Yeezus


Band: Kanye West
Album: Yeezus
Best song: Let’s say… “I’m In It.”
Worst song: Probably “Bound 2”

I try to stay away from hip hop in this space for the obvious reason that I’m going to sound like the people I shit on: white people who like only backpack or “acceptable” rap and/or some kind of parachuter into black culture. No doubt I’m doing this here, but it’s worth noting that I do understand what I’m doing while I’m doing it. My hope is that I don’t sound racist in doing it. 

Though I’m a big fan of Kanye West, I’ve only really written at length about one of his albums (2008’s 808s and Heartbreaks) and that’s the super fucking emo one. I mostly write about records I love and one of my favorite albums of the decade so far was one of West’s (2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), but my trepidation outlined above made it such that I stayed away.

I’m not doing that with Yeezus, partially because I absolutely cannot figure out this album. Yeezus will certainly be on a lot of “best of” lists this year, so it feels like I should write a little about it (AV Club put it atop its list, for example). I do wonder how much of this likely placement on lists will be largely because it’s standard for every one of West’s records to be considered great and it’s just what people do.

Yeezus leaked four days before its release date in June, which just happened to be the day I decided to drive approximately 17 hours in one day (it was the weekend I adopted the cutest bulldog in the world). The drive down meant I had the opportunity to really get acquainted with Yeezus and I did listen to it multiple times on the way up and back, so I did. See this video wherein I am absolutely breaking driving laws.

Long stretches of East Coast highway are good places to really digest a record. My quick feeling about Yeezus was that it is a spotty record with lyrical ups and downs, but it was sonically very interesting. It’s been about six months since it leaked and I’ve certainly listened to the record a good 20 or so more times, which speaks to my enjoyment of the record. I wouldn’t listen to a record that much if I didn’t find interesting things in it and I continually find West’s music to be compelling.

Everyone has the moment when they have trouble reconciling the personality of West and his music. For some people, it was the famed Katrina outburst, while others pointed to the Taylor Swift moment at the 2009 VMAs. There’s the $200 t-shirt or his more recent “Jews run the world” thing. That latter would’ve been mine if it weren’t for two things: The Yeezus lyrics and then the “Bound 2” video.

The only way I can describe the lyrics is “lazy.” I guess I expect more from the guy who did “All Falls Down” and “Touch the Sky,” even if those songs came out nine years ago and eight years ago, respectively.

Admittedly, he tries. Part of the reason I still listen is because West can put otgether a compelling — albeit flawed — look at race in a song like “New Slaves” or in “Black Skinhead” when he makes the proverbial reference to King Kong‘s racial overtones. Those are interesting takes, though both fall flat because of a few reasons:

1. While easier to utilize in rap, politics are tough to make interesting or well-rounded in song. “New Slaves” decries a certain type of materialism at times, but then bounces vaguely references the racism inherent in the corrections system. Specifically, West mentions the DEA and the for-profit prison industrial complex. Honestly, good points, but the average listener probably needs a visit to Rap Genius to understand it.
2. On Yeezus, West constantly couches everything in a “I am being persecuted, specifically” vein. It’s understandable, as he’s fallen in love with one of the world’s most mocked people and the issue with being famous is that our celebrity culture is pretty ravenous. I get it. But, it’s nevertheless hard to relate to, which is part of why music exists. We want to sing a song like it is our own. It’s hard to do that with Yeezus when lyrics like “So go and grab the reporters/So I can smash their recorders” end up there.
3. The “New World Order” doesn’t exist, Mr. West. Stop. See the “Jews run the world” thing above.

And those are the songs with interesting lyrics.

Kanye West, at his best, has always been someone who is self-reflective and wanted to make himself better. The aforementioned “All Falls Down” is the grand example of this and certainly “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” or “Runaway” all feature West’s ability to understand his flaws and admit to them fully. I’m particularly in love with one line in “Dark Fantasy:” “I’m just a Chi-town nigga with a Nas flow.” That itself speaks volumes to me that West doesn’t claim to be the best rapper alive, but rather a man who can rap like a very good rapper (2010 was past the point in history wherein we claimed Nas to be Jay-Z’s equal near the top of the game). It’s probably considered a throwaway line, but I always found it to be emblematic of even the 2010 ultra-confident West.

Yeezus has little of this, though I imagine it’s overshadowed by the interesting production of the record. “Guilt Trip” tries, but falls short. “Blood on the Leaves” suffers from the same mixed metaphors and scattered themes that “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” do.

It speaks to one of the inherent issues with the titans of the genre. Cord Jefferson wrote a longform piece on the brilliant Jay-Z/West collaboration and the two principles in relation to black power. In short, Jefferson compares modern black power’s state as indecipherable to Donald Trump’s or Warren Buffet’s: getting rich.

You or I might be embarrassed to name-drop murdered black socialists in one breath before bragging about having dozens of cars in the next. But Jay and West seem eminently comfortable in the thorny middle ground separating righteousness and decadence. Some have said that this perceived cognitive dissonance is the entire artistic pursuit at the core of Watch the Throne: Two rich black men struggling to make sense of their wildly conflicting interests. But it’s probably important to remember that if I cared more about luxury automobiles than I did poor people, I’d act as if I was having a hard time with that choice, too.

Bearing all of this in mind, pardon me if I remain skeptical of those who would have us believe that Jay-Z and West make revolutionary art. Do they make music that is fun to dance to and contains occasional references to politics? Absolutely. But if they are revolutionaries, then let us marvel at what a difference 50 years makes: Hampton and Newton wielded guns in the name of class war, while today’s black militants are millionaires with music-video budgets who film fake revolutions in places where real revolutions once took place.

Unlike Jefferson, I don’t have any real standing, knowledge or background to talk black power. Jefferson’s a brilliant writer and thinker who has put forth interesting takes on hip hop and West himself. I’m just a guy who likes music. But I will take a shot and say this: It’s hard to reconcile West’s anger with systems while continually serving said systems.

West and Jay-Z are not the first to have done this, certainly. Rage Against the Machine similarly served two masters and my beloved Nirvana moved in similar directions. The easy example in West’s case is the anti-paparazzi things he screams, because his personal brand is largely based on exposure; Lest we forget, there was a time when Kanye West was simply a great producer for Roc-A-Fella. For someone who wants so desperately to be a transformative figure, the whining is unbecoming. It’s the proverbial heat and kitchen.

Most rap done by men has a feminism problem; shit, a lot of music has a feminism problem. Rap, in particular, uses a lot of terrifying imagery for women, with the offhand lyrics about rape in Lil Wayne’s “Got Money” to the Beyoncé-bethrothed Jay-Z’s “Money Cash Hoes.”

West is no different, though I first really noticed it on Yeezus. My two favorite songs, production-wise, are abject horrors when it comes to sexism. “I’m In It” features a stellar Justin Vernon hook and a monstrous beat, but the lyrics are anywhere near West’s strongest. They’re either too clever by half, not clever enough by half or just lazy. The references to black power — West mentions the black power fist, quotes from “I Have a Dream” and mentions Swahili — would be lovely were they not couched in abject sexism. The fist reference is about putting his fist in a woman (I’m hoping in the consensual sexual way, not the domestic violence way), while his reference to Martin Luther King Jr. involves this lyric: “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last/Thank God almighty, they free at last.” The song also has this line: “Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce,” which is delightfully offensive. And not funny.

“Hold My Liquor” features Vernon and a lackadasical (which is his only mode, I’d add) guest appearance by Chicago teen Chief Keef, but the lyrics are some combination of West’s new defiance and his emotional side from 808s and Heartbreak. Ostensibly about a drunken night (or nights), the song’s lyrics refer to an ex — let’s just assume it’s his ex-fiancee, also the subject of 808s — and he misses her.

One more hit and I can own ya
One more fuck and I can own ya
One cold night in October
Pussy had me floating
Feel like Deepak Chopra
Pussy had me dead
Might call 2Pac over

“Hold My Liquor’s” possible references to Alexis Phifer (or some other ex) hold the same problem that 808s holds: West puts women on a pedestal without seeing them as anything other than sexual object. Yes, I get that “I love you for your mind” isn’t necessarily something that can be worked into a song, but the way West — and certainly blame is on the genre, as well — simply refers to a person as their sexual organs is abhorrent and something that bugs me beyond belief.

Which brings us to “Bound 2.” The video for the song, obviously, is the very real situation that West has no one ever telling him “no” in his life. The video’s thesis is “hey, I have a hot fiancee,” which is not untrue, but I kind of wish the concept wasn’t “my first green screen” or “special effects by a bunch of ninth-graders.” To whit:

Like, that video’s awful. Tremendously awful. It looks like it was shot in 1995. The song isn’t terrible; it’s one of the least strong on the album, but it’s still a West song (by which I mean he’s a tremendous artist and his worst songs are still pretty good). Outside of continuing his references to having sex in bathrooms (“Blame Game” and “Niggas in Paris” both reference water closet sex, too), the song simply falls on the “good girl” trope in the bridge (“One good girl is worth a thousand bitches”).

Which brings us to: I know someone who unabashedly adores Kanye West (from what I can tell via her social media presence). Like, she loves the confidence he has and the sometimes smart things he says — I agree that the Jimmy Kimmel interview was smarter than a lot of us thought. From what I can tell, she loves West the way the rest of the world loves Beyoncé.

One problem, though: This person is a feminist and a really smart person and I cannot reconcile those two things within her. Language matters and the speaker is incredibly important. Black people can say some word that white people can’t say, gay people can call each other things straight people can’t call gay people, women can do the same. Power dynamics in traditionally downtrodden groups are such that these things exist and I’m very glad that they do (example between Mr. West and I: He shouldn’t joke — yes, I know he wasn’t joking — about Jews running the world and I can).

That’s where the “good girl” thing bothers me so much. I don’t know Kim Kardashian at all, obviously, so I can’t speak to whether or not West’s love is a “good girl,” but I’d bristle at the notion that such a thing exists. For one, “good girl” completely demeans a women’s agency; it reduces her to a child. But, more importantly, it creates a dichotomy that relies on the myths that West has before tried to amplify (for the life of me, I cannot get how “Gold Digger” is anything but vilified), albeit a long time ago (that song’s on his second album). But, if I’m going to praise “Touch the Sky…”

Which is all to say: Kanye West isn’t a feminist. I have mixed feelings about West, in general (see anything I’ve written before this sentence), though I think he’s the most talented producer and one of the most innovative artists out there. His confidence — “Because my life is dope, and I do dope shit.” — is definitely something to be lauded and it’s something I do not possess. And I think it’s that confidence that drives him to do a record like Yeezus, a record that bangs around dissonance and challenges the listener in a way that few pop records do.

And therein is the reason I cannot figure Yeezus out. West’s glaring deficiency as a lyricist is such that the record is confounding. But, as a producer, West is unsurpassed. From “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and his early work with other Roc-A-Fella artists to his “Lucifer” to his recent work, he finds, combines and releases beats that sound different and new. He doesn’t hit old notes over and over (coughTIMBALANDcough). He doesn’t mine full songs like Puffy (though, does Puffy even do music anymore? Christ, I’m old.). Yeezus brings interesting guests into the mix, it contains ear-splitting distortion and takes — like his previous records had done — from different genres and combines them. “On Sight” sounds nothing like Daft Punk, but is produced partially by the duo and features a combination of drill and industrial, while “Black Skinhead” is a drum-based full rhythm record. “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It” work in segments, but “Bound 2” uses West’s old trick of pitching up vocals to great aplomb. All songs sound cool and all would be wonderful. If not for the guy actually rapping.

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