Hip-hop megastar Kanye West has (finally) unleashed his sixth studio album, Yeezus, via Def Jam. A follow-up to 2010's universally acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the LP features a broad array of production credits that include Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Mike Dean, No I.D., Rick Rubin, RZA, Symbolyc One, Travi$ Scott, Young Chop and more.
None of the project's 10 tracks have been officially released, though "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" debuted (respectively) via worldwide live projections and a May 18, SNL appearance. In addition to fellow Chicagoans Chief Keef and King L, the LP boasts subdued guest appearances from Charlie Wilson, Frank Ocean, IAMSU!, Justin Vernon, Kid Cudi and Tony Williams.
Yeezus Album Review
In many ways Yeezus is more of a manifesto, a concept, than an album. It’s a project intended to be thought about and discussed, not necessarily listened to and enjoyed, which is both its biggest strength and weakness. While it’s true that Ye didn’t literally invent many of the sounds on Yeezus, especially the most shocking ones, he still deserves credit as an innovator. It’s comparatively easy for an underground group to make extraordinarily dark music, but when you’ve got a million dollar marketing campaign behind you, when the eyes of the world are on you and the label’s screaming for a song it can bring to radio, it takes a real bravery to make an album this inaccessible. (Send It Up is the closest Yeezus gets to a song radio might play, and even then it’s a hell of a “might”.) Or to put it more bluntly, name another rapper with anywhere near Ye’s level of fame and success who’d be willing to a put out a record like the pounding, racism and class warfare-inspired New Slaves? Certainly not the corporate-safe Jay-Z, and not Lil Wayne or Eminem, perhaps at this point the only rappers who could truly call themselves Ye’s peers, and therefore have as much to love. And New Slaves isn’t even particularly weird compared to something like I’m In It, which is about the closest rap has come to hearing a live exorcism, or Hold My Liquor, a cut that somehow manages to get Chief Keef to sing like a 808s & Heartbreak leftover guest feature. So yes, I know. You’re a well-educated underground music connoisseur who’s heard this all before. But Kanye West isn’t underground, he’s a thoroughly mainstream artist who’s regularly on the cover of US Weekly with his uber-famous baby momma, and mainstream hip-hop’s never heard anything like this before.
That doesn’t mean that we’re entirely in unexplored territory though; for all his attempts to not look back, Kanye brings along plenty of sonic baggage from his past. Guilt Trip’s island-infused samples are instantly reminiscent of something like Mercy, while Kid Cudi’s emotional semi-singing has been essentially unchanged now for years. Even more strikingly, Bound 2 throws aside everything that’s come before on Yeezus and gets right back to some classic Kanye, featuring a soul sample, a handful of hilarious punchlines, and storytelling rhymes devoted to love and lust. In sharp contrast to the album’s opener, On Sight, Bound 2 is unchallenging and enjoyable, a song that could easily serve as the sequel to Dark Twisted Fantasy’s Devil in a New Dress, which is both a relief and a bit of a disappointment. If Ye was truly trying to send a message with Yeezus, a message about the power of minimalism and his willingness to defy expectation, what does closing the album with a song so predictable (by his standards) do to that message?
Music - like movies, food or sex - can serve multiple purposes. Some (Anchorman, Snickers, one night stands) are meant to be easily enjoyable, to satisfy an immediate need. Others, (Memento, roasted quail with saffron, babymaking) are made to serve a larger purpose, to perhaps even change the way we think about what movies, food, sex or music can be. Yeezus is much more Memento than Anchorman, which is likely why critics, who tend to focus larger cultural trends, seem to be largely praising the album while fans, who tend to focus on things like “Do I actually want to listen to this while I drive?” seem to for the most part to shrug it off. So maybe that’s why for me, as a critic who’s fought to maintain the feeling of being a fan, Yeezus is both; an album that I appreciate for its innovation, but I don’t particularly enjoy, and can’t particularly see myself replaying years from now. (If this was a break up, this would be the part where I say, “I love you Yeezus, I’m just not in love with you.) In an age where we want our truths to be direct and simple – this album is a masterpiece / this album is hot garbage - that may be an unsatisfying answer, but the truth is, the truth is complicated, especially when it comes to Kanye. Sinner and saint, genius and self-proclaimed a**hole, hip-hop has never seen someone so hard to categorize as Kanye, and in that framework Yeezus stands as his most hard-to-categorize album yet. A status I fully expect it to maintain…until his next album.
Note: Want even more? Check out RefinedHype's Yeezus mega-podcast.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins