Here before us we have Yeezus – the first album of 2013 to generate the kind of hype that would make even the most far-removed hip hop listener curious enough to see what the fuss is about and if the largely universal critical acclaim is justified or merely just critics having an elitist circle jerk that leaves people alienated with differing opinions and perceptions.
Judging by the amount of high-profile producers and recording artists enlisted to bring about Yeezus’ industrial-yet-minimalistic approach, it’s a bit puzzling why there’s so much grandiosity fuelling the hype for this record. On that note, let’s begin. ‘Ye reportedly rang up producer Rick Rubin a week before the album’s official release to strip the tracks down to give it that minimalist feel but if you ask anyone that’s been paying attention, we’ve already been here before. Anyone that’s listened to 808s & Heartbreaks will immediately be reminded that this isn’t Kanye’s first electronic experiment but for some reason, we’ve got people once again comparing a Kanye West album to both Radiohead’s Kid A and Neil Young’s Trans. In that regard, people need to either make up their minds as to which one is truly his Kid A moment or they need to find a new analogy to bleat on endlessly with.
Prior to the review process, I’ve also been told that the album has more substance than Graduation but if the opener On Sight is anything to go by, you can assume you won’t find much social commentary and critical thinking as the album is popularly believed to have. As a matter of fact, I’ve found that it doesn’t have that much social commentary at all. Yeezus is more of a smorgasbord: Kanye’s trademark wit and outspokenness on wax mixed with a couple social commentary clichés, found primarily on Black Skinhead & New Slaves, which we already reviewed. Throw in some personal themes and an overdose of the tried-and-trusted ‘Ye braggadocio and voila! That’s pretty much Yeezus in a nutshell.
In essence, you might as well call it a Graduation redub because none of these tracks would sound out of place on that album… at least lyrically, anyway. Let’s start with the positives. The production on Yeezus is what you’d come to expect from West from previous albums and in summary: it’s great. The industrial/acid-house influence on each of the tracks is obvious and while Joe Public knows nothing about what the tracks sounded like before Rubin got to work on them, I have to say that the production works. Kanye scores points for the dancehall reggae elements on couple of the tracks, as well. Yeezus also continues the ever-growing trend amongst musicians and producers alike in returning to that wonderfully raw sound in the music. You can hear and feel the angst and sense how unapologetic West is in his approach when constructing each track. He’s also collaborated with quite a few producers on this one, drafting in the likes of Daft Punk, No ID, 88-Keys, Mike Dean, and Hudson Mohawke among others for either additional production duties (Lupe Fiasco is one of them, for example) or a straight-up collaboration (e.g. co-production) on the track.
However, I must note that because of this approach, most of the tracks sound very similar and the more you listen to the album, it sounds less like an album and more like one long song with a couple of interludes mixed in. Some people won’t mind but I certainly couldn’t ignore that facet. After a while, it begins to stick out like a gangrenous limb in the same way auto tune is used in the vocals on a fair amount of the tracks: eventually you decide you just want to cut it off before the infection spreads.
So the production overall is strong and tends to pack a punch but what about the lyricism and presence on the mic? Well… that’s where things go south faster than some birds do for the winter. As I mentioned before, I find all the talk of Yeezus’ alleged substantial content to be largely unfounded. This album isn’t very different from Graduation or even My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the way that it’s all over the place lyrically. One moment, Yeezy’s on his soapbox making critical points about celebrity culture and social injustices (racism, mainly); the next, ‘Ye’s bragging about how he got his knob slobbed again. Tracks like the opener On Sight, Hold My Liquor, and I’m In It buck that trend and only add to my mounting disappointment. Because Kanye is spitting with such a frustrated conviction, it’s hard to differentiate whether he’s joking (albeit in bad taste) or if he’s actually getting something – or someone – off his chest.
One thing I certainly didn’t misinterpret was how forced certain vocal elements felt. The screams on Black Skinhead and I Am A God are a perfect example, as are the auto tuned ad-libs at the end of Blood On The Leaves. Every bit of me screams ‘less is more’ and once you get properly acquainted with the album, you also get rather familiar and comfortable with the skip forward button on your media player. At the end of the day, I took away three tracks that I genuinely enjoyed: Blood On The Leaves (despite the glaring drawback at the end), Bound 2, and New Slaves.
Blood On The Leaves is excellent and shows that while ‘Ye is very much hit-and-miss these days, he can still show that kind of form that made many people a fan of his a la the College Dropout/Late Registration era. The production is solid (can’t go wrong with a Nina Simone sample) and despite the unnecessary ad-libs at the end, the personal themes shine brightly. Unlike most of the tracks on the album, the brutal honesty and desperation in the lyrics are most welcome and most compatible on this track. Bound 2 is arguably the best produced track on the album but not because of grand it is. Bound 2 works so well because of how simple and minimalist it is. The looped sample is exquisite and will be an earworm for listeners from the get-go. Kanye’s cadence harkens to moments from predeceasing albums like Late Registration, particularly the track Late. While Bound 2 feels darker than Late, I loved the latter and happily accept the former; and while I don’t completely object to a bit of vulgarity in an artist’s lyrics, some of it on Bound 2 feels forced and unnecessary. Still… dat sample!
New Slaves started out as alienating but then it grew on me. This track is the kind of Kanye I miss hearing but as evidenced by the rest of the album, this Kanye isn’t really ready to make his compete comeback yet. The touching on how today’s corporate culture is no different than slavery is apt but I will say this about New Slaves: Frank Ocean deserved better treatment. Still, the outro bit is the highlight of the track and it’s worth a download on iTunes. Sadly, Yeezus’ drawbacks outweigh the strengths throughout and I can emphatically state that Yeezus isn’t worth the hype it’s been getting.
40 minutes and 1 second feels like an eternity without skipping tracks and frankly, an experience shouldn’t be this uncomfortable. 3 enjoyable tracks out of 10 for any album is unacceptable considering its asking price and it only furthers my belief that Yeezus will go down as the most polarising album in his discography, more so than his last sonic experiment in 808s & Heartbreak.
Some people call Yeezus blasphemous but I wouldn’t call it that as much as I’d call it another exercise in megalomania, considering how the vast majority of the tracks are indeed characterised by delusional fantasies of power and influence, relevance, and an overstated sense of grandeur. Yeezus is musical Marmite: you’ll either love this album or you’ll hate it. You can colour me largely unimpressed and you can do me a favour: pass me his first two albums, ta.