To say that Kanye West is full of contradictions is to say nothing at all, yet everything at once. It’s impossible to take a piece of his art (and this includes his persona, which has evolved from possibly infuriating to chaotically fascinating) and analyze it in a succinct manner. To do that would be to rob the art of its value and the audience of the experience that is Kanye West. In simpler terms, his complexity and duality are inseparable from not just how his audience perceives him, but also how he creates music. For every “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”-style quote that Kanye sends out, there is a populist flourish in his music that fails to mask his want for attention. This all makes Yeezus, his sixth solo effort, the most difficult album in his catalog to understand and to evaluate, even as it feels like the one that was easiest for him to make.
Yeezus was built up as Kanye’s political manifesto, a type of hype that is as off-putting as it is intoxicating. This build-up was supported by the first two invasive methods of release that he used to show off songs from the album. Coming both to the heart of cities worldwide with his projections of “New Slaves” and into the homes of White America on Saturday Night Live, Kanye forced everyone to consider the possibility that the man who once said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” wasn’t done making your politics feel uncomfortable. Like most hype, however, it turned out to be a half-truth, because Yeezus is not a political album. Rather, it is Kanye’s second purely emotional album, following the criminally underrated 808s & Heartbreak. This time, the emotion isn’t lovestruck sadness or robotic isolation. With Yeezus, Kanye explores a side that has for the most part remained away from his music: rage.
There’s always been rage bubbling inside Mr. West, but it’s been (relatively) contained for his five previous albums; even a song as furious as “Power” was more about internalizing his greatness and expelling the braggadocious feelings that came with it. “No one man should have all that power,” Kanye famously rapped in 2010 on another Saturday Night Live set, but when he returned in 2013, we found out just how strongly he meant that, and just how badly that power had warped him. Because the power that Kanye West has? It’s not enough. He’s smashed against the glass ceiling of his own fame, and he is smart enough to be irate that it’s shockproof.
Yeezus, then, is his form of a battering ram. From the start of the Daft Punk-on-heroin robo-orgasm that is “On Sight”, Kanye is livid, and his targets are vast. He’s pissed at the world that continues to mock everything he does (the most recent being his audacity to fall in love and have a child with a symbol of supposed rotten American celebrity worship). He’s furious at those who believed that Watch The Throne and Cruel Summer were the end of Kanye West, Infalliable Rap Superstar. But most of all, he seems to be angry with himself, a fitting state for the most self-aware and self-loathing rock star of the last decade.
This self-hatred permeates throughout Yeezus, with every song having a griminess to it that on the surface appears to be purposefully antagonistic, but is really a representation of the inner turmoil of a man who has everything and wants more. “New Slaves” uses the royal we for the plight of the African-American with relation to consumerism (a topic expressed in a more charming if not less powerful manner on “All Falls Down”), but is really Kanye yelling at himself for getting caught up in wanting to be ahead of a society that sees him as unworthy. The light percussive elements and “Clique”-level goth transitions only help to rattle, throwing more attention to some of Kanye’s most direct commentary yet (even if the “leaders/followers/dick/swallowers” line feels like a bad Childish Gambino joke). “Fuck you and your corporation/y’all niggas can’t control me” rings true for anti-advertisement philosophies, but as described in the must-read New York Times, this isn’t a hypothetical for Kanye; those corporations have tried to control him time and time again.
Kanye attempts to fight back with Yeezus, holding on to every bit of control that he can. Aside from all of the marketing tactics that Kanye has employed (the guerrilla unveiling, the lack of cover art or adornments, his Governor’s Ball rant against radio), the real reason Yeezus achieves its goal is that it manages to be both uncomfortable and banging. The obscenely stupid yet infinitely entertaining “I Am A God” almost folds under its own propulsive beat (chalking that one up to the “featuring God” part) while Kanye rhymes “God” with “God” multiple times before shouting this album’s “Yeezy Taught Me” meme line: “In a French-ass restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants” is hilarious and mind-boggingly silly, but it works. Elsewhere, the beat on “Black Skinhead” goes HAM in the vein of Gary Glitter, while jumping around from interracial romance (that “King Kong” line is immediately a top 5 most affectingly honest Kanye diatribe on race) to “Chiraq” and the painful violence inflicted on his hometown.
Yeezus isn’t without its thematic problems, however, as “I’m In It” and “Blood on the Leaves” do the heavy lifting on the idea that Kanye West is not ready to be a changer of worlds. The former has groan-worthy lines that blur sex and race together (a tactic that he has used throughout his career better than most) in ways that are more akin to Action Bronson than Public Enemy. Not even the dancehall insanity of Assassin (aka Agent Sasco) can save the song from feeling like a step back thematically. It still sounds fantastic, but that’s more a side effect of Kanye than a reason for celebration. Similarly, “Blood on the Leaves” is quite possibly the best-sounding song in his entire catalog, as TNGHT’s “R U Ready” battles with a sample of Black History Classic “Strange Fruit” for supremacy; the juxtaposition of ‘Production Consultant’ Hudson Mohawke’s horns and Nina Simone’s pained delivery is worth the price of admission. It’s a shame that Kanye’s lyrics veer off into unfortunate territories, seemingly equating one of this country’s most shameful acts of violence (lynching) to a failed relationship.
Yet, it doesn’t feel accidental or, as some have suggested, like a sign that Kanye needs someone to tell him when enough’s enough. Instead, it feels like a man who has lost the ability to escalate his power (there’s that word again), and instead uses his misogynistic tendencies as subterfuge with regards to his masculine insecurity. It’s vile and it’s reprehensible, but only when taken in isolation; there’s a real desire to change under the surface that’s starting to poke out. By all accounts, Kanye is happier than he has been in years with Kim Kardashian, and is now a father to a baby girl; he appears to be working through the misconceptions of his relationships with women, albeit in a very public manner, and that has to count for something. In album closer “Bound 2”, he steps back to the celebratory period of his life (think of it as a Graduation outtake remixed by College Dropout era Kanye) to find that he wants to make it work, whatever it means to him: “And hey, ayo, we made it to Thanksgiving/ So, hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas!” It’s a simple feeling, but it’s a sign of change, and it excites for a future Kanye that doesn’t rely on misogyny to drive home a point.
Among the rumbles of electronic ‘Minimalism by Kanye West and Rick Rubin’ (that this album is a piece of ‘minimalist art’ is the biggest misconception surrounding it, for what it’s worth) and the primal screamo shrieks from the man himself, Yeezus manages to be Kanye at his most open, perhaps ever. Yes, he has recorded an album about his depression before, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe that 808s & Heartbreak is the biggest influence on this record. But this is Kanye at his most exploratory; this is Kanye on his own vision quest. It gets ugly, because inside every human being there is filth and sludge that we would all like to forget. Not Kanye, however. He’s put himself out in every contradictory way possible: God, loser, helpless, genius, egomaniac, lover, father, cretin. If Walt Whitman once praised the feeling of containing multitudes, Kanye is taking it to another level: he is admitting that he is multi-faceted and that it scares the hell out of him, because he wants so desperately to control his own being. He’s getting there. It’s put best in the psych-soul outro of “New Slaves” (the best moment on the entire album), as sung by Frank Ocean: “And I’m not dying, and I can’t lose/ I can’t lose, no, I can’t lose.”