of this failed relationship. It doesn't help that the vocals are fucking auto-tuned again. If I can just pause for a second (your album's pretty good, Kanye, and imma finish it...) to elucidate why I find it so detrimental, it can be explained (like so many things) by the internet. Once the internet gets hold of something, it gets run into the ground at fiber-optic speeds. As far as I'm concerned, once the Bed Intruder dropped, that was the end of auto-tune as a legitimate practice in music. It's a joke now, and it instantly takes me out of the song.
Ill-advised production decisions aside (I guess all 417 producers agreed that auto-tune was a great idea), this song just seems like filler. It only has one verse, in which Kanye vaguely describes a girl with whom things just didn't work out for some reason. Why? Maybe it's cause she into Leos / And I was into trios, plus all the trips to Rio. Those lines just seem forced to me, dictated by the rhyming words rather than any sort of effort at storytelling. The rest of the track is occupied by more incoherent guest vocals, and then a whiny outro that pitifully sobs If you love me so much then why'd you let me go? over and over.
Send It Up
This track, the penultimate composition on Kanye's mighty opus, is nearly three minutes of my life that I can't have back. As far as I can tell it isn't about anything, and I have no idea what "send it up" means. That's problematic, because a considerable portion of the song is simply repetition of the phrase "we can send this bitch up, it can't go down." Whatever that means.
According to Mr. West, This is the greatest shit in the club since 'In Da Club.' I do remember that song - when I heard it the first time I thought the guy doing the vocals was either half-asleep, not speaking English, or both. Kanye's awake for this one, but he couldn't be bothered to find his rhyming dictionary (nor could the 30 other people involved in the writing and production of this gem, apparently). "Club" is paired in the next four lines with ... "club." In fairness though, he pronounces it "cluhh," which probably makes finding a suitable rhyme more difficult.
There's more Rasta-babble at the end, this time by a fellow named Beenie Man. I assume he was one of the housekeeping staff at the Parisian hotel where Kanye wrote and recorded much of this record, because there is no other explanation for why he should be a part of the music business. Toss this track on top of the last one in the "filler" pile.
The Wikipedia page for this song says that critics generally found it to be the best track on the album, so I'm going to listen to it extra hard so I don't miss anything. As the page notes, "this song incorporates numerous samples into its production, including prominent elements of the song "Bound" (1971) by soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One." That's a pretty accurate description, but I'd say something more like "this song is Kanye West pressing 'play' on the song "Bound" (1971) by soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One and then talking over top of it." I guess he did add some original elements, like the part where someone called Charlie Wilson sings over top of distorted synth farting noises which would probably rattle any American-made car apart if played at even a moderate volume. It just doesn't work, talking over top of this sample, and Kanye's vocals constantly drag as if he's forever just slightly behind the beat.
Lyrically, there are definitely some gems in here. The second verse really hits me where I live: I wanna fuck you hard on the sink / After that give you somethin to drink / Step back, can't get spunk on the mink. Preach, brother. The album probably reaches its glorious peak later in this same verse when Kanye becomes the first human being to rhyme Thanksgiving with Christmas.
The end of the second verse is a fitting end to the album, I think, and a great summary of how I'm feeling right now: But first, you gon' remember how to forget / After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired, you tired, Jesus wept.
I tried, really I did. I really want to get it, to understand why people rave about this guy, even if I don't actually appreciate it on some deep level. I can happily admit talent when I see or hear it, even if I don't particularly like it - maybe I don't dig it, but I get why other people could. I do not understand why Kanye West is famous.
Even in the context of the rap/hip-hop genre, there are people I genuinely respect as talented artists. The old school guys back in the late 80's actually had a purpose for their art; it was a response to the racism, police brutality, and general difficulty in life that they grew up with and experienced first-hand for so long, and their music was a fiery, passionate reaction to that situation. Songs like Fuck tha Police actually had a real story to tell, a useful social commentary about the state of race relations in the impoverished inner cities of the US. Songs like that come from a powerful creative source, and I completely understand why people bought that stuff by the millions.
Even to take other contemporary artists as a point of comparison, there are rappers who can sing relatively well (R. Kelly), who can perform some serious vocal acrobatics (Busta Rhymes) and who are obviously quite gifted at writing lyrics, whether they be funny, aggressive, or offensive (Eminem, Eminem, and Eminem). Kanye West isn't any good at any of these things. At all.
Maybe there's something about the music? But if that's the case, how much credit does Kanye deserve for the final product, when every song has multiple writers and producers credited? Ironically, despite the apparent collaboration of dozens of people on this record, the backing tracks on Yeezus are rather spartan. It's a complete contradiction that the efforts of so many people resulted in such an anemic soundtrack. What were they all doing? I assume Kanye just pays people to stroke his fragile ego while he makes his albums and then gives them "producer" credits.
I'm really trying to reconcile all the glowing critical reviews of this album with the reality of my perception of it, and I'm failing. As far as I can find, there's nothing even remotely interesting on this album, let alone praiseworthy. Kanye seems to be famous despite his music, not because of it, and I think critics are simply falling victim to their own psychological aversion to the inevitable cognitive dissonance arising from the stark difference between Kanye the artist and Kanye the brand. Kanye's popularity can't be denied, and so his talent must be affirmed in order to square the circle. Perhaps we should all encourage Mr. West to pursue other avenues; I certainly don't want him to make any more music.