Friday, June 28, 2013

Kanye West's "Yeezus" and the Year of Event Albums

People are always talking about whether a year is or isn't a good year for music.  Personally, since I've been alive -- or at least since I've been music savvy -- I haven't experienced a bad year of music.  Sure, I can say that I like 2006 more than 2007 musically, but I feel like there's always a handful of good stuff to find in any given year.  If there's one thing that distinguishes 2013 from every other year in recent memory, aside from the fact that it's been a particularly good one, is that it's the year of the "event" album.  More than usual, there seems to be a ton of big albums that have caused the world to collectively get excited.  Some albums created a buzz because they were a long-awaited comeback -- My Bloody Valentine released a new album for the first time in 22 years(!) and they picked up right where they left off, while Justin Timberlake followed up his breakthrough pop album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, 7 years later with an album that was somehow more expansive.  Others stirred up the masses just because of how surprising they were, like David Bowie and Vampire Weekend, with the former revealing that he's still got some creativity left in him and the latter dropping an album so mature and well-constructed, that it converted tons of haters.  Meanwhile, some albums made waves through the sheer power of marketing.  Daft Punk's Random Access Memories could also be seen as a comeback, but it's more notable for how well-planned its release was, a perfect combination of mystery and anticipation. And coming up, Jay-Z will release the first truly commercial album, with Magna Carta Holy Grail's interesting/soul-sucking partnership with Samsung.

Despite all of these event albums, none have been more newsworthy than Kanye West's Yeezus.  With just 10 songs and no real singles, it had all the makings of being a minor album (and the slightly lower sales seem to prove that right in the eyes of America), but it's turned out to be quite the opposite.  It may not be the album that breaks the Billboard charts, but it's captured the fervor of the critical community, sparking more thinkpieces than the internet can handle.  Reviewers always want to put Kanye's music in the larger context of his persona, with tons of paragraphs devoted to Kanye the character instead of Kanye the musician.  I had this noble idea that I'd write a purist review of Yeezus where I'd "just talk about the music, man."  There'd be nothing about Kim Kardashian, Kanye becoming a father, or any indulgent analysis of his psyche.

About two listens into Yeezus, I realized how much of a fool's errand that was.  The album seems to be more about himself than any of his other albums, somehow.  I eventually realized that it's not that his personality is more important than the music, it's just that his personality is so indelibly married to the music that it's hard not to at least consider it.  It's so fascinating to fall down the circular rabbit hole of figuring Kanye West out: has the persona bled into the person or does the persona exist because of who he already was as a person?  Kanye's songs have always been about the balance between his ego and his self-awareness about his own flaws, but Yeezus transitions into full ego.  It starts right out of the gate with "On Sight," a clarion call for how abrasive and unapologetic the album will be.  "How much do I not give a fuck?," he asks at one point, and it seems the answer is alot, as we see Kanye as angry and brazen as ever this time around.

Yeezus is full of willful contradictions, which just makes it more interesting to pick apart.  The largest aspect in this regard -- perhaps fittingly, given the title of the album -- is in relation to God.  He oddly mixes aggrandizing with humbleness, stating "I am a god," but immediately following it up with "even though I'm a man of God."  In fact, Kanye constantly makes parallels to himself as a god, and it's ludicrous, but at the same time, is it?  After all, he's got a heavy persecution complex, is misunderstood by many, and has a devoted set of arduous acolytes.  That certainly sounds familiar.  Like a Greek god, his wanton actions have averse effects on the less powerful ("When I park my Range Rover / slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla").  Yet for all the claims of being a higher being, much of the first half of the album is downright feral, like the outro of "Black Skinhead" or the screaming on "I Am a God."  However, the contradictions don't stop there.  "New Slaves" contains some interesting and thoughtful parallels between religion and segregation, yet on the very next song he talks about "owning" a woman.  If there's an overriding theme to Yeezus, it's this matching of opposites.  What shouldn't be good actually is, the ugly sounds pretty, and the one who is fascinated with himself also has others who are fascinated with him.

Musically, the album is just as scattered as it is thematically.  Over the course of 10 songs, Yeezus gives us acid house, spacey electronics, trap music, and most surprisingly reggae/dancehall.  There's no greater example of this than "I'm In It," which is just a giant mishmash, careening from style to style.  Sonically, it's brash and ugly, and I expect that it'll turn many off, but I think it completely succeeds.  There's a dark, industrial sound to many of these songs and listening to this album almost feels like a trip into the headspace of Kanye West, with random sounds popping up at will.  There's an autotuned bridge here, a synth bleat there; anything goes.  The album is all about expecting the unexpected, constantly shifting whenever you get anywhere close to reaching a comfort zone.  Take "Send It Up" for instance, which is a siren-blaring, cold song for much of its runtime, but suddenly ends with a Beenie Man sample that's a weirdly moving rumination on the nature of memory.  Then there's "Bound 2," my favorite song on the album, which recalls Kanye's old soul-sampling days.  Again, it's full of juxtapositions -- the verses are vulgar, but the chorus and the bridge are deeply romantic.  Yeezus is all about emptiness and disconnect, so to end on a note with just a glimmer of optimism floored me.  It's a song that'll linger in your mind long after the last "uh huh, honey."  Kanye saves the best for last, but the centerpiece that holds everything together is the mid-album cut, "Blood On the Leaves."  It's the imperial march of Yeezus, with a commanding beat co-produced by TNGHT, that's likely to get every synapse firing.

If there's any weak spot to be found, then it's definitely in the lyrics.  Some detractors have pointed out how uncomfortably misogynistic and hedonistic his lyrics are, and they're turned up to 11 here, but honestly I've never had a problem with that.  It's interesting and puzzling that we're allowed to separate art from the artist in movies and television shows, but we often have difficulty doing it with music.  You don't hear many people saying that Taxi Driver is a bad movie because Travis Bickle is a racist creep or that Mad Men sucks because Don Draper is a womanizing douchebag.  If we're able to make that disconnect with movies and TV, then I think rap music deserves the same type of consideration.  Plus, Kanye West is certainly doing a more insightful construction of a character than many other rappers who have a women problem.  No, my slight issue is that the quality of rapping has taken a bit of a hit.  Kanye has always been criticized for being a subpar rapper (claims I've never really agreed with), but many of those same people noted his gradual improvement and were impressed by how hungry he sounded on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.  If that's the case, then Yeezus is a definite step back.  It's a quotable album for sure, but in a way that feels specifically constructed to generate a bunch of pull quotes.  The album could've been named Random Access Punchlines with all of the tossed off lines about Asian pussy and croissant demanding that it contains.  Even still, there's some interesting stuff to be found in the lyrics.  West doesn't make any apologies and he even goes as far as attempting to justify himself, rapping "you see there's leaders and there's followers / but I'd rather be a dick than a swallower."  In general, "New Slaves" has his most inspired bits, less of a rap than it is a ferocious barrage of Kanye riffing and venting.

In my review of Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap, I spoke about The College Dropout and recalled how warm Kanye West's music used to be.  It's almost hard to believe that the same guy could make something 10 years later that's so cold and mechanical, keeping you at arms length.  Every other one of his albums are so expansive, yet this one closes in on you.  In a way, it feels like a battle between a bunch of ideas trying to make it to the surface.  Kanye has always been able to rope things in and give his records a cohesive feeling, but here the hodgepodge is the structure.  In lesser hands, this album would completely fall apart, but somehow Kanye is able to keep it from doing so.  Yeezus is hardly his best work, but it's still a fascinating and arresting album nonetheless.

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