A lot of people saw Kanye West’s victory in his public sales competition with 50 Cent back in 2005 as a symbolic shift away from the last hiccups of gangster rap that dominated Hip-Hop from the early nineties on up to then. In the past ten years, many have felt Kanye West to be the one responsible for opening new possibilities in the aesthetic of mainstream Hip-Hop.
Subtracting gangster-violence from the formula has never hindered Mr. Yeezy from appropriating the remaining thematic content that is usually lumped in with it: money, bitches and weed. Success is not a parent of humility, in the Hip-Hop community, and that changes little with West.
In his latest release, Yeezus, Kanye’s success with money is flaunted as if his every enjoyment is meant to be taken by the listener as a personal slight. Most of his depicted sexual adventures translate as misogynistic aggression as he finds not always clever rhymes about inserting this here and depositing this there (often with your woman, as he is clear to convey).
Kanye seems pretty pissed off. 808’s and Heartbreak was an uncharacteristically vulnerable and rather moving catalogue of young-rich-and-successful loneliness. Yeezus plays like an all out war against that softness, though its phantom projections seem to be women, white America and really anyone who disagrees with his greatness.
Yeezus also delights in perpetuating the blasphemous vocation of Hip-Hop, as one could guess from the title. It’s always been a feature of the game, when trying to boast about one’s greatness, to compare oneself to God, Jesus, Allah, or whatever suits the rhyme/assonant sequence. ‘I Am a God,’ makes the most poignant use of this device: ‘I just talked to Jesus/ He said whadup Yeezus?’ This is a rhythmic, chanty track that moves with a sense of augury and ends in a series of high-pitched shrieks.
The aggression never really lets up and, not only operates as part of the album’s eccentricity, but grants a sense of conviction to lyrics, like, ‘Where my damn croissant?’
This record, paired with My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy represent a sense of experimentation in mainstream Hip-Hop that couldn’t come soon enough. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ clocking in at six minutes, and probably the highlight of an otherwise unintentionally comical record, is a nonlinear narrative of the betrayals and losses that come with fame. It opens with a sample of ‘Strange Fruit’ by Nina Simone that is just as clear and loud as Kanye’s voice. The track folds in on itself several times as the sample drops out completely and gives way to big synth effects, only to come back for song’s somber conclusion. Topically, the song seems to depict the romantic misadventure of a young couple who take mollys together, before melting into a nightmare of public persecution.
‘New Slaves’ has a feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia. ‘Black Skinhead’ seems the most radio-friendly, in a Kanye sort of way, even though no official singles were released. ‘Bound 2,’ the album’s closer, feels like a trick. The verses to the song could have easily fit on College Dropout but whenever the John Legend digression of a chorus kicks in, it sounds like someone is messing with the radio-dial. While this might have served as a loveable quirk, West loads it with such directionless lyrics as, ‘I wanna f___ you hard over the sink/ and then give you a drink.’
Other lyrical winners on the album include one line not even worth quoting in full which ends with, ‘300 like the Romans.’ The track ‘In It’ manages a lyric derogatory toward Asian women, even though a running theme of the album—albeit the clumsy running theme—has something to do with whites oppressing blacks.
Does Kanye manage anything messianic concerning this oppression, or is he merely on the level of Mozart, Picasso and The Rolling Stones, as he’s claimed to be in the past? It seems to be the rule that an artist’s boasting about the merit of his own work will harm anyone’s willingness to accept that merit. Kanye’s career has few examples of modesty, save maybe the time he considered another rapper number 1 in the game (his choice being Lil Wayne; not only a statement of modesty but one of extreme misappropriation—Lil Wayne doesn’t use ghostwriters).
The album is an awkward listen. Not only does it largely suffer from the unfortunate current trend in Hip Hop to talk down to the listener (as if the song were really meant for the artist’s haters) but it tries far too hard to graduate Mr. West from the spotlight of media royalty he’s assumed as of late, and deliver him to the revolutionist’s podium where he can earnestly lambast corporate America. Unfortunately, it’s hard to buy this sort of subversive message from an artist who then sells himself to Nike and the fashion industry just as quickly as people are willing to buy his record simply because his name is on it.