Over the past year, we’ve seen a series of strange episodes from Kanye West, which have included performing dressed in a mask and straight-jacket, and embarking on long, screaming rants during said performances. This, coupled with his very public pregnancy with girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, has almost escalated him to Michael Jackson levels of interest to the media and paparazzi. Never one to control his temper, we’ve seen Kanye try to put on the “nice guy” act during his 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy campaign, resulting in an incredibly, awkward, uncomfortable interview with Matt Lauer, which showed that he cannot hide the man that he truly is.
The strategy moving forward for his latest album, Yeezus, is obviously to embrace his darker side, which means no apologies for manhandling paparazzi or Taylor Swift’s microphone. This is a stripped down Kanye West, a man photographed lately in a simple, all black wardrobe (surely a symbolic gesture), who’s taken a similarly minimalist approach to the release of Yeezus. The album comes with no cover art, has no videos shot for it, and was announced abruptly, just a month before its release. Once the album was 90% complete, Kanye called in Rick Rubin to serve as an executive producer, who broke it down to it’s most basic elements, going for as sparse of sound as possible.
In other words, this is his “Fuck You” album.
But is it any good? Upon first listen, it’s all over the place; a jarring, disjointed, incoherent mess. But like anything, it grows on the listener with each consecutive listen. Admittedly, some of the production does not improve over time, such as the album opener, “On Sight”, an experimental, off kilter track produced by Daft Punk and Benji B. From there, the album gets off to a great start, with the trilogy of “Black Skinhead”, “I Am A God”, and “New Slaves”, each of which find him rhyming with both middle fingers up, over dope, yet extremely pared down beats. It’s here we see the traces of Rubin’s hand.
Yet for an album that is such a departure from anything else he’s done, multiple listens reveal this is unquestionably Kanye. “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It” find heavier beats for Ye’s manifesto, while the trap driven “Blood On The Leaves” and “Guilt Trip” slightly hark back to his autotuned 808s & Heartbreak sound. Once it has soaked in, the elements of Kanye’s production style reveal themselves in full regalia.
As a record that challenges its audience, some of these will be hard to grasp even after the listener knows the album front-to-back. Just like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories before it, this isn’t something you can needle-drop, nor deliver a 140 character “review” of it an hour after you snagged the leak. Daft Punk are in fact responsible for two of the album’s best tracks, the aforementioned “Black Skinhead” and “I Am A God”, but also two of it’s worst, with the glitchy opening number “On Sight” and the noisy, elephant-trumpeting closer “Send It Up”. The album ends on an almost Dilla-inspired, classic Kanye production with “Bound 2″.
The fun loving Kanye West of songs like “Good Life”, “Stronger”, and “Gold Digger” is nowhere to be found on this album. Ironically, the success of those songs, actually led to to the paparazzi-hounded, media-scrutinized, no-filter Yeezus persona whom is presented here. This bolder, unapologetic, venting version of West is closer to Chuck D than Jay-Z; his usual brand of beautiful music is exchanged for an almost under-produced sound that forces you to listen to every word he has to say.
Many artists have their own Illmatic – that is, the standard set by themselves that every other release will be compared to, and in Kanye’s case, it really could be any of his albums. While it would have been simple for him to essentially release a new version of the same album every other year, Kanye has taken the road less traveled, and opted to challenge both himself and his audience. While this is not what many were expecting, and some will not be able to enjoy it all, he still has managed to defy expectations and add another solid release to his repertoire.
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