Kanye West wanted to create an album that was entirely his own beast; without an eye on media representation or a hit single. He has done this, but in the meantime created a rap masterpiece, a raw yet cerebral, futuristic fusion of the genre and it's artistry.
Most opinions of Kanye West come from a largely ignorant standpoint. People think of the boasting, drinking, MTV Award hollering and judge the artist unfairly. For what it's worth, a majority of the negative publicity is borne of Kanye's frustration as an artist, but more of that later on. As such, it is pleasing to see Zane Lowe's interview currently being shown in four parts, this week on Radio 1. If you missed it, catch it up; it is compelling viewing. For the first time I can remember, we see an honest interview portraying West as the artist and game-changer he is.
When discussing rappers, Kanye exclaims 'we are the new rock stars and I am the biggest of all of them.' Taken out of context, this sounds like bragaddichio as exhibited on the indulgent collaboration with Jay-Z, 'Watch The Throne.' The reality is that the man has a point. Let's take it back for a minute and look at Kanye's extensive catalogue. The College Dropout is a seminal album of it's time, spawning hits such as All Falls Down with its intelligent, social comment and tongue in cheek look at 'modern rapper style', not to mention the classic Through The Wire, literally sung 'through the wire' after a near fatal car crash. Graduation was indeed a coming of age in the commercial rap world, producing classics such as Stronger with Daft Punk and the vitriolic Can't Tell Me Nothing, with its fuck you sentiment. 808's and Heartbreaks is a mournful, beautiful record, written in the wake of his mother Donda's death and the failure of his relationship with Alexis Pfifer. Love Lockdown and the honest appraisal of stardom in Welcome to Heartbreak, prove the standout tracks on another awesome offering. Then followed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, possibly the greatest rap album of our generation, defying genre and taking us deep into the mind of a tortured artist.
The point is that Kanye West has serious pedigree. This is a man who knows his art and will not be bent into any shape by suit wearing yes men or label execs and that is really the defining and dominant theme of Yeezus. This is an artist doing what he wants for the demons in his own headspace. A rapper answering to no-one except the strict rules he sets himself. 'Fuck you and your corporation, y'all niggaz can't control me,' he spits on the first single New Slaves. And this isn't rap star bullshit; you really can't. Yeezus received little to no airplay. Kanye insisted on zero artwork or copy for the album's release. Nothing official came from the label, just talk and more talk across the internet of what the Steve Jobs of rap had next up his sleeve. Kanye's promo was controlled by himself and included New Slaves being broadcast on building walls across a variety of cities around the world. Hardly a corporate stunt to pull in more punters, the video consisted of a close up of the rapper singing the song. That's it; the music did the rest of the advertising.
Needless to say, Yeezus went straight in at no.1 in the US and UK charts, proving the man who everybody loves to hate, is certainly causing an interest and a stir. Yet what people got upon first listen was an animal not to everyone's liking.
As stated, the lead single was New Slaves, which is an ascerbic and powerful anti-corporate message, brutalised over a metronome beat. Kanye's flow is as raw as it has been here, but lyrically it contains a powerful and serious message. 'My Mama was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin,' is the first line and acts as a fitting curtain opener to Kanye's angst on this record. He goes on, 'See there's broke nigga racism that's that don't touch anything in store. Then there's rich nigga racism that's that come in please buy more,' West here taking a ferocious look at how the marketing world uses its subjects. Then his rage turns towards the consumers who are indeed the New Slaves in question 'what do you want a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things!' Deep and powerful stuff from a man renowned for lavish production, but one of the key things about the song and album is the stark and somewhat bleak production values. This is all about the lyrics and the sentiment. Kanye is seething at the lack of creativity around him and is letting the world know. Towards the end of the song Kanye's tirade reaches its crescendo and the song completely changes tone into an orchestral, string laden finale where he sings 'I can't lose, so let's get too high again' over and over again.
One of the defining features of Kanye's later works is the ability to change the beat, tone, tempo of the track at any stage and give it another layer of emotion and depth. There is no better example than On Sight, the album opener. It commences with a loud, distorted soundscape before seguing into a fast-paced electronic beat, where Kanye purrs 'Yeezy season approaching, fuck whatever y'all be hearing.' Quite right, yet normally with the modern rap bragging one doesn't tend to believe the hype; with Kanye there is no hype, just fact and brilliant songs to back up the madness. After a frenetic 1 and a half minutes, a sample of a children's choir appears for about 20 seconds before the song resumes with just as much vim as it began. Haunting and once again quite brilliant.
If there was a radio-friendly unit shifter on Yeezus, 'Black Skinhead' would be it. It begins with tribal drums and heavy breathing but has a funky beat and fast-paced rap that keeps the song moving and one for the stadium posturing for sure. 'Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin,' Kanye knows his target audience and believes the Yeezus tour may well be the fastest selling in American rap history and that is the point. He is not bound to the rap genre or defined by it. As such his market appeal is huge and his shows are as likely to be attended by young black men as middle aged white ones and Kanye knows it.
A song that has courted much controversy is the embryonic I am A God. Focusing on the music, it is a mid-paced nod to the Chicago House scene, layered with primal screams and heavy breathing during parts of the track. Despite following no real structure, the tune is still compelling and despite for me being one of the lesser songs on the album, I am still left intrigued by the craft and in particular the sheer gusto on show. Despite the somewhat supercilious title, Kanye raps, 'I am a God. In a French ass restaurant, hurry up with my damn croissants!' Leading us to believe he is not the self-indulgent dictator the media want us to believe and perhaps maybe playing with his audience to some extent.
The real standout tracks on this record are Hold my Liquor and Blood on the Leaves. The latter samples Billie Holliday's Strange Fruit and has an eerie, dark edge to it before thundering into life, with Kanye chastising one of his former lovers during a broken relationship. Not all of Kanye's musings however are fully thought out though. Whilst referring to attending a Basketball game with a new lover he states '...wifey on the other side, gotta keep 'em separated I call that apartheid...' And it is here where Kanye loses the moral high-ground because how can a man in one breath be making forward-thinking statement regarding corporate control and in the next be claiming having two lovers is comparable to the illegal and oppressive South African regime? Perhaps a modern take on a modern world, but questionable to say the least.
Hold My Liquor is an honest appraisal of a drunken morning after, which alludes to some of the early Kanye humour we remember him so fondly for. 'When I parked my Range Rover, lightly scratched your Corolla. Ok I smashed your Corolla...' he admits after coming home to his booty call, slightly worse for wear. But it is the rising layers of this song which make it stand out. An elongated and emotive guitar solo ebbs and flows, again shows the hybridity within the album that the rapper has become a master of.
Guilt Trip and I'm In It sound like rap music in 2024. Both benefiting from collaborations, the songs again show the craft and skill of a man who knows what he wants and refuses to conform to genre regulations.
The final song on the album, 'Bound 2' is a beautiful ode to new belle Kim Kardashian. Heavily sampled but to powerful effect, the song sounds more like a 50's Motown record, save for the piercing and tongue in cheek lyrics, 'Step back can't get spunk on the mink, I mean damn, what would Jerome think?' (See Jerome from popular 90's TV show Martin). The song is the sound of a man happy with his lot and after saying his piece is happy to enjoy the simplicities of life.
Kanye has a lot to say and he wont be sated until his talent is recognised or the playing field is levelled, but he is also firmly in the knowledge that this may not be for a while. Lets face it Yeezus is not for the average bear. If you listen to it and don't like it, this is understandable. But to listen and to say it is not effective, would be nothing but a lie.
Kanye's talent is ferociously depicted on this 10-track offering and some people may not 'get it' for 5 years, others maybe 10 years. Yeezus is the sound of the future. It is raw hybridity at its very best. It is a man refusing to be constrained by anything the corporate world wants to enslave him with. It is a representation of where West is now, not where Rap or R&B is. If you want an album that represents 2013, go buy the Drake album; which (since time if is an underlying theme here) is light years behind this.
If you want sonic soundscapes, matched with primal beats and poignant, caustic, comedic lyrics; buy Yeezus. In fact follow Yeezus; he might just be where the future's at.