The inimitable Kanye West has returned once more in a manner only he could have conjured up: an album title that compares him to no less than Jesus Christ, and album artwork that contains no album artwork. It is perhaps symptomatic of the album itself – bold, innovative and singularly Kanye, but also often little more than empty braggadocio and substanceless posturing. Yeezus is perhaps Kanye’s darkest release yet, but also at times his most immature and lyrically underdeveloped. For the most part, however, it manages to get by on the strength of its musical innovation and its largely impeccable production. Perhaps its greatest asset is how it manages to remove itself from the lengthy shadow of Kanye’s previous effort, the masterful Beautiful Dark Fantasy, and stand on its own as both a compelling oddity and a promising harbinger for future albums.
Yeezus’ real significance for the moment is the manner in which it asserts Kanye as the boldest, most groundbreaking rap artist of his generation. He is an artist defined by his fearless experimentation and continual re-invention. On Yeezus, with its dark, thumping industrial and electro sound, he moves almost entirely away from rap convention and into a territory all of his own; one that combines The Chemical Brothers, Nine Inch Nails and Suicide into an album that can scarcely even be defined as rap anymore. Like 808s & Heartbreak before it, it stands entirely apart from the rest of the field and spells out just how innovative an artist West is.
Also in the vein of 808 is the relatively marginal contribution from guest artists. Where Dark Fantasy contained a galaxy of stars on virtually every track, Yeezus gets by on a roster that consists largely of Bon Iver and some Jamaican guy. Frank Ocean pops up for one dreamy coda on New Slaves but that’s about as big a name as it gets, unless you count the production work from Daft Punk. It’s a disparate bunch that sums up just how far removed from tradition Yeezus is. It’s also a surprisingly effective one, with the contributions from Bon Iver and the aforementioned Jamaican often proving track highlights, in part because of just how sharply they contrast with everything else.
It’s fortunate that Kanye has such a steady roster to depend on since elsewhere he comes up short. Tracks like I’m In It are a return to the kind of simplistic ‘Women. They exist and are inferior and are there for sexing and things’ attitudes that Kanye seemed to have largely ditched years ago. It lacks the shock and horror decadence of something like ‘Hell of a Life’, and the self-deprecating vulnerability of album highlight ‘Hold My Liquor’ – perhaps the best example of Kanye’s eclectic band combining into a uniquely odd piece of music.
Other tracks, like Blood on the Leaves and Bound 2, suffer from the experimental bent of Yeezus. The samples, Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday and Sweet Nuthin’s by Brenda Lee respectively, are utilised in such a strange, jarring manner that their only real function is to break up the flow of the song. The misuse of Strange Fruit is particularly disheartening, in part because it’s such a great song, but also because its inclusion had led me to believe the album would contain more of the politicised violence of West’s SNL performance. That is not the case.
Black Skinhead, which seemed so primal and explosive then, is even more disappointing. Over-produced and featuring Kanye’s weakest vocal performance, it loses all of the intensity and momentum which had defined it. The raw screams and pounding drums of the live performance are neutered and the distorted sample of Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People is weirdly disjointed.
Fortunately, New Slaves has retained most of its lyrical ferocity and hints at what the rest of the album could have been had Kanye showed greater lyrical ambition. Even on New Slaves his idea of tearing down the establishment or whatever consists of little more than having sex with their Hampton wives, however. It’s juvenile and thoughtless without any of the exaggerated madness with which he’s wheeled out similar talk on other albums.
Perhaps fittingly, I Am A God is just about the only track that can really match the over-the-top bravado that Kanye so often espouses. The arrogance and brash dismissiveness is taken so far that you can’t even pretend Kanye actually thinks like this. Instead it’s a brilliantly constructed exaggeration of his public perception that he embraces wholeheartedly. It’s the kind of could not give a shit attitude that makes Kanye so great.
Ultimately, Yeezus is a strange album, one that moves West’s sound forward in groundbreaking directions, but that also retreats into the mire of simple misogyny and empty brags that he seemed to have long broken away from. At around 40 minutes it’s undoubtedly eminently listenable, and manages to stop itself from becoming tiresome, but nonetheless leaves you wanting more in light of the unambitious material that dots the album.
A god? By no means. Still the best in the business? Certainly.