Like so many others listening to Kanye West’s Yeezus after it leaked late last week, I took to Twitter to offer a few first impressions.
One was that these 10 songs sound like Blade Runner and American Psycho had a baby.
Upon further listens, that snap assessment held firm, although it took on deeper, more troubling dimensions.
There are bleak, futuristic elements evident throughout Yeezus (shades of director Ridley Scott’s rain-drenched film noir), but there also appears to be a vicious strain of nihilistic satire (consistent with Bret Easton Ellis’ noxiously funny novel) coursing beneath some of the harshest, most misogynistic rhymes West has ever put on tape.
Of course, the problem with West is that it’s hard to tell where he stops joking and starts being serious — the one-liner-laden I Am a God (sample: “Hurry up with my damn croissants”) spills over into the defiant New Slaves, which finds the 36-year-old rapper/producer excoriating money-hungry executives and finding institutional racism everywhere he turns.
But as soon as the spiky politics of New Slaves are raised, they’re dropped, and West moves on to crashing on a woman’s couch and ranting about his needs on Hold My Liquor. Whither the social concern?
Part of the record’s imbalance may be intentional. West excels as a cultural provocateur (as evidenced by the gloriously ego-drenched interview he granted to The New York Times prior to the release of Yeezus) — an artist all too happy to “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist,” as he puts it on I’m In It.
However, the bulk of Yeezus is fixated on the personal, not the political — songs exploring West’s needs and wants in his relationships and in the bedroom. In that regard, this record is most closely aligned with West’s underrated 2008 LP 808s & Heartbreak.
It’s clear that West thinks we should all be as invested in his pain and angst as he is — but in that context, New Slaves feels tangential, inserted to initiate a conversation West doesn’t necessarily feel like having.
He also alludes to “Chiraq,” the nickname recently bestowed upon his violence-ridden hometown of Chicago, but can’t be bothered to pull away from his own problems long enough to truly care about others.
On Yeezus, West vacillates between cracking wise and making artistic decisions freighted with seeming significance — for instance, sampling Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of Strange Fruit, which alludes to lynching, throughout Blood on the Leaves, a track about failed romance.
It’s that kind of sociopolitical/egomaniacal tension that gives Yeezus its peculiar, particular power. In the grand tradition of cultural movers and shakers, West only seems to care that there’s conversation, the content of which seems almost beside the point (although, as he tells the Times, he does yearn to have an impact beyond trending on Twitter).
As always, West saves the brightest spotlight and harshest criticism for himself, celebrating his sexual prowess ( I’m In It contains some truly gasp-inducing imagery) and evoking a man, beset by celebrity, coming apart at the seams.
Yeezus, which features a roster of producers (including Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and North Texas’ own Symbolyc One) and which was guided to completion by industry legend Rick Rubin, is relentlessly savage, sonically and lyrically.
The harrowing, spare sonics feel like a corrective to the lush, pop-saturated excess of West’s previous LP, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The guest list is relatively short (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon turns up, as does Chief Keef, Kid Cudi, Fort Worth-based vocalist Tony Williams and Charlie Wilson) and from its opening moments, Yeezus has an emphasis on distortion, glitchy electronics and terrifying sound effects that give the record a nervous energy.
In the end, the album is too insular, too intent on assaulting the listener with sounds straight out of a Nine Inch Nails B-side. West can’t or won’t make up his mind about what’s more important, himself or the culture. This time around, the pain is not made palatable.
Whatever his ultimate goals, one thing about Yeezus is certain: It sounds like nothing else in pop music right now — and no one can stop talking about it.