Monthly Archives: June 2013
Kanye West – Yeezus
From his music to his fashion sense to how he courts controversy with his every word, few people in the world command the media attention that Kanye West does. He knows it; he’s boasted about it for years, and in a New York Times profile that was published a week before the release of Yeezus, he speaks of his greatness like it’s fact, as if it’s no different from claiming that grass is green. It’s this aspect of his personality that his detractors find hard to stomach, but even they can’t deny his integrity. While other artists tend to ossify their style and sound when they find success, Kanye maintained his stature by setting trends, not adapting to them. He constantly reinvents his music, pushing boundaries and succeeding with remarkable consistency, and the public has followed him all the way. But 2013’s Yeezus is something else entirely. It’s a heavy, chaotic record, rippling with noise; pounding, industrial beats and guttural screams, all swimming in spare, spacious production. It’s just as jarring a stylistic shift as 808s & Heartbreak was, only this one doesn’t work with the safety net of crowd-pleasing singles. There have been weirder, more abrasive albums in rap, but none of those were made by artists with the prominence and global audience that Kanye has. Like Kid A or In Utero, Yeezus is the sound of a major pop musician crafting something that’s firmly out of the mainstream. And even if it isn’t as great as Radiohead and Nirvana’s gamechangers, it’s a challenging, groundbreaking listen, bound to polarize Kanye’s fans, even as it garners him many more. (And just like those two records, Yeezus debuted at #1 in the US.)
The first half of the record, especially, goes for the jugular. The shredded noise and the blunt, Nine Inch Nails-esque synths that begin “On Sight” act as a warning shot for what follows, which runs headlong from the pummeling, visceral “Black Skinhead” to the seething “New Slaves,” where Kanye works himself into a rage, before a lovely Frank Ocean-sung coda blows off some of the excess steam. Even more out-there is the panicked, menacing “I Am A God,” which begins with some dead-serious/dead-funny ego boosts, yet ends with Kanye letting out a series of blood-curdling screams and pants. But as out-of-the-blue as Yeezus seems, it’s really a logical extension of the darker fringes of 808s and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, taking those outliers to their extremes. The second half of the record proves that in spades, as he flirts with 808s‘ Auto-Tuned balladry on “Blood On The Leaves,” while “Hold My Liquor”‘s downcast, confessional feel and use of guest singers calls to mind MBDTF‘s blockbuster therapy sessions. (In fact, if anything is from left field here, it’s the lovely closer, “Bound 2,” which links the past and the present, referencing The College Dropout via an easygoing rap over a classic soul sample.)
Yeezus also recalls MBDTF in the way its lyrics work contradictory themes, how Kanye shuns materialism and embraces it, how he marries the attractive and repulsive, how he sees no difference between the sophisticated and the lowbrow. This would be a fatal error for most artists, but for him, it’s a raison d’être. He wears his flaws and paradoxes on his designer sleeve, and at its best, Yeezus is thrillingly human. In keeping with that flawed, imperfect tone, it’s worth noting that the album was completed only a couple weeks before its release, so it’s raw and rough, full of first-take vocals and just-written, first-draft lyrics. That off-the-cuff feel definitely bolsters the more confrontational tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “I Am God” (How else would the improbable genius of a line like “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” make it to record?). And some of that looseness also rubs off on the laid-back “Bound 2,” where he concedes something as goofy and charming as “You remember when we first met?/Okay, I don’t remember when we first met.” Yet it’s the polemical “New Slaves” that may be the most impressive, with Kanye ripping into the place where racism and commercialism intersect. But along with the highs come some frustrating lows, and Yeezus still suffers from some clumsy, off-putting lyrics that have dotted Kanye’s recent work. Most of this has to do with his attempts to out-provocative himself, and while that leads to some lines that work within the context of the track (“You see, it’s leaders and it’s followers/But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”), it also results in some lame jokes like “Eating Asian pussy/All I need is sweet-and-sour sauce” that come off like Tyler, The Creator outtakes. Generally, though, Kanye’s a compelling enough MC to help smooth over even the weakest material here, and makes a highlight out of the seemingly questionable decision to pair a sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” (a song about the lynching of African Americans) with a tale of gold-digging girlfriends.
Rick Rubin’s executive production also makes the album gel much better than it could have. His nothing-but-the-essentials approach pays great dividends here, turning Yeezus into a cohesive, minimalistic wonder instead of an unlistenable mess. The record’s success is equally the result of Kanye’s tremendous vision, though. He’s still the ringleader here, improving his contributors’ beats, making deft use of his guest spots and providing the impetus and creativity for this shockingly offbeat work. For such a dramatic shift in sound, approach and release strategy (no singles, no pre-orders) and even artwork, these don’t sound like unfinished sketches or experiments. This is a full-bodied, fully realized record, even if he let the seams show. Yeezus has the potential to open some minds, influencing countless current and future artists who may not always be exposed to such extreme sounds. Few, if any, hip-hop stars have a catalogue as varied and rewarding as Kanye West’s, and at the end of the day, Yeezus is just another showcase for his impeccable tastelessness.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
It’s tempting to dismiss Vampire Weekend as so much style—and a lot of people seem willing to give into that temptation. Ever since their breakthrough debut, their detractors often liked to point out (and almost always exaggerate) the band members’ perceived affluence, acting as if an artist’s financial status predetermines the quality of their work. It’s the same sort of criticism the Strokes faced in their early days, but the reason it remains a central point of discussion about Vampire Weekend is that they consciously adopted an upper-strata social status as part of their image, and it bled through into their artwork, their preppy outfits and sometimes even the subjects of their songs. Their songwriting chops were always there, but since the group flaunted their fashion, people were often quick to brush the group aside as frivolous. They were musicians who got lucky with a few fluke hits, but weren’t built to last—let alone become a “great band.” And in the face of this criticism, Vampire Weekend soldiered on, absorbing their influences and spinning them into a signature sound over the course of two very good, very smart records, their eponymous debut and 2010’s Contra. Their winning streak continues with Modern Vampires Of The City, a moodier, more substantive VW record that should finally end the debates surrounding the group’s worth. It’s their best album yet.
If Vampire Weekend have a sound they’re known for, it tends to lean towards the raucous, exuberant pop song, something like “A-Punk” or “Cousins.” And while they haven’t erased that side of their personality—check “Unbelievers” or the brilliant, freewheeling “Diane Young”—it certainly takes a backseat to texture and atmosphere, two elements that complement the weightier subjects at hand. Ezra Koenig’s lyrics have always been bookish, both in their expansive vocabulary and their obscure references, but here he tackles Big Topics, chiefly morality. Images of death, time, age and history pop up everywhere here: Some take the more positive route (“Diane Young” salutes those with a lust for life; “Obvious Bicycle” urges listeners to make a mark before it’s too late), while many more are bleak and bewildered (“Hudson” is a cynical look into New York City; “Don’t Lie” shutters at a “headstone right in front of you”). In short, there’s unease everywhere here: unease about the future, unease about your faith and beliefs, unease about if anything is going to get any better. Written out like this, Modern Vampires sounds like it could be a drag, and with Koenig’s tendency to layer his words with detailed, expressive allusions and motifs, it all begs for over-analysis. Yet, the record is engaging, direct and unpretentious, partly because Koenig keeps a lot plainspoken and partly because VW broaden their pallete, while keeping their songwriting as strong as ever.
Rather than make an album full of singles, the songs here are diverse and downcast, full of odd song structures, left turns and a dour tone, even in its uptempo moments. Part of that has to do with the production: bandmate Rostam Batmanglij is behind the boards again, yes, but this time he works with Ariel Rechtshaid, whose work with pop and electronic artists tends to favor some fog in with the polish. Together, they give the record the appropriate balance of fussy studio wizardry and pick-up-and-play directness, which keeps the record grounded, even when it takes risks. Of course, most of it has to do with the tracks themselves. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” signals their intent to try something new: Miles away from the summery “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata,” wistful harmonies and gently struck pianos carry the day, and it battles fellow bookend “Young Lion” for the position of the group’s most unabashedly gorgeous song yet. “Step” is a richer, mature take on VW’s studious, Afro-chamber pop; “Hannah Hunt” bursts from a sweeping, nostalgic look at a cross-country trip to something altogether more pained and cathartic. And even though the record’s more serious tone naturally slows down the tempos, “Diane Young” and “Worship You” still give the rhythm section of Chris Baio and Chris Tomson plenty to work with. Given the all-encompassing themes here, it’s unsurprising that there’s a spiritual quality to this album, too. Sure, the lyrics do some of the heavy lifting on that front, but drones, hymnal choirs and atmospheric reverb abound, not to mention titles like “Worship You” and “Everlasting Arms.” And that vibe culminates in perhaps the record’s best song, “Ya Hey.” Floating on a dub-inspired bassline, martial chanting and some wildly screwed vocals, Koenig questions his faith while reaching out to respect and understand God. It’s complex, compassionate and searching, adjectives foreign to most decidedly black-and-white religious (and anti-religious) professions in pop music. It’s that sort of curiosity and open-mindedness that makes VW both a band of substance and a band for the masses. Modern Vampires Of The City is the album that cements Vampire Weekend as one of America’s best pop groups going today—intellectually stimulating, emotionally gratifying and catchy as hell.