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.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
How far we’ve come. Prodigious hip-hop producer, international hit maker, egomaniacal narcissist, heartbroken balladeer, social pariah—Kanye West has worn all these guises and more, often flipping through them from week to week, depending on how he sees himself and how the world sees him. Certainly no other pop star in recent memory has been scrutinized so thoroughly under the spotlight and remained so polarizing because of it. But even by his standards, West’s last few years have been particularly eventful. Following the tragic death of his mother and the dissolution of a relationship, he mourned on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. Most notably, this culminated in his storming the stage at the 2009 VMAs during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, causing a massive public outcry—even President Obama called him “a jackass.” Naturally, West retreated from the spotlight, perhaps realizing that whatever he did, good or bad, would only get him in deeper with the public, an inevitable, if unfair, reality. Then, seemingly suddenly, he returned with a flurry of singles and videos, building up an enormous amount of hype, all of it leading to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album visibly sweating under the pressure.
It’s clear, even from the first few seconds where Nicki Minaj recites a poem and a multi-layered chorus joins in, that this is a bigger and more ambitious project than anything West has ever produced, hellbent on proving to himself and to everyone else that he is back and better than ever. Recognizing his considerable strengths as a producer and collaborator, West emphasizes the music here more than any other of his albums, even including interludes and extended codas for good measure. He takes inspiration from each of his past albums—The College Dropout‘s old-school samples, Late Registration‘s elaborate orchestration, Graduation‘s electro-pop, the subzero starkness of 808s & Heartbreak—and mixes and magnifies each aspect to create something new. This is as evident on the tough, pummeling “Monster” as on the epic ensemble piece “All Of The Lights,” the latter of which features dozens of guest musicians and vocalists. Occasionally he indulges a bit too much—does the vocoder solo on “Runaway” really need to be three minutes?—but it never really detracts from the overall flow. Musically, few other modern hip-hop records offer this much to savor.
What gives this record its staying power, though, is West’s dissection of his personality and public persona. During his hiatus from the spotlight, West reflected deeply on his own actions and the fallout afterwards, taking everything in until he had something to say. On “Dark Fantasy,” he realizes where he’s gone wrong (“The plan was to drink until the pain over, but what’s worse: the pain or the hangover?”) and looks optimistically into the future, while he self-deprecates and sympathizes with those he’s hurt on “Runaway.” Yet at the same time, West’s ego is larger than ever, and the album suitably explores his fantasies and desires, whether it be the sexual recklessness of “Hell Of A Life” or the casually blasphemous “Devil In A New Dress.” Prior to the album’s release, West cited Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor as lyrical influences, and he indeed merges the former’s paranoia and the latter’s melodramatic menace throughout the album, even on the relatively lightweight tracks. Like in his recent work, West sometimes stumbles lyrically, but on Fantasy, he hits with far greater accuracy, perhaps because the dichotomy of his insecurity and confidence results in him writing with a great deal more honesty. Ultimately, this same dichotomy makes Fantasy a genuinely human record: it offers no apologies for the man West is but instead is a warts-and-all self-portrait, making it arguably the finest record of his career.