By Brent Ables | 19 June 2013
This had to happen someday. Kanye West’s egoism has finally become genuine hubris, and his once all-encompassing vision has doubled back and blinded him at last. Yeezus has to be tragedy, because if it were comedy it would still be a disaster but it would at least be fun. Yeezus, by design, is not fun. And Kanye is no Oedipus, caught in the snares of his own tightly laced fate. This is no atonement for past transgressions, nor is it bold enough to be its own sin. Kanye is clawing his own eyes out now, stuffing his ears, and Yeezus is the hideous soundtrack to his moment of tragic recognition. “I am a god”—and god is dead.
The portents were already in the air over the last few years, for those who wanted to see them. It began with his masterwork. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) is still a classic, but it seems to get harder to listen to every year. As Clay Purdom put it, the same “maximalism that identified it as an instant classic also ushered it immediately into the marble-floored Hall of Fame, and so boredom and irrelevance; the whole record, sorta by design, feels like a cartoon of itself, listened to today.” It was clear that Kanye couldn’t go bigger, and so needed a new direction. Watch the Throne (2011) hinted at the darkness to come, as “Who Gon Stop Me” and “That’s My Bitch” introduced a metallic grind into Ye’s music that mixed strangely with the deliberately superficial lyrics. Then came Cruel Summer (2012); I liked the album well enough, but it was Yeezy’s least critically successful album for a reason. The one thing that had kept Kanye’s music singularly compelling from College Dropout (2004) through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—including even his previously by-far worst effort, 808s & Heartbreak (2008)—was his careful quality control. From guest spots to album sequencing, nothing on his records ever felt out of place. Even when he went a bit too far over the top on Graduation (2007), the grandiosity felt natural within its context. So when Kanye started giving Big Sean and 2 Chainz prominent guest spots, we knew something had gone wrong. But it wasn’t until Kanye’s arresting SNL performances brought Marilyn Manson’s name into the conversation that we knew just how wrong.
Yes, Marilyn Manson is a relevant reference point for Yeezus. As are Nine Inch Nails, Puddle of Mudd, and the solo work of Matthew Friedberger. (No one else besides Friedberger records synth lines as feebly, cheesily ominous as those on “New Slaves.”) Early reviews of this record have applied words like “interesting,” “challenging,” and even “groundbreaking” to Ye’s use of industrial music and rap rock. This seems disingenuous at best. If Kanye’s belief is that bald sonic aggressiveness is as radical as he wants his lyrics to be, then the revolutionary potential of this record is roughly on a par with anything by Rage Against the Machine. Kanye seems to equate the effectiveness of many of these songs, political or otherwise, with their EQ levels and their EQ levels only; he can’t see beyond the adolescent equation of volume with venom, which makes Yeezus the album-length equivalent of a spoiled fourteen-year-old turning up his stereo to piss off his parents.
The way he goes about constructing this new sound in his role as executive producer is mystifying. If you’re going to bring in Daft Punk for production, for instance, why have them trek in the pseudo-goth of “Black Skinhead,” in which they toss half a guitar riff on top of Gary Glitter drums? Aren’t there a thousand producers better suited to this kind of aesthetic? With the exception of Frank Ocean’s “New Slaves” finale, Kanye’s forgotten how to use his guests to build something greater than its parts, either calling them in for novelty value like Daft Punk or capturing them at extremes of disaffection (Keef) and sheer ugliness (Agent Sasco). It’s as though Kanye made half the choices on this record just to test the bounds of what people are willing to call “experimental.” But there’s going outside your comfort zone, and then there’s nailing yourself to a splinter-sharded cross just to prove that you’re capable of shedding blood. The mistake Yeezus/Yeezus makes is that it/he takes its/his own crucifixion for anything more than a cheap spectacle, as if people hadn’t lost interest in watching other people bleed and shit themselves to death centuries ago.
For nine out of these ten tracks, Yeezy seems to have lost every ounce of the charm and charisma that made him such a likeable MC a decade ago—and such a fierce MC so recently. Kanye’s no Waka Flocka Flame; he doesn’t have the power in his voice to make these beats into the assault weapons they need to be for such blunt music to have any effect. Maybe Pusha T could sell “I Am a God,” but Ye just sounds like a sniveling coke-stained rich guy eyefucking his Benjamins after everyone else at the afterparty has passed out from boredom. Maybe Danny Brown could sell the “sweet and sour sauce” bit on “I’m in It,” but then Danny Brown would probably know better than to rap over any backing track featuring Bon Iver’s mewling falsetto (see also: the sickly ambient sewage of “Hold My Liquor”). One wonders if the reason Kanye chose emcees like Chief Keef and Agent Sasco to guest on this material is that he knew someone like Hova would hear these beats and tell Ye to go fuck himself. Or, I dunno, maybe Sasco’s unlistenable honk is just what the rap game needed right now.
The album is full of inexplicable musical decisions. (Do we think better or worse of these after recent revelations that Lupe Fiasco, Cyhi the Prynce, and others ghostwrote heavily, and Rick Rubin had to work until the last possible minute to “save” the record?) But Yeezus is ultimately most repugnant in how it heedlessly collapses all the value dichotomies that Kanye has mined so fruitfully over the years into one bottomless cesspool of narcissism. The conflict between the sacred and the profane, between sin and redemption, was one of the thematic elements that took tracks like “Devil in a New Dress” far above the level of rote sex jams. But here, Yeezy is Yeezus and Yeezus can do no wrong. So why not turn Martin Luther King Jr.‘s historic and inspiring “Free at last!” cry into a lame bra joke? Why not remind us that we’re all slaves because first we didn’t give Kanye what he wanted, and then because we did give Kanye what he wanted? Why not use a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” to lyrically update “Gold Digger”? Why not sit in his Bel-Air mansion and tell you, and your house in the Hamptons, to fuck off? Ye’s arrogance worked wonders in 2010 when he had something to prove, but the world has been on its collective knees for him ever since—what is he so angry about? Who is Kanye’s enemy, exactly? The corporations who fund his million-dollar marketing stunts? The people that buy his records? More importantly, why should any of us care when his music reeks this much of half-assedness?
Speaking as someone whose interest in hip-hop was sparked by Kanye West, I know I don’t. And it’s not because I don’t like “difficult” or “experimental” music, or because I want West to rewrite “We Major” for the rest of his life. I do, and I don’t. It’s because the only things that ever kept someone as self-obsessed as Kanye West artistically interesting—humaneness, naivete, inner conflict, uncertainty—have been replaced by a lyrical and musical hostility that is so groundless and uninteresting that it makes me want to just return all of Kanye’s “Fuck you”‘s and go back to listening to Friendzone. It makes me want to bury the fact that “Bound 2” is maybe the best track Ye’s done since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the end of this review, because that’s exactly where Kanye buries it on the album. Which just goes to show that, for all the distance he puts between himself and everyone else here, Kanye West and I still have one thing in common: neither of us expects you to enjoy this record.