Rating:When Kanye West bombarded the “Saturday Night Live” stage last month with his intense performances of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads,” critics, listeners and Stans alike took the bait. There were immediate pronouncements. Not only was Ye prepping the most unapologetically confrontational statement that the commercial rap market has seen in years, but—looking now at his entire body of work—he became the most culturally and philosophically important figure of the 21st century. Once Yeezus leaked, these same titans of hyperbole were upset that the record was, in fact, another Kanye West album. The outrage from critics feeling blindsided by the record’s “misogyny,” “self-indulgence” and so on. They must have forgotten that this is the same West who wedged “Drunk and Hot Girls” into the middle of Graduation. But many of these people haven’t heard another rap album this year, so their opinions can and should be ignored. For those of us who can connect with music beyond squeezing every cent out of a Cultural Studies degree, there’s a lot on Yeezus to discuss. It’s more polarizing than the icecaps, but most interesting music is, and if Yeezus is anything, it’s interesting.
Let’s drop the faux-revolutionary revisionist posturing and focus on the three main reasons anybody checks out a West album: 1) Production that pushes the boundaries of contemporary mainstream rap but still knocks, 2) Quotable grandiose braggadocios one-liners, and 3) Brief moments of resonance reflecting being alive. That’s how it’s been since he was the guy who rapped with a wired-shut jaw through his post-Taylor Swift semi-redemption. Yeezus delivers on all three of these, in a fraction of the time Ye’s records usually take, leading to a constant throwing around of the buzzword “minimalist.”
But that term is not entirely inaccurate. Those who consider Ye’s debut, College Dropout, to be his finest work have been hoping for years that his beats return to that back-to-basics, sample-based, Chicago style boom-bap, as opposed to the Danny Elfman-esqe glossiness of Late Registration or the wall-of-sound found on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeezus does come the closest to that original formula, but it’s sounding these days like Ye’s been influenced by the more abrasive aspects of the hip-hop underground. There appears to be echoes of El-P, P.O.S. and maybe even Beans within Yeezus’ soundscape, but while some fans have taken issue with such similarities, it’s important to remember that “influence” isn’t the same as “stealing.” Like it or not, Ye’s incorporation of these kinds of sounds on the biggest mainstream hip-hop album of the year IS pretty groundbreaking and ballsy. Further, all artists are inadvertently influenced by someone, and Ye’s worn his influence on the sleeve of the his amazing technicolor dreamcoat for years. You might as well be mad at Tarantino for being a film geek. Plus, it’s not like such influences are the only thing that’s going on. The sheer cornucopia of what enters Ye’s head is perhaps what makes him connect with so many people’s cultural touchstones. Yes, plenty of listeners are going to point out the parts of Yeezus that sound like last year’s Killer Mike album, but there’s at least as many (if not more) who are going to hear Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” in “Black Skinheads” or Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” in “Hold My Liquor.” Yeezus is another quilt in the marketplace that is the Kanye experience, and it’s more tightly knit than most.
As for the lyrics, you could make a case for Yeezus being Ye’s strongest performance as an MC. I don’t think it’s so much that he combines the best elements of his rapping on his previous albums, but rather he discarded the aspects that really didn’t work. There’s none of 808s and Heartbreaks’ self-pity or Watch the Throne’s half-hearted autopilot retreading here. Rather, Ye plays a game of stick-and-move, delivering a hilarious one-liner here and there while bouncing between crescendos of his poignant or assertive moments, making them each all the more powerful. While he isn’t all of a sudden some towering hip-hop intellectual (he doesn’t seem to know the difference between Catholics and Baptists, Greeks and Romans, etc.), Ye has perfect timing and structure when it comes to deconstructing the realities of the modern prison system and when to tell a “French-ass restaurant” to hurry up with his damn croissants. Ye contains multitudes, he knows this better than you do, but just for fun after nine tracks of largely uncomfortable weirdness he closes with “Bound 2,” a by-the-numbers classic Kanye jam, which isn’t a bad thing at all and stands as one of the record’s highlights.
But not everything quite works. For whatever reason, West’s still enamored with Auto-Tune. It’s a shame because the songs here slathered with it (“Blood on the Leaves,” “Guilt Trip”) are still strong enough to work in spite of the effect, but they’re hindered from being the absolute classics they could otherwise be. West’s also incorporated a number of dancehall vocal breaks that become grating on repeat listens, and while the beat change in the opener “On Sight” is one of the most triumphantly great moments on a rap record this year, Ye’s random beat changing on later tracks becomes a touch too transparently gimmicky for such a finely assembled record.
While his production style may change, West at his core absolutely never will. Even though he’ll be inspired to speak loosely on a societal ill from time-to-time, he’ll always be there to re-appropriate a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote in relation to ample bra-less bosoms a few tracks later. But, that variety doesn’t derail his work; it’s what keeps him interesting instead of becoming another one-note “conscious rapper” or aging “party rapper.” While it’s easily his most abrasive work and understandably not for everybody, Yeezus is a worthwhile next step.