Kanye West: Yeezus
Jul 2, 2013
YEEZUS, Kanye West
Kanye West’s new album is called Yeezus, a title which, like the lyrics, seems designed to offend. But if there is a deliberate element of shock in Kanye’s rhymes, the first shock on hearing Yeezus is a purely sonic one.
It starts with a riff that could reduce buildings to rubble, and such big overdriven sounds are the sonic building blocks of Kanye’s latest. To recap for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to such things, over the past decade Kanye West has established himself as the pre-eminent figure in hip-hop, and – hip-hop being the dominant form in current pop – that makes him arguably this decade’s pop king. Which doesn’t mean his music is going to sound like yours or anyone else’s idea of pop, although it has proved massively popular.
From his early successes as a producer, through a series of landmark albums under his own name starting with 2004’s The College Dropout, he has consistently re-written and re-re-written the rules of what constitutes a hit. Whether it was bringing in Beatle-esque pop-meister Jon Brion to orchestrate Late Registration, his inspired borrowings from Daft Punk or his use of Auto-Tune to turn an indifferent singing voice into an instrument of melodic – if eccentric – power, he has displayed again and again a gift for spinning musical straw into sonic gold.
This is determinedly music of the moment; unsentimental about whatever pop may have sounded like or represented in the past. And anything retro here is given such a new spin that it looks anywhere but back. It is abstract, and makes demands; until Kanye slapped his name on it and called it a hit, a blistering electronic blast like this might have been categorised as avant garde. He’s forever ambushing you with mad, totally unexpected jump-cuts.
But musical invention is only one corner of Kanye’s canvas. He is that peculiarly American kind of star; the kind that sits at the centre of an empire, and that empire seemingly knows no bounds: design, fashion, footwear, film – anything that can be converted into commerce is fair game. There have been other pop monopolists before him, though it is hard to think of one that seemed quite so driven to go the next step: to take his power and influence into the social arena.
Kanye has done this in a multitude of ways, some less subtle than others. There was the occasion he departed from the script at a Hurricane Katrina telethon to declare that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’. And there was the time he gatecrashed Taylor Swift onstage at the MTV Awards, to protest her win over Beyonce. If I couldn’t help agree with him on both occasions, you could also understand why the latter event caused no less a cultural critic than Barack Obama to call Kanye a “Jackass”.
Latest of his calculated outrages is the title he has given this new album, a conflation of his own nickname Yeezy and that of the Christian Messiah. And if that isn’t deliberately designed to raise a few hackles, he hammers his point home in the track he titles ‘I Am A God’.
Of course he’s joking here, mocking his own grandiosity in a way that he clearly wasn’t when he made the Bush remark. And yet the joke, as with those two very public protests I mentioned earlier, points to a theme that runs underneath almost all of Kanye’s work – both on disc and off - and it’s a deadly serious one. That theme is racism in America, and the way black citizens of that country are treated to this day. Kanye with all his wealth may be able to call himself a God, mocking his own might as he summons masseurs and croissants, but all of his achievements do nothing to dispel the deep anger he clearly feels about slavery and its legacy. Even the fact that he grew up relatively middle-class, with a mother who taught English in a university, does nothing to quell his rage. And that rage bursts forth in various ways on this album. It is perhaps most clearly spelt out on a song he calls ‘New Slaves’.
Using a very deliberate quote from the song ‘Strange Fruit’, that brilliant and bitter indictment of American racism, Kanye draws a line from the brutality of slavery to modern-day America, where he sees blacks still in chains, only now their master is consumerism.
The fact that Kanye, at the centre of his empire, has himself profited from the consumerist culture he sneers at there is just one of the contradictions that make this album as troubling as it is thrilling. Far more worrisome, though, is the way Kanye’s anger seems so often to be turned against women. In a particularly nasty track, he indulges in a kind of revenge fantasy against the white wealthy, turning his rage on women who he depicts as nothing more than chattels, just as black slaves once were.
And with even less logic – Kanye, more than once here, borrows the symbols of the black civil rights movement to serve his misogyny. In the track called ‘I’m In It’ the civil rights salute of the raised fist is twisted into an instrument of sexual violence, while ‘Strange Fruit’ makes a reappearance in another song, but with Nina Simone’s impassioned recording merely serving as a backdrop to an Auto-Tuned Kanye, moaning about gold-digging women who are after his babies and his alimony.
Kanye doesn’t do things accidentally, and he must be aware how some listeners – black listeners in particular, I’d have thought – might be offended by what amounts to trivialising a song so sacred to the civil rights movement. At the very least it seems rather crass and what he intends by it, other than to outrage, is hard to know. The message seems simply to be: I’m Kanye West and I can do what I like. That can mean hitching bold statements about racism today to some of the most exciting and forward-looking music around, or exercising his ego in a way that can only come off as ugly. And in Yeezus you will find plenty of both.