Kanye West is a man who inspires a wide range of emotions, from unwavering devotion to single-minded hatred - often at the same time.
West has become both a musical icon and a publicity magnet, not only due to his controversial and often innovative musical and lyrical ideas, but also because of his public persona, often seen as immature, brash and egotistical. In the beginning of his career, West's public persona almost seemed to represent an entirely different person than the thoughtful, socially conscious character found on his music. Throughout College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, West maintained a college theme while attacking issues such as racism, drug abuse, nostalgia, repression, and family ties. His trademark musical style - characterised by pitch-shifted soul samples - brought Kanye a huge amount of respect both from the underground as well as from mainstream music critics, and his career seemed unstoppable. However, shortly after the release of Graduation, and at the peak of his career, Kanye was crippled by a sudden loss, when his mother passed away.
Many were worried that this devastating loss would mark the end of Kanye's musical endeavors, as he became reclusive and seemingly uninterested in releasing new music. However, as all artists do, Kanye took his pain and translated it into something new. In his case, it was 808s and Heartbreak, a huge departure from his earlier style. Featuring almost exclusively Auto-Tuned vocals and singing, as opposed to rapping, and electronically produced beats, the album came as a shock to Kanye's fanbase. It's still seen as the black sheep of his discography, but it was only the tip of the experimental iceberg.
In between 808s and Kanye's next album, he started to sign new talent forming the GOOD Music label with artists such as Kid Cudi, Big Sean, and Pusha T. While some saw more success than others, Kanye never neglected any member of his entourage, releasing GOOD Music mixtapes for free on a regular basis. Not content to just bring new talent onto the scene, West entered the studio in 2009 to begin work on what many would consider his magnum opus: 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
If 808s had been Kanye's first, cautious toe-dip into the waters of experimentation and genre-melding, MBDTF was a cannonball and the ripples it caused resonated throughout the hip-hop world. Showing up at number one on mainstream charts, while still garnering a perfect 10 rating from Pitchfork, MBDTF was almost undeniably flawless in execution. It showed all sides of Kanye's style: his brash, egotistical boasts, his soulful tracks, his strong production values - this album had it all, including a feature list star-studded enough to make anyone's jaw drop.
It was then, on the heels of this album, that many fans found themselves clamoring for new material. Outside of a collaboration album with Jay-Z (well-received in its own right), and a meandering and somewhat mediocre GOOD Music effort (Cruel Summer), Kanye hadn't released any new solo material in three years. Then the rumors started. First, it was projections on landmarks with strange, industrial sounds. Then it was Kanye's Saturday Night Live performance of "Black Skinhead," which seemed to indicate a new, very political and industrial direction for the rapper. The excitement was palpable, and as the release date approached, more and more rumors built up. He wasn't releasing a single? Daft Punk handled some of the production? The album packaging was as barebones as it gets? So many questions arose that maybe it was inevitable that the hype was impossible to meet. So it happens, though many have been impressed with this latest effort, I found Yeezus to be quite disappointing. I'll break it down track by track, and average the numbers to a rating at the end.
"On Sight"- A weak start to the album. Minimalistic industrial production gives way to some basic rhyming, overly vulgar and unfunny punchlines, and little to like. There is a sampled breakdown after the first bridge, though, that I quite like. Makes me wonder why the song wasn't built around THAT, instead of the more boring beat it was based on. The lyrics aren't really worth talking about here, nothing overly complex, the theme being how little Kanye cares about the public's opinion of him (as if this wasn't apparent already). Definitely nothing that would draw someone in who wasn't already a fan. Rating: 2/10
"Black Skinhead"- Sampling a Marilyn Manson song, this immediately seems darker than "On Sight". The lyrics discuss racism in cynical terms, and the rhymes are definitely better written in this track. As a result, the ideas come through clear and the messages are interesting and well-put. Lyrically and musically this is one of the strongest experimental tracks on the album. Some clever wordplay and punchlines make this a high point for the album.
Enter the kingdom
But watch who you bring home
They see a black man with a white woman
At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong
"I Am A God"- This song starts off promising, with a menacing, bassy, dark, powerful beat, but unfortunately once the vocals come in, a lot of steam is lost. With possibly the most basic rhyme scheme on the album, and some truly cringeworthy lines ("In a french-ass resturant, hurry up with my damn croissants!"), this song is a masterpiece of wasted potential. Though Kanye has a history of taking cheesy lines and making them interesting, his ideas on this track just plain do not work. Rating: 4/10
"New Slaves"- By far the most lyrically important and potent track on the album, Kanye explores how commercialism is making slaves of us all in modern times. Featuring an outro by Frank Ocean, and strong, sarcastic lyrics, this song is definitely the high point as far as writing. Musically it starts off sparse, gradually building as the importance of Kanye's topic becomes apparent. Definitely a track worthy of a single, not only for its strong lyricism, but also for its head-bobbing beat and beautiful vocals by Frank Ocean.
My momma was raised in the era when
clean water was only served to the fairer skin
doin' clothes you woulda thought I had help
but they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself
"Hold My Liquor" - Justin Vernon's input on this song is very appreciated, as his crooning carries most of this otherwise somewhat predictable song. The choice to have Chief Keef on an Auto-Tunes hook is questionable at best, and just doesn't work. The song is about drug use, but in this case the "drugs" include weed, alcohol and women. Though this could prove an interesting idea (see Kanye's earlier song "Addiction" to see this done right), it doesn't really sound genuine or emotional here. Instead it comes across as a boring, monotone rant, with no real ideas or direction. The lines are mostly weak, with a couple slight chuckles ("slightly scratched your Corolla/ okay I smashed your Corolla" rants a drunk Kanye in the beginning of the verse). The only redeemable part of this track is Justin Vernon's airy outro, but it isn't enough to make this track anything more than a skip. Rating: 3/10
"I'm In It"- Sporting some of the most awkward lyrics on the album (come on, Ye, we don't need to hear about how you shut off your Blackberry before you and Kim get it on), "I'm In It" is thankfully musically strong enough to come out on top of the heap. The beat starts off with orgasmic moans and a sparse bass presence as Kanye comes in with a chorus effect as he describes how he seduces his wife. Once we get past this weak opening though, the beauty of the track reveals itself. The dancehall beat that follows, along with Assassin's dub-style rapping, makes this a powerful and energetic dance track. Justin Vernon once again lends his vocal talents to the chorus, making this one of the most layered and fun songs on Yeezus as a whole. There are no standout lines (though Kanye's actually correct usage of the word "Zeitgeist" is notable), but 90% of the song is definitely standout as far as musicality. Rating: 8/10
"Blood on the Leaves"- The best sample on the album is to be found on this track. Nina Simone's cover of "Strange Fruit" provides the backdrop, immediately painting an image of repression and slavery, dark times overall. Kanye decides instead to paint his own picture, one of lost loves, mistakes and drugs. It doesn't sound like it should work, but it does. The powerful bassy beat, the horns, and the Auto-Tuned verses mesh together perfectly. The entire last verse is powerful, building up to a climax musically and lyrically. The throwback to C-Murder ("F--k them other N----s 'cause i'm down for my n----s") combined with the Nina Simone sample show a great breadth of influence and depth of knowledge of musical history, both within and outside of hip-hop. This is the strongest lyrical track on the album, not as much for content (as in "New Slaves") as for delivery and power. Rating : 9/10
"Guilt Trip"- Some strong production gives this track some points, but unfortunately nothing can redeem the attempt at singing by Kid Cudi (he should really stick to rapping). The lyrics are standard fare - again about a woman, a lost love, etc. We all know the story by now. This album has a serious problem with repetitive lyrical content and it's by this point that it becomes truly grating. Another dancehall hook, more drug use, etc. It just gets old, which is sad since this album is less than forty minutes long. Rating : 3/10
"Send It Up"- There is truly nothing notable about this track. I honestly couldn't even remember the beat or any of the lyrics when I went to write this and upon re-listening to it I found nothing worth writing about. Rating: 0/10
"Bound 2"- This is my personal favorite track on the album for all the wrong reasons. I like it because, in a sea of hit-or-miss experimentation, this song sounds like vintage, College Dropout-era Kanye. The soul sample, the beat, the energetic verses, the corny lines that work somehow, the Charlie Wilson bridge - this song needs to be heard to be believed. An extremely strong closer to an extremely disappointing album. The lyrics here are not his strongest, but the energy behind them, and the strength of the beat, makes this a non-issue. This song is in my top 10 of all-time for Kanye and the only song I still visit from this album. Rating: 9/10
The verdict: This album is a colossal step back for Kanye overall, both musically and lyrically. Though there are some bright spots, this album is a skip for me. I do think everyone should listen to "Bound 2", though. Hopefully the future bodes better for Kanye, otherwise he could soon become irrelevant.