The standout track on Kanye West’s latest effort, “Yeezus”, is easily “Black Skinhead.” The intro demands attention and promises wonders to come, reminding the listener of Dr Dre’s “The Next Episode.” Pounding drums give way to a beautiful, stuttering track built more on a voice — a hum, a cry and a breath — than traditional instruments. West touches on a number of topics over the track, including racism, hypocrisy, inner city violence and religion, skipping from one to another at breakneck speed.
Lyrically, this is easily Kanye’s weakest album. Most of the tracks have only one or two real verses, signaling that ‘Ye is perhaps running out of steam. This hypothesis is strengthened by his increased use of repetition throughout the album — in “Send It Up” Kanye serves up the line “This the greatest S— in da club/ since ‘In Da Club.’ He also seems to be out of ideas on “New Slaves,” where a lucid, coherent first verse gives way to a repetitious, ill-planned second verse that calls to mind the worst of Nas’ rants.
“Yeezus” has a more electronic sound than any of Kanye’s other albums with the exception of “808s and Heartbreak.” It is also relatively stripped down, resulting in an entirely different sound than any of his previous albums. Gone are the full, layered tracks of “Graduation” or “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and his early-era soul samples are only heard on the album’s closing track, “Bound 2.” Instead we are left with the kind of instrumentals your ten-year-old cousin made when you left him alone with your synthesizer — there is a lot of noise and lasers, but nothing to really enjoy.
Buy “Black Skinhead,” leave the album.
After his latest solo album, there should be no doubt that Kanye West is (or should I say was) in a class of his own. On “Yeezus,” Mr. West is the lead writer of all of his songs and the lead producer of all but one. This is rare for the genre of rap/hip-hop: Of the last 10 Grammy winners for Best Rap Album, only four rep this same claim. The twist? They ALL belong to Mr. West. Although it is truly a self-made album, “Yeezus” also boasts an all-star guest contribution list, including Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Kid Kudi and Daft Punk, with each artist adding to Mr. West’s vision, rather than overshadowing it.
It’s true that Mr. West has, in large part, abandoned his soul-infused roots. In “Yeezus,” he blends dissonant, industrial electronic beats with rasta and Native American musical samples in an overarchingly simplistic style, demonstrating Mr. West’s expansion as an artist. “Yeezus” also demonstrates a clear progression, as tracks like “Bound 2” and “Blood on the Leaves” showcase his ability to twist soul tracks with dark lyrics and gut-pounding beats to create something completely original to the genre. The fact that he has blended all of these extremes into one coherent album deserves recognition and respect.
The true achievement of “Yeezus” is the telling of Mr. West’s life story. Each song corresponds to a different period in his life (in chronological order) and brings us from his beginnings to present day. The desire to make it (“Black Skinhead”), the industry pressure once you do (“New Slaves”), the escape offered by drugs and alcohol (“Hold My Liquor”) and women (“I’m In It”), the urge to rise above it (“Blood on the Leaves and Guilt Trip”) and the eventual settling on a hopeful middle ground (“Bound 2”). What is most exciting about “Yeezus” is this: Based on what Mr. West has already gone through, there is limitless potential for where he will take us next.