Kanye West – Yeezus
Words: Devin Kelly
Does anyone remember Kanye West’s 2010 VMA performance, the one where he walked out on the stage in that red suit and began punching the pads of his MPC controller on a marble pedestal, chopping up samples while ballerinas fluttered around him, all to the tune of “Runaway”? It was then, coming off a mediocre and sappy 808s & Heartbreaks, that Kanye became someone different, an axis around which the hip-hop world turned. It was love or hate, and all Kanye was doing was rapping, singing, and screaming his way into the void.
Now, three years later, after the brilliance of Fantasy and the dull subpar showing (except for a few bright spots) of Watch the Throne, Kanye has dropped Yeezus (I mean, Jesus was black, right? So it’s not that much of a stretch), and the familiar response has ensued. Critics give it near-universal acclaim. Kanye supporters launch “YEEZUS” as a calling cry into the social media air. And Kanye denouncers plead ignorance or filth or arrogance or something of the sort.
But before any judgment is handed down over here, a few things must be pointed out. First, the production credits have come out, and it’s clear that Kanye has had a major hand in producing all of the songs on Yeezus, which, if you’re a Kanye fan, isn’t a surprise. It’s what he does. He produces his songs, makes the beats, and then, after laying that foundation, raps/sings/autotunes/moans over them. If you’re not a Kanye fan, you should let that sink in. Drake has hired hands like Noah Shebib (aka “40”) or Clams Casino layer his lush sounds for him. Eminem had Dre get him going. Lil Wayne has had producers from Swiss Beats to Willy Will to —get this—Kanye West, make his beats for him.
As a producer, Kanye is king. And when it comes to production, Yeezus is on point. It is spacious and minimal at times and industrial and edgy at others. It utilizes, and stems from, a rich compilation of sounds and genres, from reggae to soul to gospel to ambient and electronic. It all comes together to show that what Kanye has done in the last five or so years is create a sound that is uniquely and entirely his own. This is Kanye—old soul samples interjected right into songs (because he doesn’t give a fuck), chopped up and pitched down hooks, autotuned outros, and melodic industrial thumping that is emotional and aggressive all at once. Kanye’s records lack the charming lo-fi quality of some hip-hop mixtape recorded in a grimy bedroom or beat-up studio (see GrandeMarshall’s 800 or anything by Joey Bada$$), but they are so refined and so specifically engineered that you can’t help but be impressed. Kanye’s like that kid everyone hated in high school, the one that never studied for his tests, that never stressed over them, and then always handed them in first and got an A—the one you always assumed never had to do his homework or read his books. But in my mind, Kanye’s got a room in one of his big houses, a room full of speakers, where he listens to anything from Bon Iver’s “Woods” to Joy Division to his mother’s stack of gospel records—where, in other words, he does his homework.
However, there’s stuff that even Kanye needs to answer to. Yeezus isn’t a social commentary album; it’s too self-absorbed and too hard and, in some ways, too good. But whatever attempt Kanye makes at social commentary goes to waste, like “Blood on the Leaves,” where he samples the Billie Holiday original, “Strange Fruit,” covered by Nina Simone. Does Kanye know what this song is about? Of course he does. It’s about lynching, about the violent racism blacks in the South faced at the turn of the century. The song itself was also chosen by Time as the song of the century. The song of the century. So Kanye is a smart guy, and maybe he could adapt this song, turn it into a new era song about how violent racism still exists, about how our generation of young black men have a 30 percent chance of going to jail at some point in their lives, about how the prison system has turned into an unfair complex, a means of continuing racism. Right? Is that asking too much? Maybe it is, I don’t know. But whatever the case, Kanye takes this gorgeous and moving song about black struggle and raps about his own twisted relationships. And sure, he throws in a hook to relate to that C-Murder song from way back when. But Kanye – come on. And the worst part about it? It’s that “Blood on the Leaves” is a banger of a song. It goes hard. The production is clean, and the song has an epic quality to it that can’t be ignored.
All in all, though, that might be my only point of discontent with Yeezus. Kanye is always going to be self-absorbed. He’s going to rap about the twisted shit that comes with fame. And every once in awhile, he’s going to throw in some actual social commentary that makes sense, like in “New Slaves,” where he raps: “Meanwhile the DEA / teamed up with the CCA / They tryna lock niggas up / They tryna make new state.” That line is so good and so relevant that even the ACLU came in on rapgenius.com and got a “verified annotation.”Yeezus itself is full of so many one-liners, two-liners, hard-as-fucks, and don’t-give-a-fucks that I can’t even cite them all. Somehow Kanye makes fame and fortune seem impossibly difficult, something we all should sympathize with, and that takes an unprecedented amount of skill.
So, cheers to Kanye. Lyrically, I don’t know if it even matters what he says anymore, because the production of these songs is so unreal. The urgent screams on “Black Skinhead,” the thumping bass on “Hold My Liquor,” the huffing and anxious beat on “I Am A God,” and the bouncing synths on both “On Sight” and “Guilt Trip”—these all contribute to this dark and maniacal mood that drives the album and makes it visceral. Kanye even has Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame sounding like D’Angelo on “I’m in It”—I mean, seriously, can we get Justin Vernon and D’Angelo and Questlove in a room together making some neo-soul? Because Kanye might be on to something.
Regardless, Yeezus is another step into eternal fame for Kanye. It might not be as good as Fantasy, but it shows that Kanye can continually change the game of hip-hop, even if he’s rapping about the same old, same old. So when Kanye repeatedly states “I am a God” on that third track of Yeezus, there’s nothing in my mind that can reasonably deny that maybe, just maybe, when all those millions of Catholic school boys and girls kneel down to pray every morning, maybe, just maybe, their prayers are all floating up into whatever loft Kanye is in, while he lounges and fumes about the twisted pleasures and heartbreaks of fame, listening to the records his mother gave him.
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