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Friday, June 21, 2013

New Jersey White Boy's Rap of the Week: Yeezus by Kanye West

Fun Fact - This picture was actually from 2006 for the cover of Rolling Stone,
after Late Registration tore up the Grammys

So, I’ve been bumping Yeezus all day, every day. And let me tell you, it’s… slightly above average.

Kanye West has spent his career trying to reconcile his two halves – his pop-rap leanings, and pushing the boundaries of rap as an art. It started out as trying to talk about real issues during the time gangsta rap was massive. It moved to pushing other boundaries, like defining stadium rap sounds (Graduation), what emo rap is (808’s and Heartbreak), and dark sounds with rap (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Here, we see him try to reconcile all of the iterations of Kanye, while pushing what industrial pop-rap sounds like. Think Death Grips, but meant for the radio/hood. If it sounds like a monumental task that might come out as a relatively incohesive mess, well, you’d be right.

The album essentially is in two parts – the more industrial, “fuck the system” first half, and the “I did what I wanted to do” second half. The first two singles, if you can call them that, “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” are standouts on the first half, criticizing corporations for exploiting people, but also the materialistic culture of young Americans who feed into it. He also addresses racism – the racism he sees from the rich white people he rubs shoulders with, along with the racism black culture throws at him for “acting white” (which might also be taken to rail against the “hood” mentality of a lot of young black people). The beats are open, dark, and rough, featuring blaring synths, distorted basslines, screams, scared panting, and heavy drums.

Where's Daniel Tosh to say "high fashion"
I Am a God” will be the song people cite when they say how arrogant, douchey, and full of himself West is, because people don’t like to listen deeper than the music. But that’s a different article for another day. Regardless, with a title like that, it’s hard not to believe that it’s just based on his egotism. But I have a different theory, but you have to only look at this album, not at Ye, not at his public persona, nor at his earlier albums. This fits squarely in the criticism of the “hood” mentality. This is a hyperbolic brag that you would see Lil B The Based God do, who I’ve already established is a parody of the current state of rap (he named a mixtape God’s Father; come on). Lyrically, it’s a tad weak and laughable - “In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants” is an actual line from the song. He even has a conversation with Jesus, and rather than, you know, talking about real things with the GOD DAMN SON OF GOD, he chooses to spend that time bragging about how he’s “trying to stack these millions”. And every time “God” shows up, aka when “I am a God” is pitched down, Kanye screams, as though he’s being punished for saying something like that. To me, that sounds like a pretty harsh critique of the ridiculousness of the brags a lot of rappers put out (“I’m so fly I can sue an airplane”), and that by making these brags, they'll be punished in heaven for it. It’s hard to say if that’s right, but it would fit with the theme of the first half and makes me sound like an intellectual, so I’m going with that.

Hold My Liquor” serves as a good transition from the first half of the album to the second half. Chief Keef is completely unrecognizable, slurring his way through an autotuned hook. And quite frankly, it’s the best thing Keef has ever done. He and Kanye are incredibly open and vulnerable about their alcohol abuse, saying how they “can’t handle no liquor”; they act reckless and stupid when drunk, but the pain of their daily life is too much to handle sober. However, Kanye, who has admitted to having an alcohol problem after the Swift Incident, is still (hopefully) sober 4 years later. So good for him. It also features Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) in a minimal role. It’s not a song that stands out on the album, but it is slowly becoming one of my favorite from the album.

Gasp! It's the Illuminati!
The second half of the album seems like it’s a bunch of leftover material from 808’s; a lot of depressing, break up lyrics. “Blood on the Leaves” takes an inspired, amazing sample of the Nina Simone version of “Strange Fruit”, the powerful poem/song about the brutal lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith and chops it up in a way only Yeezus could. The beat is amazing, like a more hyped up beat off of 808’s, and, like a beat off of 808’s, Kanye spends half of it “singing” with some heavy autotune. It talks about a rough divorce, along with a few recycled themes from “Gold Digger”. His character apparently married this girl while they were hitting up the club scene, and she wants to settle down a bit, but he can’t leave the nightlife. his pastor said abortion is wrong. So he loses his wife, and now is stuck in an “unholy matrimony” of paying child support to the other woman and alimony to first, making him unable to buy coke and another high-end car. I feel like he could have done something so much better with the beat and the themes of racism (you know, like what he talked about on the first half of the album) that the sample gives him. Hell, even the repetition of “blood on the leaves” could have been about the how people kill over drugs, and how it’s glorified in other rap songs. But nope, it’s a breakup song with a subplot about gold diggers and religion.
He gets a gold digging stripper or some other unreputable woman pregnant, and has to tell his wife, because that’s what a good person does. Oh, and because

The wordplay is hit or miss too, possibly intentionally. He must have been hanging out with 2Chainz 2much, because some of the lines he spits are the kind that belong in a True Religion store. “Star Wars fur, yeah I’m rocking Chewbacca”? “Eating asian pussy all I needed was sweet and sour sauce”? “Chopped ‘em both down/Don’t judge ‘em Joe Brown”? I mean, yeah, I like “your titties, let ‘em out, free at last/thank God almighty, they free at last”, but come on, that other stuff is Lil Wayne punchlines, not Kanye West punchlines. I mean, he got signed off the strength of the line “Mayonnaise colored Benz/I push Miracle Whips”. I expect better.

What I do know is that Kanye is now all about saying “fuck you” to the system. Hell, he didn't care that the album leaked. Which is the whole point of this album – Kanye made an album in protest to the consumerist society we live in today. It’s anti-corporation and anti-materialism, and a lot of it plays like he made something he truly wanted, without regard to whether it would sell. I’m actually a little surprised he didn’t release it for free, a la the amazing NO LOVE DEEP WEB. Although it would make sense, since his label seems to take down any Youtube videos of the singles. Regardless, he doesn’t care if people love this album, hate this album, or whatever. And I do commend him on trying to push the industrial sound I love from Death Grips into the pop arena, and doing what he wanted to do. But damn, I wish it was better.

Overall, it’s not Kanye’s strongest album. In fact, if you count Cruel Summer as a Yeezy album, this is his 3rd worse. Which still makes it a better than average album (I’d give it a 6.5-7/10, if we had rating system here), and I enjoy a good portion of the tracks. “Bound 2”, “I’m In It”, and pretty much the entire first half are all things I’ll be bumping for a while. Even “Blood on the Leaves” is great solely on the strength of the production.

But his skills as a rapper have fallen off since MBDTF, even though there have been a few stellar tracks since then. I mean, you can point to the fact that he’s lost of a lot of the micromanaging of his vision like he had in the past (the number of editors, writers, producers, vocalists, and sound engineers is too damn high), or that he’s gained a level of fame that puts him out of touch with real people, or that the lack of drugs/alcohol in his system has driven him insane, or the death of his mother has left him without any guidance and in a constant state of grief. Whatever it is, Kanye needs to take a step back, raise his new daughter, and spend a lot of time working on his own stuff, by himself. It’s a shame he didn’t that here, because the potential was there.

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