Wednesday 19 June 2013

Kanye West - Yeezus

Kanye West is well known for his skill as a producer, in particular in his use of samples from Otis Redding to Daft Punk and more.  No era or genre is beyond his reach.  With ‘Yeezus’, his sixth album, it’s no different.

Despite the lengthy list of collaborators, ‘Yeezus’ manages to come together as one man’s vision.  The overall feel is polished, yet hugely abrasive; an album that combines experimental hip-hop with industrial beats, acid house and forms of black protest music like Jamaican dancehall.  Distorted bass drones bubble and brood; harsh rhythms grate; sombre synths pervade the dreamily gloomy mood; auto-tuned vocals are purposefully obscure like a voice striving to be heard.  The effect is utterly raw, aggressive and intense, mirroring the provocative lyrical content.

It’s here that West stumbles.  His overblown, narcissistic tendencies are more infamous than his production, reaching new heights on ‘Yeezus’.  The title alone combines his nickname (Yeezy) with Jesus in a messianic statement.  It’s taken further with I Am A God which features no less than God himself (apparently).  Yet he then petulantly demands “where’s my damn croissants” in a “French-ass restaurant”, before claiming “I just talked to Jesus, he said ‘What up Yeezus?’.  Surely this is West having a bit of fun, despite the darkly serious production?  Or is West so egotistical as to actually believe himself to be worthy of godlike status?  It’s a fine line.

Things take a turn for the worse with West’s political views.  This isn’t a call for black equality, but black supremacy with Black Skinhead as his “theme song” in an aggressive call to arms.  Unlike the understated cover ‘art’, West is far from afraid to confront issues of race in a blaze of fury.  His anger threatens to boil over in New Slaves, on which he stands up to racial injustice, consumerism and the press above an insistent, sinister riff.  He fails, however, on Blood On The Leaves which samples ‘Strange Fruit’ (originally recorded by Billie Holiday).  The political power of the original song is wasted here.

Rather than subverting racial stereotypes, West plays up to them in an extreme and provocative manner.  On New Slaves, for example, West is the living embodiment of the consumerism he raps against.  Sex is a constant, often brutal, theme: whether as an angry retort (“I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse”), depicting his wife’s “wet mouth”, wrapped up in his political views (“put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”), or wrapped up in racism (“eating Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce”).  The results are grotesque, ugly and darkly sexy.  Is this an artist producing with a knowing irony with his hyperbolic use of stereotypes?  Or an artist unable to escape the restraints of his chosen genre no matter how hard he may try to shock?

Despite the off-putting lyrical content, the record is still an arresting listen – from the lurching rhythms of Black Skinhead, to the ghostly voice of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (predominantly on Hold My Liquor), the shimmering synths of Guilt Trip, and the chorus of Bound 2 that deserves to be a full track in itself.  As West spits out on opening track On Sight, “a monster [is] about to come alive again”.  Whether you’re a “dick” or a “swallower”, West continues to be a bombastic, unflinching figure in music.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Black Skinhead
* I Am A God
* Hold My Liquor

Listen: 'Yeezus' is available now.