Def Jam Recordings
I’ve never given one solid shit about Kanye West. Perhaps I assumed he would be relegated to the fading collective memory of that awful decade, the ’00s — a waning image of yesteryear, alongside Rudolph Guiliani, Suicide Girls, and Shitty Movies Ben Affleck. He was, after all, the star of one of the greatest events in ’00s history, when he hijacked a live telethon for Katrina victims, went way off script and declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” A couple days later, a heroic everyman citizen told Vice President Cheney to go fuck himself, right to his face: a butterfly effect Mr. West can be proud of.
Ah 2013! I mean, what the hell? There are no rules on this island. It’s taken me a while to dig in, but Yeezus is fresh as hell.
Kanye is a suffocating personality who suffocates himself in public and then annoyingly figures out a way to let you know about it. Yeezus is a cathedral built on the ramifications of suffocating yourself with money, pornography, accolades, groupies, and the etceteras of excess. But most of all, it’s about suffocating oneself. It’s clearly all been self-inflicted on Kanye by Kanye. On Yeezus, he takes responsibility and follows the mess he’s made down a wonderfully disgusting rabbit hole of darkly funky hip-hop.
1. “On Sight”
Co-Produced by Daft Punk
Opener “On Sight” is ethereally a minimal fuzzed out piece of acid house. But the real opener of the record seems to be the word “fuck”. It’s the fourth word, then the ninth, eleventh, then again right before he drops the line, “Get this bitch shakin like Parkinson’s”. He’s not testing your patience here. The water will be this ice cold throughout, so get used to being uncomfortable; we’ll all laugh about it when it’s over.
2. “Black Skinhead”
Co-Produced by Daft Punk; Featuring Vocals by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver
I bought the record after watching his performance of this song on SNL; the language was so censored I had to check it out just to know what he was saying. Turns out, he says a lot of shit on this on track, and most of it is to black people about being a black person. I have no experience with this. Nor do I own a pair of leather black jeans. But speaking of black jeans, the production is heavily influenced by industrial music and the spirit of Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” can be felt all over this song. The word “God” is yelled out over and over at the end of “Black Skinhead”, giving us a nice segue into “I am a God (featuring God)”… funny. This sort of attention to cohesion is found throughout the entire record. Several songs have a reference or straight-up introductions to the following song. I really love that.
3. “I am a God (Featuring God)”
Co-Produced by Daft Punk
On “I am a God (featuring God)” and “New Slaves”, Kanye turns up the offensive bi- polar stand-up comedian routine, to ridicule the lifestyle he’s worked so hard to be a part of. On the former, there’s the funny stuff about croissants, three-ways and general impatience, sure – but the trick here is the production; it’s intensely interesting. He cuts up grooves with fuzzed basses, sloweddown hoover rave synths and detuned voices all culminating in a round of murderous shrieks. Despite the subject matter and the subject himself being absurdly annoying, it’s fun stuff.
4. “New Slaves”
Featuring Vocals by Frank Ocean
“New Slaves” continues in the same vein of poking fun at bling culture, his narrative taking on the characteristics of a crassly political Cosby. Just imagine Cosby, sitting on the end of the bed with Theo giving the life lesson, “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers. But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”
Again, the production is funky and minimal and silence is explored in echoed vocals as Yeezy ramps up to the big punk punchline:
5. “Hold My Liquor”
Featuring Vocals by Chief Keef and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver
Haha, You get it? Great, here’s a aural reward: The distorted conga cave we’ve been in for three-and-a-half songs drops out and falls into a wash of gospel organ funkadelic weirdness complete with a sweetheart of a Frank Ocean aria about overdoing it with the substances. Again, the end of “New Slaves” ties thematically into the next jam, “Hold My Liquor”, a song of sonic beauty and epic scope. This isn’t a subtle person, nor is this a subtle record. But there are many moments where subtlety accentuates explorations of silence and space. The production is often pared down to great effect. It begs the question: “What if?”
What if he is fooling us all? I read on Wikipedia a lamp made by architect Le Corbusier was his “greatest inspiration” for Yeezus. Seriously. What if this ain’t no Gary Busey shit and Kanye West is in on the joke? What if he sneaks out of the penthouse at night to sip absinthes with John Zorn and they discuss Merzbow and George Bataille? What if?
6. “I’m In It”
Featuring Vocals by Justin Vernon of Ben Iver an Assassin
My favorite track is the sixth. It’s a disgusting song built to be a guilty pleasure; he’s in full-on porn-addict misogynist mode here, talking about “pussy” as a drug — a thing to be abused and addicted to. After starting off with some dumb brolo sex imagery (eatin ass, huh?), he drops: “Your tiitties, let ’em out, free at last! Thank God almighty they free at last!”. Omg. Fuck MLK, fuck a Million Man March, Fuck Malcolm. I got titties!… (Well, we’ve all been there, amiright?)
Another out of nowhere right turn happens in this song, as it does so often on this record. The track runs into a wall of turbulent dancehall yelps (courtesy of Assassin) and synthpads, and up comes beautiful falsettos from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to take us on through to the other side. And yes, the other side includes the line: “Stick my fist up her like a civil rights sign.”
7. “Blood on the Leaves”
Not caring about pissing off the sacred cow of the black civil rights movement: Kanye samples and builds the next track on “Strange Fruit”, one of the most important songs of the 20th century. Not just any “Strange Fruit”, but Nina Simone’s version. And not just any line, but the “black bodies swinging in the trees” line for crying out loud. I can speculate pretty confidently: Nina Simone would hate this record. But this song — it’s hard not to like this song. It’s a heart-achingly beautiful ode to a hard-fought alimony battle.
It’s also a song that expresses wonderfully “Suicide Tuesday”, a term used in ’90s rave culture to describe the comedown after a weekend on ecstasy. “Blood on the Leaves” mentions Molly in the hook and echoes a night making innocent and loving promises to each other after MDMA breaks down one’s protective walls. Inevitably, over the next couple of days, it sinks in that the walls will be rebuilt and the promises will go unfulfilled. It’s an over-long R. Kelly-ish song with hints of “Hot Buttered Soul”-era Isaac Hayes. Except those guys are actually cool and sexy; Kanye is just too obnoxious and awkward to be sexy, but that adds an interesting dimension to the material. “Blood on the Leaves” might not even be that beautiful; it might just sound that way in context with the rest of this record.
8. “Guilt Trip”
Featuring Vocals by Kid Cudi
The album concludes with two gems and a dud. “Guilt Trip” is another personal favorite, reminiscent of Burial, and it is the best synth song on the album. Beginning with Juno strings and traveling into several gorgeous layers of analog bubbles and 303 stabs, it’s a very satisfying song and one that stays under your skin.
9. “Send it Up”
Co-Produced by Daft Punk; Featuring Vocals by King L.
“Send it Up” might have been a Liars song eight years ago — but not in 2013, where it’s twice as strange and much groovier in Kanye’s hands. Its a great Coda for the record, hitting elements of industrial, drill, dancehall and satire while maintaining a infectious groove. More than any other song on the record, I want to hear it on a huge sound system. It also has one of the best lines about being in “da club” ever: “It’s so packed I might ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince in da club.”
10. “Bound 2”
Featuring Vocals by Charlie Wilson
The last song just blows. It’s just like a manic bi-polar megalomaniac beating you up and putting you through the ringer, only to turn around at the last moment and start baby-talking his way out of trouble. “Sorry baby, I didn’t actually put my fist up her vagina like a civil rights sign.” That’s what “Bound 2” feels like, eww.
Yeezus certainly has the intent of being divisive. Usually things this confessional from ultra-famous artists are. But one of the things that keeps Yeezus fresh listen after listen is that it could only be the product of this strange, strange man. He’s an egomaniacal “jackass” millionaire who knocked up a sex tape reality TV show celebrity. And this is the record he releases on the eve of that child’s birth? What the fuck? Is he in on the joke? I don’t know. Who cares? These are the ingredients of Kanye in 2013, and it’s the recipe of his existence that has produced this album. He’s made Yeezus, and it’s interesting, and he deserves credit for this thing.