Could Kanye West ever make a bad album? It’s a question many will strain to answer as they’re confronted with the acid house shocks, drill rap stabs and Jamaican toaster rants of Yeezus. If 808s and Heartbreak, his prior art-for-art’s-sake experiment, turned the breakup-album cliché into an Auto-Tuned R&B warble; then here he nearly disengages with song structure altogether, haphazardly throwing out disconnected lyrics as he hurtles through self-orchestrated chaos and disorder. Coupled with a portentous God complex, this may be the pretentious excursion that listeners want to tune out.
If anything, it should finally (hopefully?) disable the “instant rap classic” complex that haunts the genre. Classics are made through time and memories, not crowned through five-star-review groupthink and instant Twitter feedback. West’s maximalist approach to rap gleefully encourages our zeal to proclaim his genius from the moment he unveils his latest triumphs, and well before the listening tests are complete and his hypotheses can be proven or disproven. If Yeezus is to be saved – and there’s much on it to suggest that it will be — it will be through repeated spins, not the thunder-thumb indexes of a public salivating for his ascent and/or downfall.
At the very least, West gives credence to the theory that Chief Keef is more than just a thug novelty. Depending on your view, the divisive Chicago drill rapper is either a talented yet wayward symbol of his city’s gang violence or an overhyped darling of regional rap fetishists. But West makes good use of Keef’s performance on “Hold My Liquor,” turning Keef’s croaky grunts into an alias for his own debauchery. Unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where West gave his supporting actors given meaty parts in his life drama – think of Nicki Minaj ripping through “Monster” with audible glee — here they are mere extensions of his own voice. Whether it’s Bon Iver crooning near the end of “I Am A God,” or the Capleton sample that precedes him, their voices are just mirror reflections of West. Yeezus may be his least generous album to date because he gives his featured performers so little room to create their own personas.
Strategically, it makes sense, as Yeezus opens with West giving the world the middle finger. “New Slaves” is seemingly a return to the societal critiques of The College Dropout’s “All Falls Down,” an interpretation he encouraged when, in an interview with the New York Times, he emphasized his friendships with Talib Kweli and dead prez. (It was his first print interview in nearly three years.) He conflates his personal entitlement with the struggles of African-Americans as he posits money and privilege as black reparations, while remaining suspicious of capitalism’s rewards. “It’s broke nigga racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’/ And it’s rich nigga racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more,” he reasons.
Regardless of the sonic frippery, much of which is imaginatively rendered, this is familiar territory for him and us. “I am a god/ Hurry up, where’s my damn massage?” he says on “I Am a God,” which pulses aloft careening, distorted synthesizer effects that lend the impression of hurtling skyward. Digitally manipulated screams inflect both “I Am a God” and “Black Skinhead,” the latter which bears totemic drum arrangements – a method West has used effectively many times before, from “Love Lockdown” to Ludacris’ “Stand Up” – while he chants, “I’m aware I’m a wolf/ Soon as the moon hit/ I’m aware I’m a king/ Back out the tomb, bitch.” “On Sight” shakes and throbs with computerized volleys as West promises, “As soon as I pull up and park the Benz/ We’ll get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s.”
At its midway point, Yeezus transitions from supercilious epiphanies into a murky aria on the potential rewards of a long-term relationship. “Got the kids and the wife life/ But can’t wake up from the night life,” he raps amid the graphic sex scenes of “I’m In It.” Then he notes why it’s so hard to give up the hip-hop style by bragging, “They be ballin’ in the D-League/ I be speaking swag-hili,” an allusion to the East African Swahili language. Overall, West’s lyrical performance on Yeezus is wildly uneven. He attempts to match the staccato beats with improvisatory proclamations, but they often end up inscrutably muddled. This especially becomes clear during the album’s second half as he tries to process his romance with socialite girlfriend Kim Kardashian (with whom he had a baby on June 16).
“Blood on the Leaves” is an awful piece, and not just because West has the gall to sample Nina Simone’s performance of Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching landmark “Strange Fruit” as a background for his Auto-Tuned heartbreak moping, but also because it seems to drone on unmercifully as he awkwardly transitions into a rant about gold diggers. “Guilt Trip” is even sloppier, coming off like a hastily-assembled freestyle replete with screwed and chopped Jamaican toasts and an appearance from Kid Cudi. “Send It Up,” which slows down an acid-house beat to a booming crawl, resembles the “ratchet” beats of West Coast club rap. By “Bound 2,” West is hammering his theme homeward. “When a real nigga hold you down, you supposed to drown,” he says over a crackling sample of Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound.” He adds, “Maybe we could make it to the church steps.”
If West really intended Yeezus as a declaration of commitment to his girlfriend, then what’s with all the Jesus and God nonsense? He seems intent on breaking new barriers, from switching up his rap style into something brutishly insular to composing beats that are impressively assaultive. How ironic that the one concept which could truly set him apart from the rest of the macho rap pack lies right under his noise – a valentine to one woman, with no adolescent fantasies of ménages a trios required, and certainly no whoring at the club. He certainly flails about when he strains to appreciate the pleasures of monogamous love. But give him credit for trying.