Yeezus: the Second Coming of Kanye West
Forget all his baby-mama drama and celebrity shenanigans – on his new album Mr West is back to doing what he does best.
Two weeks ago, the birth of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s first child left the celebrity media rapt in a state of starstruck cooing and snarky derision. Leaked two days before the arrival of the world’s youngest A-lister, Yeezus – West’s sixth solo album – has since shot to the top of the charts. But given the ongoing showbiz circus, it will likely become a mere footnote to the arrival of his progeny, albeit a wildly successful one. The fact that relatively little ink has been spilt over his provocative, blasphemous and characteristically egomaniacal album title, compared to his somewhat unfortunate choice of baby name, reveals a man whose celebrity notoriety has inevitably eclipsed his work.
You could argue it’s his own fault: shacking up with a reality show/sex-tape princess; decrying his lack of recognition at awards shows, despite an enviable record at the podium; and, lest we forget, the ‘Ima let you finish…’ debacle. But while Kanye West, the man and celebrity, can be loudmouthed, irritating and downright risible, Kanye West, the producer, emcee and hit-maker, remains a rather complicated guy. Yeezus provides yet more proof that, gossip-column blather aside, he is more than just a papp-smashing clown.
Indeed, West is an unprecedented figure in the world of hip hop. For almost a decade, he’s been a consistent trend-setter and critical darling – a feat only neared by his mentor and label boss Jay-Z, whose career was itself reignited by Kanye’s creative influence in the early 2000s. The College Dropout, West’s Grammy-winning debut, announced the arrival of a consummate mainstream rapper who matched the social consciousness of the underground with the irresistible glamour of the braggadocious major-label set.
Yeezus strikes much the same balance, with West firing off sexist punchlines and abrasive verbal gun-shots that wallow in the fore-marked bounds of rap cliché while also gesturing to the world beyond it. On the woozy, lustful and dancehall-enthused ‘I’m in it’, he quotes Martin Luther King as the object of his desire exposes her breasts. ‘Free at last!’, he exclaims. And even when he teams up with hip hop’s latest flash-in-the-pan – the monosyllabic Chief Keef – he elevates the teen rapper. And, accompanied by mournful, distended synth, the garbled hook he provides in ‘Hold my liquor’ becomes a thing of strange beauty.
West has always taken to his subject matter with a similar ambivalence. His 2005 Top 10 single, ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’, was at once a celebration of his material gains and a woeful recognition of the bloody origins of the diamonds that adorn his jewellery. Here, however, his approach verges on the schizophrenic. ‘New slaves’, a white-knuckle, EDM rollercoaster, wades once again into the morass of rap consumerism. But while his snarled rhymes paint a picture of black America bound by the almighty dollar and all the glittering baubles wealth brings, he injects a needful scepticism into this tired ‘conscious rap’ diatribe. Lines like ‘All you blacks want is the same thing!’ feel as much a send-up of white conservatives and, indeed, pompous hip hoppers who set out to shame the thugged-out nouveau riche, as they do a straight-laced condemnation.
On the production side, West and a gaggle of big-ticket collaborators offer a fittingly demented soundtrack for him to collapse under the weight of his own contradictions. The order of the day is lo-fi and punky – mashing together guttural Death Grips noise-hop with ticky-bap Trap beats and leaving only scant moments of his typically soulful sound. When those moments do arrive – the pitch-shifted Nina Simone vocal sample on ‘Blood On The Leaves’, or the tuneful, mid-tempo coda to ‘New slaves’ – they merely lull you into a false sense of security before the next gut-rupturing bass hit.
Yeezus is easily Kanye West’s most risky project to date, but it’s certainly paid off. There isn’t a single track that isn’t infectious, or at least intriguing, and despite lacking any obvious radio singles, it’s proved his first No.1 album since 2007’s eminently dancefloor-friendly Graduation. In essence, this is Kanye doing what he does best – shaking up the mainstream with a creative fervour that neither the trappings of celebrity nor the responsibilities of fatherhood could possibly tame.
Tom Slater is culture editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_ Read his blog: www.thomasslater.tumblr.com