“Got the kids and the wife life/but can’t wake up from the night life”-Kanye West, “I’m In It”
Kanye West’s Yeezus is ugly, sparse, pornographic, abrupt, alienating and scary. To hear it is to take it’s beating. “The monster about to come alive again,” he says in the first cut, and its a strategically placed warning, like the bashing of a television set as overture for David Lynch’s un-Twin Peaks Twin Peaks movie. “Monster” was the name of the angriest bile-spewing track on West’s last album, and signifies that that guttural style with hold the most sway in this new collection.
There’s no joy here. Boasts of sexual conquests aren’t boasts at all under the mangled scrim of West’s hoarsely pained vocal delivery and handheld, lost-in-the-club production (a much chided line about being with Asian women thus “all I need is sweet and sour sauce” is layered with a demonically dubbed second voice, rendering the sentiment ominous and tension-fraught). It’s sprinting production and recent completion only weeks ago gives Yeezus the emotional moistness of a recently recovered suicide note. The 70s soul samples that brought so much communal hearth to his beats in the days of producing for The Blueprint and solo albums like Graduation are gummed and distorted beyond repair. Having just begun a family seems to have augmented, rather than staunched, his demons.
If anything, the persistence of the demons has brought him to an unprecedented musical despair. Tracks like “New Slaves” and “Hold My Liquor” rise and fall in choppy pixilated waves of rough acceleration and heartrending free-fall. He’s not happy, not with his continued subtle subjugation by the mainstream media (remember his Good Morning America interview where Matt Lauer spoke to him like he was 5 years old?), not with the vacant materialism of his fellow black success stories, and especially not with the decadence and endless pampering available to him as a God. Mostly, though, he’s unhappy about the fact that he’ll never be happy. His gross ego is justified only in his talents, so how would you feel if you were one of the great modern popular artists and were only known for having a “make a sad girl cry reputation”? On Yeezus he isn’t asking for our sympathy but, like Trent Reznor (the musician this album most shockingly recalls) he’s invited the listener into a nightmarish, chaotic headspace.
Screaming and apocalyptic sirens plague Yeezus. Techno bass and house acid rain isn’t employed for groove, but rather as the horror movie soundtrack for catastrophically failed relationships and emotional terrorism. “Blood On The Leaves” is the album’s most lacerating passage. Layering high notes of Nina Simone’s voice from the track “Strange Fruit.” (The callbacks to nature juxtaposed with the machine music of the record’s whole give the listener a Brechtian image of an artificial tree on an empty stage, perhaps circled by Dogville chalk.) Kanye spills out an oblique, traumatic narrative of---we can only presume---a failed relationship with a groupie who, in the year’s most unnerving lyric, couldn’t handle her liquor so it “came out of your body.” Unlike many other hip-hop kiss off tracks, “Leaves”’ violence and misogyny are underlined by a sensation of total waste, the immolation of talent, connection, intimate potential. Everyone is guilty, the star fuckers and the stars who have come to see others as little more than shown-off Instagram photos. In a reference to the glorious “Runaway”, of which this song is an obvious parallel, Kanye is reduced to mumbling inaudible noises, static tears, into the Auto-Tune ether.
Yeezus is, like his last two albums, and despite its intentional aura of tossed-off dirtiness, an architectural scourge. Lyrics and sonic portents wind and click and compliment each other on different cuts. The overrated Justin Vernon is vocally isolated in a lonely lament of pain before the underrated Kid Cudi is similarly displayed singing “If you loved me so much then why’d you let me go?”, his anguished solo pouring down like hard rain on the album’s minimalist tarp. Beats and voices are blasted into strobe echoes, most disturbingly at the instance of a female orgasm. No joy anywhere. Kanye chants “God” at the close of the bleakly exhilarating “Black Skinhead” which leads into the next track, “I Am A God.” He sees blood on the leaves before “Blood On The Leaves.” Ragga and Dancehall artists like Beenie Man are sampled throughout, partly as a classic West means of enlightening the listener about the history of black music while simultaneously seasoning the composition, but also as a hint to this album’s ultimate aesthetical signpost, which reads “This Way To The Club.”
Simon Reynolds called electronic dance music and rave culture a “journey into sound,” and while Kanye’s overwhelming auteurist presence (not to mention Rick Rubin’s) negates Yeezus as proper house, he’s chipped enough thematic concrete from that music to make his career-long concerns pulse with the blood of rave abandon. Yeezus is a journey into dark sound, and as Pitchfork commented it resembles in the West(ern) canon 808s And Heartbreak most of all. There’s a personal pain merged to the inherently impersonal genre of electronica, but the dancefloor can be a breeding ground for a thousand little tragedies. West can talk about fucking and stacking paper all he wants, but he knows, and the music knows, that it can contradict the speaker and tell the real story. The pumping beat lends both gravity and bodily thrill to the album-wide expression of dissatisfaction, resentment, loss and exhaustion.
Exhaustion is a key component to understanding Yeezus, and the creepy lethargy is articulated in the final song. “Bound 2” samples an old soul tune but unlike a similar brushstroke on, say, Late Registration, the song is grainy, lost in fuzz, as if we’re listening to a 3rd generation bootleg or a radio station that’s going out with the tide the farther we drive from the tower. Kanye’s ferocious flow diminishes to a halting stop-start speech, where he airs grievances in regards to a certain relationship (with a certain culturally noxious figure that all but makes a great work of art disposable gossip fodder for philistine rags.) It’s good dog day hemp music, until. Until. Amid Kanye’s lightly lobbed orders about this being “don’t tell your mom shit,” everything-the degraded sample, his impotent rambling-is stopped dead by an emphatic vocalist who breaks through the numb to bravely intone “I know you’re tired of loving, of loving, with nobody to love.” Then we’re returned to the stoned quotidian, a Nothing To See Here reversal, like the actors in The Truman Show quickly repairing a collapse in the immaculate show set. This breakthrough epiphany comes back in full longing and force, only to be suppressed one more time before the song pathetically deflates. “Bound 2” is difficult stuff and not easy to like, especially if you compare it to “Lost In The World.” Don’t, that’ll get you nowhere. Instead, focus on the sound story “Bound 2” is dramatizing. Think of how much like life the shifts mirror, your daily mired routine in waxy perception and circuitous bitching-until, until that one geyser of passion bursts through your brain, telling you you’re tired, that you can strive for something better, that you can leave with someone else, a metaphorical person or a warm passionate body. And yet, since even the dream is too wretched to consider because you’ve wasted enough time, and striving and failing would be worse than doing nothing (you tell yourself), that outpour is bottled again and stopped.
Uh-huh honey. I’m tired, you’re tired, Yeezus wept. Thank god.