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By FEMI ABORISADE
Kanye West’s albums have always been lauded for their lush, expansive production. Yet he first song on his latest album, “On Sight,” opens up with the sound of a rusty synthesizer, convulsing. In 2004, West released “Jesus Walks” as an album single. On “Yeezus,” his latest album and an all-around shocker, he claims to be a deity himself, although one rooted in Psalm 82:6.
Usually, artists follow on the same stylistic path, adding notable touches here and there on each subsequent project to perfect a core formula. West’s formula has found him incorporating entire genres into his meticulously constructed works of art. “Yeezus,” however, sees the Chicago rapper taking a sledgehammer to his entire process, disgruntled by his fame and himself. It draws an eery parallel to David Cronenberg’s body horror film “The Fly,” where the main character’s groundbreaking experiment morphs him into a acid-slinging monster, the only difference being that West has knowingly forced this grotesque; he stated during his Governor’s Ball performance in New York that he chose not to make music fit for public appeal or radio play.
West’s aversion to his brand-name pop appeal is the greatest thematic change on the project and for his place in the public eye. Even a person who has never heard a song from West has inadvertently caught a glimpse of his overreaching personality, and probably knows more than they would care to about the Chicago rapper: his concert rants, his haranguing of former President George Bush over Hurricane Katrina in 2006, his drunken, show-stopping comments at the 2009 VMAs and his recent courtship with reality show star Kim Kardashian. Each time people wish that West would keep his head low and remain humble, he rediscovers his Twitter account.
That happened recently on May 2, when West tweeted “June Eighteen” from Paris and set off a frenzied speculation fest, with guesses bouncing between the release date of a solo project or the birth of his new daughter. It was confirmed on May 17 as the former when he unleashed a blithely paranoid, anti-consumerist single titled “New Slaves,” projecting an austere video of himself performing the song on buildings in over 66 cities. The next day on Saturday Night Live, he performed “New Slaves” and another equally dark song, “Black Skinhead,” shrouded in darkness, barking rottweilers and price tags. “Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself,” West snarls in the opening verse over two sharp synth notes.
It soon became clear that this was not the normal album release campaign, and nor could the album classify as a common mainstream release. Although West broke conventions without an ounce of regret, he still demanded America’s complete and utter attention, and received it when listeners were sitting on the couch at home or driving home from work. This was a jarring turn in character; West’s previous album, the critically acclaimed “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” was created over the span of two years, cost nearly $2,000,000 to produce, had five album covers painted by artist George Condo and was promoted by a 35-minute short film and West giving away free songs on his website, including three from the album itself.
For “Yeezus,” there were no commercial singles. The album’s cover features nothing but a bright red sticker and was finished nearly two weeks before its release date. Although it features over 17 producers including French electronic duo Daft Punk, it is, sonically and lyrically, a bootleg Iron Maiden of irreverent noises, uncomfortable rhythms and primal aggression. No soft corners, no violin codas, not even much percussion; there is little to latch onto, and what remains is ugly.
“Black Skinhead’s” production changes gears from a muscular, metallic drumbeat to rumbling bass and West’s screams. “Blood On The Leaves,” the most emotive song gauging by his AutoTune-assisted singing and a sped-up sample of Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit,” a furtive anti-racism song, is obliterated by a stock rip of electronic duo TNGHT’s “R U Ready,” drowning West’s weeping words about unexpected pregnancy in blaring synths. This project is the work of an expert provocateur and was certainly influenced by newly formed punk rap group Death Grips, but it is still daring and challenging enough not to notice.
But the lyrics prove lesser so. “Yeezus” displays West’s worst lyrical effort to date, which bears just as much on the hasty production schedule as it does on his thematic intent. There is a cadre of lewd misogyny, forced religious references and entire songs, like “Send It Up,” that offer braggadocio and nothing else. Even “I Am A God,” as ostensibly appalling as it may seem despite, dishes lazy lines like “I am a god/hurry up with my damn massage.”
The obvious standout is “New Slaves,” a bitter and raw finger-pointer at modern views on racism, American consumerism, commercial prisons and his fame: “I move my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay.” He sounds truly cathartic and urgently passing this rabid rant to the listener, but it goes without mentioning that West suffers from major hypocrisy in condemning people for desiring posh clothes; this is the man who described his success as a trip “from projects one day to Project Runway,” and name-dropped 13 designers on his first album.
West’s dichotomy has irked many, but his constant self awareness of that fact makes it hard to actually find fault in. Yet while his previous efforts had him contemplating the thin line between love and lust or pride and arrogance, “Yeezus” is composed of snap judgments and no afterthought. Thematically, it makes sense but wears thin swiftly.
Despite its jagged minimalism, this album performs on many levels and should not be viewed through one lens alone. After all, when one of the world’s largest stars purposely destroys all preconceived notions of his craft and projects it on the side of the building, it might be a mixed bag as this album is, but it demands attention and discussion. There is method to the madness.