June 19, 2013 11 comments
Jon Caramanica, in his latest seminal, career-spanning interview, asked of Kanye West:
Do you believe in the concept of regret?
“If anyone’s reading this waiting for some type of full-on, flat apology for anything, they should just stop reading right now.”
That’s bravado at a level we’ve come to expect from one of the more unerringly self-assured artists of our time. But a statement like that swiftly loses any reverence if the accompanying body of work isn’t as daring, personal, combative and, literally, unapologetic as the above statement. And, as far as finalized, edited material goes, an expansive New York Times interview is the closest thing we got to an official single from Kanye this album cycle. From the artless cover, to the promotion of scheduled projections on city walls, to the sudden release date, (interestingly coinciding with the birth of his first child) Yeezus is an album that shouts loudly from a purposefully submerged perspective. It begs to be apologized for, but sternly makes no attempt at contrition from the standpoint of its creator.
Which leads the one central issue: as exciting as it is to see an artist of Kanye’s stature extend his reach to some uncharted territory, when he’s not bending the medium to his own forte (soul, of any iteration), West often comes off as more of an observer than a purveyor when he attempts to immerse himself in foreign influences. His sophomore release Late Registration stretched towards orchestral pomp, and tied meticulously-mined soul samples into elaborate, live instrumentation. The followup, Graduation, stretched for the stadium, and channeled his ego into a Yeezy-sized vector. 808s & Heartbreak stretched for melancholy electropop and, while flawed, somehow nailed it’s muddled, obscure target. And, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, stretched for a, sort of, maximalist circus act and somehow grew to be a grand amalgamation of every Kanye album prior.
Yeezus seems to just be, well… Stretching. Luckily, it grabs some great material on the way down.
There’s a lot more to read into much of the marketing (or lack thereof) leading up to West’s sixth studio LP, but the music speaks volumes on its own. Which is, ultimately, the angle best taken when approaching this record. Kanye seems to be on a hellbent campaign to will his listeners into embracing his present state, not just lyrically, but sonically. This makes the enlisting music’s most malleable producer, Rick Rubin, even more conducive to this abrasive and immediate mindset. The first track we got a taste of from this set of 10 was “New Slaves”, a spare, heart-racing delineation of the modern racial and socio-economic climate that veers into late new wave as much as it does into quasi-trap. This is the work of Daft Punk shaping themselves into a Kanye production clone and Rubin doing his famous “reduction” work. It’s an apt microcosm of some of the best Yeezus has to offer.
The flip side of this is the album that seems to have been discarded for the sake of this particular aesthetic. Yeezus opens with “On Sight”, an acid house, synth parade that could easily exist as an unfinished b-side on DP’s Random Access Memories. It sounds distinctly unique to what one would expect from West, but also executed with enough ferocity to warrant the cacophony that ensues. This trend follows with “Black Skinhead”, easily Ye’s most tribal turn, and “I Am a God” which sounds less ego-maniacal and more like a self-assuring tantrum (even down to the primal screams and desperate breaths.) The former boasts a pulse reminiscent of M.I.A. in her Kala days, racing to match Kanye’s (even more) racially charged lyrics — “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” The latter, featuring an inexplicable Capleton sample, sees West demanding he be acknowledged and treated like a deity, yet still showing flashes of his signature insecurity.
It all sounds as frantic and dislocated as West might want it to sound, but it also sacrifices cohesiveness for that initial shock. Not that the first half of Yeezus is necessarily bad, but the central purpose of this scaled-back impetus seems to exist most vividly in West’s head, and is never conveyed clearly enough to make up for some of the sloppiness in execution.
It’s at the Chief Keef and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) assisted “Hold My Liquor” that things get really interesting. Chief Keef delivers what may be the most appropriately, and effortlessly, slurred hooks in recent memory, setting the stage for what effectively exceeds as the superior sequel to Graduation‘s “Drunk and Hot Girls”. Following is “I’m In It”, a sinister take on the dark dancehall inflections his label signee, Pusha T, has been playing with recently. Luckily, it bangs hard enough to bypass some awful lines by Ye, all culminating the gag-worthy signoff, “I be speaking Swaghili.” Ugh.
The second half finds a niche that the first tried to force possibly too emphatically, and calls into a question how the sequencing could be this disjointed with so many hands all over it. A look into the credits sees personnel ranging from contributing producers, writers, editors, vocalists and engineers that number in dozens. It all comes down to the one single, mature realization that all Kanye West fans should have had by now: Ye does not have majority input in his compositions anymore. He may have final say and conceptual direction, but the result of this many brains in one room is what you get here (and, to a lesser extent, last year’s Cruel Summer compilation.) Now, having multiple musicians at one’s disposal isn’t a grand indictment. Again, the additional contributors actually help Yeezus find a flow towards the latter end. But, where Kanye may avoid some blame for this record’s failures, he also can’t accept full credit for its successes.
The first major success here is the Nina Simone/TNGHT-sampling “Blood on the Leaves”. Rather than use this opportunity to prop himself up on a soapbox constructed by one of the most gorgeous pieces of social/racial/historical commentary, “Strange Fruit”, Kanye uses it to relay memories with an unnamed female he, supposedly, had a falling out with after one fateful night. And, not only is this premise absurd, it actually works solely on juxtaposition alone. Not to mention the heavy “R U Ready” flip and the downright filthy interpolation of C-Murder’s classic “Down 4 My Niggas”. Following is “Guilt Trip”, which, for the score card, is a song featuring the recently label-departed Kid Cudi singing the phrase, “if you love me so much, then why’d you let me go?” Yeah, that happened. Borrowing Popcaan’s contribution to Pusha’s “Blocka”, it’s a hodgepodge of a track that West, in the only way he knows how, ties together neatly. The penultimate “Send it Up” is really the only misstep to occur late on Yeezus. Chicago trap/drill vet, King L, is more than capable over the siren-laden instrumental, but the track seems to meander too joylessly to carry the momentum it’s being asked to here.
Surprisingly, the best track offered is the one that every Kanye fan will find the most familiarity in. “Bound 2”, the closer, is clearly West’s most recognizable (in terms of catalog consistency) of the lot. But, just because it takes a soul snippet and loops it into an addictive melody all its own, while mixing Charlie Wilson’s reliably epic vocals into a makeshift bridge, doesn’t immediately propel it into greatness. That’d be too shortsighted of an analysis to draw. Instead, it’s Kanye’s comfort level on this track that makes it stand out. He’s still relying on corny punchlines (“Brad reputation”…) but it’s in the context of something tangible, real, and, most importantly, a topic he knows how to artistically display: love.
And that seems to be the major flaw with Ye’s most opaquely ambitious album to date. Kanye knows what he wants out of this record, but simply not how to flesh it out. So, the highlights are often when he proudly reverts to old reflexes, and the pitfalls are often attempts at shoving said reflexes through this new filter (the overuse of autotune on “Blood on the Leaves” and “Hold My Liquor”, the poorly-paced Omega sample at the end of “New Slaves”). There are some daring chances taken here, but the sum of these parts aren’t fully realized, no matter what angle you look at it. Certainly, that’s not something West should apologize for. This is as transitional as an album gets. An audio chiseling of the sculpture that once was, waiting to be abraded into something more tangible. And, with the flaws of process baring for the world to see, Kanye has the luxury of not having to feel a single regret for that.