Kanye West’s Yeezus is the rare instance of speaking truth to power where the one speaking is also the one who’s powerful. There seems to be literally no one else in hip-hop who is as willing as West to examine and deconstruct the genre’s endemic contradictions – much less the cognitive dissonance necessary to endorse them. But ever since he critiqued gold-digging black women only to acknowledge that the men they victimize would inevitably dump them for “a white girl,” he’s demonstrated a unique, fearless skepticism about the values typically glorified in his musical community, even when he’s glorifying them himself. And Yeezus, his sixth studio album, evidences West’s continuing - or increasing - willingness to question the cultural status quo, even if its ambitious musical backdrop is the sort of discordant tapestry you can only release after achieving the scale of commercial success that his more accessible work has earned him.
The designs of iconic architect Le Corbusier were evidently West’s driving inspiration for Yeezus, but structurally speaking, the music on the album less resembles the French modernist’s style than that of the deconstructivist Frank Gehry – who, like the rapper and producer, steadily disassembled traditional forms, and also like him, often received a mixed reception for his efforts. Although there are several songs that utilize the framework of a verse-chorus-verse structure, West turns the sounds used to create those segments inside out, overmodulates them, clips and edits them, and effectively transforms them into an abrasive, challenging, mechanical landscape whose unevenness isolates key phrases from his lyrics, but not necessarily the ones that give the song its meaning as a whole.
“Blood On The Leaves,” for example, borrows from the first verse of Nina Simone’s recording of “Strange Fruit,” an historic poem and later, song about the lynching of African Americans. Although it might seem glib or misguided to use such socioculturally potent music in the context of lyrics that essentially castigate an ex-girlfriend in mundane, modern terms, West takes the song’s poetic description of human injustice and turns it into a contemporary cautionary tale filtered through both the perception and firsthand experience of succumbing to fame’s tightening noose. Moreover, it’s hard not to imagine that West sampled the line “from the poplar trees” in order to pointedly recontextualize the word “popular,” even though that’s the part of the sample that is perhaps least emphasized in his arrangement.
Particularly since as a celebrity, or at the very least a gossip magnet, his life is effectively a spectator sport for the world, and there must be some uncanny valley between experiencing the ups and downs of a relationship directly and then watching them unfold publicly in print and on television. An updated, more sophisticated version of “Gold Digger,” “Blood On The Leaves” is unquestionably more caustic, and given that juxtaposition, more controversial, but it speaks to his ambitions with these tracks – to find a nexus between multiple meanings that’s at once outwardly critical and self-reflexive.
While there’s plenty to scrutinize in West’s lyrics, the production makes such an incredible statement by itself that you could quite literally ignore what he says and still completely immerse yourself in a spectacularly creative, endlessly surprising musical landscape. Daft Punk produced the album’s first two tracks, “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead,” although you’d never know it by listening to their own music (even their shapeshifting Random Access Memories material). The precision of the French duo is there, but it’s paired with a scruffy, distorted collection of electronic sounds that feel like the musical equivalent of an obstacle course in a side-scrolling video game. Although none of its sounds could have been made with analog equipment, however, the end result feels anything but robotic; the punky thrash of its electronic percussion and off-beat sound effects create a symphony of seemingly constant movement, and a restless energy that mirrors the urgency of West’s lyricism.
Listening to the album the first few times, I was reminded of Nine Inch Nails’ Fragile-era recordings, which launched with Reznor’s single from the soundtrack to Lost Highway, “The Perfect Drug.” But even though “Black Skinhead” references the swinging, propulsive drums from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” Yeezus provokes a sense memory of that era more sharply in evoking the moment when Reznor and his contemporaries ventured, if only temporarily, into untested waters – specifically, drum & bass and more experimental electronic genres – which West does here, albeit in an updated if clearly telegraphed way. (“Mercy” and most of the tracks on Cruel Summer presage the work he does here, which similarly flirts with electronic music, ambient drones and music concrete.) That said, hip-hop has migrated in that direction thanks to the evolution of trap music not to mention more and more skeletal production styles, and it would overstate his influence to suggest that this sound emerged in a vacuum.
But in spite of his collaboration with Daft Punk, the artist whose work he perhaps most closely resembles at times is Chemical Brothers, whose remix of Saint Etienne’s “Like A Motorway” can be heard in “On Point,” and whose “Block Rockin’ Beats” “Ho!” chant West borrows wholesale for “Hold My Liquor.” At the same time, he’s working in a fully modern idiom, less borrowing from past pop highlights – even via sampling – than using the latest technology to transform electronic noise into brilliantly-structured compositions. The rebuilding swarm of reverberating beeps that provides background music for West’s verses on “On Point” is a thing of discombobulating beauty, as the listener gets to hear each element find its way back into its proper place and then pay off explosively when all of them fully come together.
West’s fearlessness emboldens him to use those sounds themselves rather than actual percussion to keep tempo. “New Slaves,” for example, does not feature but a handful of drums, and they’re mostly used to punctuate the end of each bar. It also seems safe to say that the rapper is truly using his voice as an instrument rather than a counterpoint to the instrumentation, admittedly manipulating it via familiar technology such as Autotune, but seldom in the service of making himself sound “better.” Rather, he’s finding elements of his voice and even the shapes that it takes to complement the sounds he uses for each instrumental, and them emphasizes or processes his phrasing, intonation and delivery to maximize not just the tone, but the texture of the completed song.
His skill at weaving voices into a sonic tapestry extends to his use of guest performers, who include Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. In each case, he finds a way to integrate their contributions into the rest of the music that seems both distinct and seamlessly cohesive: Vernon’s high-pitched chorus on “I’m In It” feels of the same piece as Assassin’s tenor delivery of the dancehall verses, while West’s central narrative weaves down the middle between the two. The way in which he includes these guests as true collaborators – instead of pinch hitters for a would-be chart-topper – validates his insistent indifference to the album’s commercial potential. In fact, the album’s most conspicuous guest performance, Chief Keef’s chorus on “Hold My Liquor,” is the only time one doesn’t seem to align properly with the rest of the production; it certainly doesn’t help that Keef is a spectacularly awful singer, but the song grinds to a halt whenever he appears, and ranks as one of the very few musical missteps on the album.
That of course isn’t to say that listeners won’t undoubtedly find other parts of the album difficult or unenjoyable to listen to; there’s a wealth of aggression being expunged via these tracks, and even longtime fans may find their threshold for his sense of experimentation thoroughly taxed. But the remarkable thing about Yeezus is that it always seems to be changing, evolving, transforming: beatless introductions give way to thunderous drum programs; plodding verses accelerate unexpectedly into breakneck choruses; and musical ideas are submerged, inverted or even abandoned as tracks arrive at their conceptual or emotional destination. The opening lyrics to “Guilt Trip,” for example, are doused in Autotune, and inspire few thoughts other than West’s languishing self-indulgence, but once the drums wander into the mix, the track generates a sense of momentum that makes you forget what came before.
The same ultimately goes for the lyrics themselves, which seem to articulate as open and unvarnished a portrait of Kanye West’s personality as his fans have ever seen. That he can condemn the enslavement of African-Americans to materialism in “New Slaves” and then make celebratory references to his Mercedes in “Send It Up” is fundamentally hypocritical, and yet there’s nothing to suggest either feeling is unaware or even independent of the other. West has achieved a level of affluence that affords him the privilege of describing spoils in first-person terms, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t – or can’t – consider the cultural context, or the ramifications of articulating his success. And in that entanglement of self-glorification, harrowing reflection, status quo portraiture and aspirational deconstruction, West finds a harmonious balance that feels more authentic – and more honest – than most people seem capable of acknowledging.
If all this analysis of eleven unconventional pop songs sounds as absurdly lofty as the ambitions of an egomaniacal rapper whose inability to get out of his own way is the biggest obstacle to reaching his greatest heights of artistic success, then rest assured West probably knows that as well. But he also seems to anticipate the fear many will have that he has gone off the deep end, abandoned every one of those pop instincts that made him a household name, and deified himself as Creator of the Future Of Music: “Bound 2,” the album’s last song, much more closely resembles the soulful, catchy, sample-heavy production he’s done in the past. It’s as if with that last song, he’s going, “Don’t worry, the Kanye West that you love is still here. I just needed to get Yeezus out of my system.” It’s a great track, and unlike most of its predecessors, destined to become a generational anthem, even if fans are unlikely to discern its decidedly critical message.
Then again, that subversive sense of contradiction is exactly what will likely enable its pop sheen to calcify into something more substantial, and what makes West such an endlessly fascinating talent. In which case, let’s hope he doesn’t get Yeezus out of his system too quickly, because few artists have gotten as in touch as he does here with the spirit, pun intended, of creativity and pure invention.