One think I really miss about Kanye West is his sense of humor. I've followed his career from The College Dropout onward (and have written extensively about the guy), and have even taken in some of his earlier production work pre-fame, and what strikes me the most about the progression of West is how he gradually stopped smiling.
Unlike a lot of readers of the blog, I actually like Kanye West, asshole persona and all, and I probably cut him a bit more slack than the average bear, mainly because the dude makes fucking entertaining music. Ultimately, that's all that really matters to me, and West is extraordinarily good at doing it. I've enjoyed every solo album he's released (even 808s and Heartbreak, a project I was an early champion of, no bullshit), and I've even come around a little bit on his Jay-Z collaboration Watch The Throne, thanks to repeated exposure to the many singles it spawned. (Still can't listen to fucking "Lift Off", though: I honestly and literally have not heard a single iota of that bullshit song since I wrote about it.)
Still, it's altogether fascinating and worrisome to follow the man's career path. The College Dropout was punctuated with goofy, some would say unnecessary skits that helped slice any tension presented in half, and the younger, carefree Kanye West presented on that debut didn't shy away from sarcasm (see: "Spaceship") and legitimate attempts at trying to be funny ("The New Workout Plan", while not that great, wasn't meant to be taken seriously). Late Registration, the follow-up, found West in a perilous position, wielding his newly-acquired power (dude got fucking Nas to appear on an album released by Roc-A-Fella Records before he and Jay patched things up, remember) while listening to his inner artist (hiring Jon Brion to co-produce the entire affair), and the result was pretty goddamn great, "Heard 'Em Say" notwithstanding. But even Late Registration included some skits built around the whole "Kanye goes to college" theme to keep things light enough (guest star Cam'Ron would provide the rest of the laughs on "Gone").
Graduation abandoned the skits and the majority of the overall theme: the album title is really the only remnant of Kanye's past, while the rest of the project looked to the future, with the Daft Punk-sampling "Stronger"and the darker-toned "Can't Tell Me Nothing" setting the stage for 'Ye's current output. Graduation can't really be considered all that funny, though, since the Kanye West who recorded it switched out sarcastic insults for humor. Unless we're talking about "Drunk and Hot Girls", though, which is hilarious. But the laughter stopped dead with 808s & Heartbreak, 'Ye's Auto-Tuned therapy session masked as a collection of songs: the robotic out-of-tune voice cracking throughout left no room for error, let alone levity. And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his finest hour as far as I'm concerned (although I'm still partial to Late Registration as well), finds him leaving the gags to his many guests.
When Kanye announced Yeezus about a month ago, that title proved to me that he was taking himself far too seriously as an artist (as did the lack of an album cover, which made me roll my eyes). Musicians have compared themselves to religious figures before: hell, The Beatles were once bigger than Jesus. But Yeezus worries me, because it appears to combine Kanye's narcissism with his need to sound different than every other rapper on the planet, which is usually an admirable trait but, as proven by his performance on Saturday Night Live, seems to include elements of EDM, reggae, and a whole lot of goddamn shouting.
Which is weird, considering that the guy just became a father and all.
1. ON SIGHT
Yeezus kicks off like a regularly scheduled program already in progress, a huge middle finger to anybody who thought that there would be time provided to acclimate oneself to 'Ye's current mindstate. The instrumental is a much darker version of what producers Daft Punk might have come up with for themselves, but our host's two verses are fairly middle-of-the-road, filled with sarcasm, unfunny punchlines, and references to sexual acts that turn you off to the act of fornication entirely. However, this isn't bad: it just isn't what anybody expected to hear from Kanye West, especially given his past output and the general direction Cruel Summer was leaning toward. 'Ye is probably the only rapper alive with the balls to rhyme over something like this, and let's be honest, he isn't even that great of a rapper, so that's saying something. (To be fair, the writing credits appear to include contributions from 'Ye's old friend Rhymefest (the fuck has he been?) and his G.O.O.D. Music lackey Cyhi The Prince, so they might be the only other two rappers out who at least tried to work with it.) I did kind of like how 'Ye interrupted the song halfway through just to show how many fucks he gives, though.
2. BLACK SKINHEAD
One of the two songs 'Ye performed on Saturday Night Live before anyone knew what any of the songs on Yeezus would be called. "Black Skinhead" feels as though it was written and recorded by an artist interested in leading a movement, but lacking the charisma and general motivation that would result in anyone wanting to actually follow said movement. Which makes sense when you notice that the writing credits include an assist from fellow Chicago native Lupe Fiasco, a guy whose career is pretty much defined by that previous sentence. Producers Daft Punk (among others) try to subliminally stack the odds in their favor by laying down the drums from Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People", although they sound just like Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2", which has been a sports stadium standard for as long as I can remember. The music itself sounded okay, but the lyrics are anything but deep, saying next to nothing. Lyrics don't always have to say something, of course (remember, I listen to tons of New Wave, a genre Kanye identifies with at the moment, and those songs aren't known for their depth), but if you call your song "Black SKinhgead", then I'm expecting something...I don't know, more?
3. I AM A GOD (FEAT. GOD)
'Ye's constant shouting of "God!" at the end of the previous song sets up this already infamous track, known as such merely because everyone seemed to be surprised that our host had the audacity to call a song "I Am A God". Have these people ever listened to Kanye West before? The actual musical part of this is decent: the quintet of 'Ye, Mike Dean, Daft Punk, and Hudson Mohawke, with an assist from legendary producer Rick Rubin, break through boundaries as though they never existed in the first place, and for his part, Kanye sounds like one of the only guys out who would ever feel comfortable over this in the first place. (Maybe Pusha T could work with it, too?) Kanye's endless reservoir of boasts loses nary a drop, even as he compares himself to Jesus Christ, imagining a goofy conversation with him about his wealth, and as he loudly demands that the wait staff at a "French-ass restaurant" (furthering his current Paris fetish) hurry up with his damn croissants (easily my favorite line, because you can use it at home). The shouting at the end, though, completely lost me. This was difficult to sit through, which I fear will be an issue with most of Yeezus.
4. NEW SLAVES (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)
The best-known song from Yeezus prior to release, thanks to our host's visceral SNL performance (complete with multiple n-words, which NBC, thankfully, didn't contest, given the song title) and his audacious debut of its "video" on the side of multiple buildings in major cities around the world. "New Slaves" is the first song on Yeezus where 'Ye sounds like his old self, which is not a comparison I made when I first heard it, but one that jumped to mind after sitting through the first three tracks on here. Kanye rhymes his ass off: interestingly, it's the first song on Yeezus that lasts for longer than four minutes. The beat is minimal and stark, and the lyrics are angry and bitter (with a lot of references to "blood on the leaves", an idea 'Ye liked so much that you'll see more of it later in the review), but worth listening to anyway. Everything switches up close to the end, as the music gives way to something else entirely, as guest crooner Frank Ocean holds court (barely, as he hardly registers: the fuck kind of cameo is this?). Not bad, but polarizing to a fault.
5. CAN'T HOLD MY LIQUOR (FEAT. CHIEF KEEF & JUSTIN VERNON OF BON IVER)
Wait, Justin Vernon (who has writing credits elsewhere on Yeezus as well) and fucking Chief Keef appear on the same song? I'd be shocked, had Kanye not played this same gag on listeners on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's "Monster", stacking Vernon alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Charlie Wilson, Rick Ross, and Nicki Minaj. Aside from the obviously modern instrumental (credited to our host and Mike Dean, among others), "Hold My Liquor" sounds like an outtake from the Late Registration recording sessions: 'Ye's (actual rapped) lyrics have a different feel than, say, "New Slaves" holds. Although I don't agree with the continued employment of Chief Keef, he only handles hook duties on here, and he doesn't stick around long enough to completely frustrate me. I also liked how the beat completely switched (is this yet another running theme?) toward the end, with a sweeping electronic wave that makes 'Ye's (admittedly interesting) words sound like cogs in the machine.
6. I'M IN IT
A motherfucking mess of a song. "I'm In It" is yet another track where Kanye overdoses on graphic sexuality to such a degree that you'll want to shut off the porn you inevitably have running on another browser tab (unless you're reading this at work) and take a shower even though you'll never feel clean. The actual music goes out of its way to alienate the audience, as well, leaving you with a pounding headache and no cool stories to go with it, bro. Ugh.
7. BLOOD ON THE LEAVES
Kanye breaks out the Auto-Tune again, crooning on "Blood On The Leaves", a production credited to multiple parties (including 88 Keys and, of all people, Carlos "Six July" Brody (the fuck has he been?)) that mashes together Nina Simone's cover of the Billie Holiday standard "Strange Fruit" with TNGHT's "R U Ready" (a pretty great song, seriously) and brings back memories of fucking C-Murder's "Down 4 My N----z", and yet still doesn't suck. (I hope he got a good deal on the TNGHT song, since G.O.O.D. Music flunkie Hudson Mohawke is one-half of that particular duo.) 'Ye's rhymes come across as a darkest timeline take on "Gold Digger" and is actually pretty good, at least before you realize that you can interpret the lyrics as Kanye West talking about his own relationship with baby mama Kim Kardashian, which then makes it difficult to separate the art from the artist. This probably wasn't intentional, of course. But by opening up just a little bit, "Blood On The Leaves" becomes the first truly interesting song on Yeezus, as it finds our host in a vulnerable state, something he isn't afraid of showing off but seems to be hiding from the public on this particular project.
8. GUILT TRIP (FEAT. KID CUDI)
Scott Mescudi may no longer be a part of G.O.O.D. Music, but Kanye still likes him enough to include his singing on Yeezus, making this the third Yeezy solo effort in a row to do so (after 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and you could also count Cruel Summer too, if you're masochistic and hate yourself). The guest only sings a bit toward the middle, leaving the task of setting the mood to 'Ye and producer S1 (who helped craft "Power" and the "Excellence" half of Watch The Throne's "Murder To Excellence"), neither of whom bothering with crafting a song that people would want to hear more than the once. Mescudi's vocals approach a sense of regret that Kanye isn't able to emote, try as he might, rendering this whole exercise kind of pointless, if you ask me, which you clearly did, because you wouldn't be reading these words otherwise.
9. SEND IT UP (FEAT. KING L)
I have a long history of liking songs that everyone else fucking hates, such as Graduation's "Drunk and Hot Girls" (which I still enjoy today). Add "Send It Up" to the list. I don't know why I dug it, but I did: producers Daft Punk find an odd beauty in air-raid sirens modified for the dance floor, knocking it out of the park, as did 'Ye's lyrical bullshit, which finds him, well, shit-talking at the club in an engrossing manner. The biggest surprise for me, aside from the extended vocal sample from Beenie Man's "Memories" that closes out the track, was guest star King Louie's opening verse, which did not sound like something from a guy who's a part of the same scene as Chief Keef. Not that I want to run out and buy a King Louie album or anything, but he wasn't bad. And yes, I fully expect to see some hate for liking this song in the comment section.
10. BOUND 2 (FEAT. CHARLIE WILSON)
If Yeezus was set to be Kanye West's final album, then it would make sense that this song, co-produced by No I.D., mirrors the soulful feel of The College Dropout era. However, it is not, so the sampled loop hits the listener like a punch in the face after nine tracks full of our host's attempt at industrial dancehall acid house drill "rap" organized noise. The beat is annoying as fuck, although I may feel this way because the rug was just pulled from under me: the only time I gave a remote shit about "Bound 2" is when the music shifted to electronic groans and squeals during Charlie Wilson's contributions. And then the fucking song just ends, and after ten tracks, I'm stuck wondering just what the hell I just committed forty of my life's minutes to.
THE LAST WORD: While writing this final paragraph, I found a bunch of online critics falling all over themselves to praise Yeezus, convinced that if they didn't absolutely love it, then people would think less of them or something. That has to be the motivation of some of these motherfuckers, anyway (*cough* Pitchfork *cough*). Not to sound all righteous and shit, but when I listen to an album, forward-thinking is a nice enough trait, but regardless of whether it sounds like the future or the past, I believe it has to be entertaining, and Yeezus is interesting, but not interesting enough to listen to most of it a second time. Kanye West may have crawled so far up his own asshole that he can't tell the forest for the trees, and other mixed metaphors that signify that most of this album seemed like an audio ink blot test. Some believe it to be brilliant and ahead of its time: I feel that only two songs on here sound like shit I'd willingly listen to again, and even then I wouldn't want them on my Kanye West playlist. This was exhausting, and you're left with no new insight as to who Kanye West is, aside from the fact that he likes a lot of different types of music and obviously can't stand hip hop in its current form. I vouched for 808s & Heartbreak, and I feel vindicated not only by how well that project holds up but also how it influenced hip hop to this very day. I just can't see Yeezus influencing anyone to do anything except retreat in the opposite direction. Worth hearing once, but I can't condone repeated listenings of this: I just flat-out did not enjoy any of this exercise. Maybe "Blood On The Leaves", but that's stretching it. And to those of you who believe that I'm too set in my ways to fully appreciate Yeezus: you've got to be fucking kidding me.
There's more 'Ye to be found by clicking here.