Kanye’s West’s entire career has been aimed at becoming the biggest pop culture star in the world. With a tabloid queen as his baby’s mom and the mainstream’s favorite power couple as his big brother and sister, Mr. West has finally created a platform so large that no corporate interest or cultural bias can silence him. Now that he has his money right and the world’s undivided attention, his sixth solo album “Yeezus” is the message he’s been trying to sneak to the masses for the past decade.
West already took Hip Hop to its sonic limits with “Watch The Throne.” But the vast scope of the Jay-Z collaboration limited Kanye’s political expression to ironic symbols of Black opulence and somber reflections on the state of the world (“Ain’t nothin’ on the news but the blues,” he decried woefully). “Yeezus” lets the panther out of its cage, unapologetically unleashing Kanye’s roaring ego on the world’s greatest cultural taboos.
Race, sex and religion are the topics on the agenda, and West is as bi-polar as ever when addressing all three. “I am a God, even though I’m a man of God,” he says, earnestly flirting with blasphemy. Vulgar references to eating ass and fisting models on “I’m In It” are contradicted by the hopelessly romantic quotables of “Bound 2.” (“One good girl is worth a thousand bitches”). But “Yeezus’s” most striking bars paint West as the most polarizing racial figure in all of mainstream America. “They see a Black man with a White woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong,” he yells defiantly on “Black Skinhead.”
The orchestral chords and lush soul samples that West built his career on are stripped down to make his message appear plain as day. In addition to amplifying his harsh words, the minimalist approach allows Kanye to freely travel to every corner of the international music landscape. Mixing sparse elements of Punk, Afro-Caribbean and Country into his already deep well of Hip Hop, Electro and Soul inspirations, West succeeds in creating a genre all his own. But while it’s impressive to hear “Yeezus” walk across music’s many waters without being submerged by any of them, the lack of a cohesive sound makes the project hard to digest in the microwave culture of modern music.
Long term, “Yeezus” may be as influential as 2008’s “808’s & Heartbreak,” which laid the blueprint for artists like Drake and Kid Cudi to blur the boldly drawn lines of traditional Hip Hop. But for now it’s hard to tell. West has always claimed to be an explorer (“I’m Christopher Columbus, y’all just the pilgrims,” he proclaimed on “Swagger Like Us”) but the musical leaps he takes on “Yeezus” truly prove that he’s not afraid to jump completely off of Hip Hop’s boat and into the uncharted waters he calls “Black New Wave.” With legendary genre-pusher Rick Rubin helping to steer this state-of-the-art ship, “Yeezus” goes on a far more daring exploration of popular music’s limits than 2011’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
West unites C-Murder and Nina Simone on “Blood On The Leaves,” an out-of-body experience that shows why Kanye is one of music’s greatest living pioneers. Over No Limit-era horn stabs and pre-Civil Rights-era screams, Kanye jumps in and out of different sides of himself (from “808’s” emo crooner to “Graduation’s” fearless spitter) to create a modern Negro spiritual that serves as the album’s sonic climax. “Black Skinhead,” “Send It Up” and “I’m In It” are also creative highs, subtly blending a unique range of sounds and eras into cohesive pieces of futuristic art.
Not every track hits its mark, though. As fun as it is to hear Chief Keef croon “Hold My Liquor’s” auto-tuned chorus, it will go down alongside “Drunk And Hot Girls” as one of the few blatant bricks in Kanye’s pristine catalog. “On Sight” may be the most disappointing opener he’s ever released, as his electric flows and clever bars are drowned out by Daft Punk’s off-kilter techno beat. “I Am A God” and “Guilt Trip” are also trapped in the space between good and G.O.O.D., lacking the final touch that the “perfectionist Kanye” of past albums would have dug deeper for.
But this was Kanye trying not to try so hard. “This whole process is all about giving no fucks at all,” he told reporters during a private listening session last week. Not giving a fuck about some of the musical decisions may have hurt the overall product, but the true legacy of this album will likely be the “fuck it” approach West took to marketing. With concert rants serving as his only consistent means of communication with fans, West took creative control of his rollout, premiering videos on buildings and refusing to play the mainstream media game.
Kanye’s decision to go Bobby Boucher on the rap game’s current model doesn’t excuse the subpar quality of the album. But it does give context to some of ‘Ye’s more puzzling creative decisions. He’s so devoted to pushing culture forward that he feels the need to pop a wheelie on every verse he spits. It’s not until the final track that he mellows out enough to throwback to the smart aleck vibe that made him a star in the first place. His career-long refusal to get too cozy in any creative comfort zone has kept him ahead of every curve music has turned on in the past decade. But “Yeezus” may mark the point where West’s insatiable desire for originality drove him over the edge and into Patrick Bateman territory: Taking hacks at musical greatness with an axe while a raincoat covers his designer threads.
But when the blood is dry, what does “Yeezus” mean for Yeezy’s legacy? Is Kanye officially the new age coming of the Christ conscious (as he’s been trying to convince us for years)? Or is he simply a stray soul in need of saving? Is he the loudest reverberation of our universal ego or Brad Pitt in “Fight Club,” seeking to release society’s collective id? Don’t ask him— he doesn’t give a fuck either way, remember? But do ask yourself and your fellow fans why Kanye continues to be the most important character in pop culture.
It’s not record sales; those stopped mattering when his career was just beginning to take off. And it’s not the content; 2004’s “All Falls Down” isn’t much different from 2013’s “New Slaves” in terms of subject matter. So if West is just the B-boy who used a pink Polo to infiltrate the system, does “Yeezus” signal the completion of his mission? It’s highly unlikely. But even with the minimalist approach, it’s never that simple with Kanye West.