Kanye West: Yeezus – review

Harsh rhythms crash, dance beats drop out, soul samples grate, voices warp. Is West's dementedly contrary album the sound of a music star just doing his job?

On 14 June, the website buzzfeed.com published a list titled Eight Reasons You Won't Hear Yeezus Early, detailing the remarkable security measures installed to prevent Kanye West's sixth studio album from leaking on to the internet before its release date. These included not working in recording studios, lest one of their employees make a copy of the music; declining to communicate with engineers or producers via email and keeping all work in progress not on a computer, but on a hard drive locked in an airtight, watertight case, that can, according to its manufacturers, withstand everything from plane crashes to being blown up by insurgents. "Kanye West," it announced, "is basically the only major star who's worked out how to keep his music from leaking." A grand total of four hours after this compelling argument appeared online, buzzfeed.com was obliged to issue a Tweet. "So much for all that," it read. "Yeezus has leaked."

One suggestion was that West himself might be responsible for the leak. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to note that contrary behaviour of that nature would certainly fit with Yeezus itself, which is as dementedly contrary an album as you're going to hear from a major artist this year. It is an album on which a man who collaborated on a $1,600 pair of sandals with footwear designer Giuseppe Zanotti (who has now reduced them to $230) rails against the evil influence of aspirational fashion on the black community, with specific reference to the 2011 GQ menswear designer of the year and creative director of Balenciaga: "spending everything on Alexander Wang – new slaves," snarls West, recently spotted doing his bit to emancipate African-Americans from the yoke imposed on them by the 2011 GQ menswear designer of the year and creative director of Balenciaga by wearing one of his jumpers.

It is an album that paints a compelling pen portrait of what West calls "rich nigger racism" – the condescending luxury goods salesman hiding his contempt behind a mask of obsequiousness – that would be perhaps be more compelling still, if the man who came up with it didn't subsequently come up with the line: "Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce." And it is an album that samples Nina Simone's version of Strange Fruit, then presses it into service on a song about how awful it is that Kanye West has to sit in a different part of the VIP area at a basketball game to his ex-girlfriend, lest she bump into his current girlfriend, a situation he compares to – assume the brace position now – apartheid. "My message isn't perfectly defined," he told the New York Times recently, which once you've heard Yeezus, seems like a rare moment of shy understatement.

There are three possible responses to this kind of thing. The straightforward one is that West is an idiot, so mired in a fog of narcissism and self-delusion that he doesn't realise the full implications of what he's saying: if you tend to that interpretation, you'd have plenty of company. The second is that he appears to be having some kind of meltdown: that Yeezus represents the most extreme manifestation in the history of pop of the pre-fatherhood jitters most men feel during their partner's first pregnancy. The other response, however, is that West knows exactly what he's doing and that, from its title down, Yeezus is intended as a deliberately contrary, ambiguous act of provocation in a musical world where provocation is in pretty short supply. These days, pop stars of West's commercial stature usually tend to bland professionalism. They do not adhere to the motto he offers on I Am a God: "soon as they like you, make 'em un-like you."

That latter interpretation is bolstered by the fact that the music on Yeezus is as jarring and antagonistic and contrary as the words. It is influenced by EDM and Chicago house, co-opting Daft Punk – progenitors of the former, students of the latter – to make the kind of music some people doubtless wish they'd made instead of Random Access Memories: a screaming, distorted acid line runs through the opening On Sight; I Am a God offers up a bass pulse overlaid with epic, cavernous synthesisers; the mid-tempo four-to-the-floor thud of Send It Up is strafed with electronic squeals and bursts of menacing, growling bass. And yet, for all its dance influences, if West were any more intent on preventing you from dancing, he'd come round to your house and tie your ankles together. The beats suddenly drop out, seemingly unrelated sounds and textures crash into the mix, often out of time; over and over again I Am a God short-circuits, the bass pulse variously replaced by bursts of noise, arrhythmic silence – as if someone's just leaned on the pause button by accident – and an interlude entirely comprised of screaming and panting. It's simultaneously incredibly powerful and deeply disconcerting.

It's not the only point at which Yeezus seems to be going out of its way to unsettle the listener. The sound feels harsh and strip-lit and punishing: on several occasions, not least the battering bovver-glam drum and sampled screaming of Black Skinhead, West appears to be operating under the influence of industrial music. The crackling old soul samples don't add their traditional warm glow: they either spin gratingly out of time with the beats or else are fragmented into piercing squeaks and squeals. When Bon Iver's Justin Vernon turns up on Hold My Liquor, his singing is electronically warped until it sounds like it's been put through one of those voice changers documentaries and news shows use to preserve anonymity.

The lyrics often sound like a kind of unfiltered, instinctual vomiting forth of thoughts in a world of PR control and damage limitation. They're variously shocking, funny, thought-provoking, nonsensical, contradictory and occasionally reprehensible: the only consistent thing about them is how inconsistent they are. Despite that, Yeezus never sounds self-indulgent. The sonic chaos behind the words seems very precisely rendered, it's an album that's clearly been tightly edited: it clocks in at 40 minutes, which by the standards of your average hip-hop album, makes it the very model of brevity. It all feels intended, which gives further lie to the notion that its maker is either dumb or nuts. Perhaps he just understands better than most of his peers that musical stars are meant to be extraordinary, provocative, divisive, controversial figures. Noisy, gripping, maddening, potent, audibly the product of, as he put it "giving no fucks at all", Yeezus is the sound of a man just doing his job properly.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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