Try as you might, but there’s no escaping Kanye West. Turn on the TV,
radio, computer — hell, take a stroll downtown and you might see his mug
projected on the side of a building. It’s an undeniable fact of life in
2013: Kanye West is bigger than Buddha, Krishna and The Beatles (today,
anyway) and he’ll be the first to let you know about it.
Ego alone isn’t what makes Mr. West such a fascinating figure; any other schmo with a head his size would be scoffed and discarded as parody. There’s actually a certain degree of legitimacy that keeps his maniacal sense of self-importance from devolving into full-scale megalomania: that Kanye’s vision and production chops are currently unmatched in the hip-hop realm.
And while it’s debatable whether his ego would have ballooned to such a degree without his gifts, it’s becoming more apparent with each passing record that it’s his self-image that is ultimately feeding his art, and not the other way around.
On Yeezus — his sixth solo album — West doesn’t just sound hungry; he sounds starved and depraved. Remarkable, given what he’s already accomplished: The guy’s put out five platinum records and currently stands as one of the most decorated hip-hop artists ever to have played the game.
His last solo effort — 2010’s gripping, trailblazing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — already is considered a landmark of the genre by many, but instead of growing complacent (as 99 percent of artists would), West became even more obsessive, like a deranged inpatient who refuses his meds in fear of becoming normalized. Yeezus is the consummate illustration of this obsession: a bold, no-fucks-given foray into unforged sonic territory and his most daring piece of work to date.
From the album’s opening seconds, West makes it perfectly clear what you’re getting into. “On Sight” starts with a grimy, massively distorted synth line and an acid-house breakbeat – a drastic departure from the sunny, soul-infused pop that defined his early career. “Yeezy season approaching / Fuck whatever y’all been hearing,” he proclaims. “Fuck whatever y’all been wearing / A monster about to come alive again.”
It’s a proclamation of arrival that embodies the essence of Yeezus to its scorched, rotting core: a shockingly candid embrace of the monster created by both West himself and the egocentric backlash that’s been mounting alongside the grandiloquence. The album’s first four tracks are particularly bombastic and menacing, but songs like “I’m in It” and the mesmeric, head trip “Blood on the Leaves” are some of the most immersive and fascinating in his catalog — invigorating in the sense that they break new territory while recalling some of 20th-century pop music’s darker cornerstones.
Blessing, curse Leading up to the album’s release, West acknowledged the profundity of influence that dance music culture has had on him, from the sweat-drenched house music of his hometown of Chicago to the gritty thuds of dancehall and trap. While he had traditionally handled the production of his albums with mostly little to no assistance, West employed some of modern music’s most innovative and revered technicians to bring his vision to life.
Production credits include industry veterans like Rick Rubin, RZA and even a heavy dose of Daft Punk, making this the most collaborative and, thus, indebted set of songs he’s ever recorded. This can be both a blessing and a curse as Yeezus accrues its inevitable (and deserved) praise: West isn’t necessarily diving headfirst into the unknown — songs like Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” did just that more than 30 years ago — but he is tearing down long-established barriers with remarkable brash and dexterity.
The tense instrumental fervor of these 10 songs is, at times, aided by West’s impassioned delivery. On a track like “Black Skinhead,” for instance, you can feel the fury in both his voice and words, but such vocal highlights are, for the most part, scant. In contrast with the record’s visionary production is the fact that West has never really been a prolific wordsmith, lacking the necessary cadence and flow to make up for his absence of clever or insightful wordplay.
What made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so lyrically engaging was its earnestness, the sense of vulnerability that came alongside its indulgence; Yeezus instead revels in its lasciviousness without the slightest lick of guilt, more frequently coming across as crass and uninspired, and suffering a bit as a result.
But perhaps that’s just what you’re going to get with a figure as massive as Kanye West. He’s made it this far, after all, at least in part because of his abrasive personality. Yeezus actually might be the most forthright and introspective statement the 36-year-old ever has put out in that regard.
At the very least, it’s the first album he’s made completely on his own terms, without any regard for the burdens of being the most notorious figure in 21st-century pop culture. He may not have achieved god status just yet, but don’t tell him that. The world needs the ego — and the art. —Zach Hale