Objectionable and often indefensible, Yeezus is a work of art that deserves not so much acclaim as an acknowledgement. It is a deeply flawed record. It is, as many reviews have pointed out, viscerally abrasive. It is also assaultive towards women, who exist on most tracks as targets, and occasionally as symbols of conquest, victims of wider power struggles. Kanye’s mood isn’t so much slighted as it is perpetually, aggressively aggrieved. A tribute to impotent male rage in the face of power, Yeezus’s perspective on women is only the most glaring of Kanye’s crimes.
He manipulates heavy cultural signposts—"Strange Fruit," 17-year-old gangster rappers, brash anti-populist production tics, even the language of the Civil Rights Movement—to give his work more weight, to shore up his status as an auteur and to hint at something bigger. It shields him from criticism; we can overlook clunky lyrics ("rap-lic priest," really?) because of the rapper’s overarching aspiration to Serious Art.
A tribute to impotent male rage in the face of power, Yeezus’s perspective on women is only the most glaring of Kanye’s crimes.
Sonically, the record’s DNA is not unlike that of M.I.A.: brash, electro, art school-friendly. Despite the presence of King Louie and Chief Keef, and 'Ye’s pre-release references to Chicago House, the touchstones feel more like allusions than roots. This is not music of a place. It is regionless, cosmopolitan. TNGHT, Nina Simone, Gary Glitter, Beenie Man, Assassin, the obvious touch-points in industrial music and its distorted, disruptive textures—Yeezus is detached, curated, distant from any recognizable scene or style. Despite all the influences, it feels lonely; each collaborator, each reference point, refracts the light onto Kanye West.
The result is a record that works as a Rorschach Test. A good hangover shortcut is to spend a day reading social media, forums, and reviews, taking a shot every time you find yourself thinking, "that’s a reach." Rhapsody writer Mosi Reeves observed that West's approach "encourages our zeal to proclaim his genius" before we can even judge the record for ourselves, almost as if its success or failure were built upon its timing and positioning in the media cycle, rather than any qualities of the music itself.
The question when approaching this record often comes down to whether ‘Ye deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal either rejects the idea that an artist's intention matters, or sees it as beside the point. To him, 'Ye’s anger is self-flagellation, not misogyny. The record, whatever Kanye’s intent, is about a man, "broken down, insecure, and bloody, railing against an ineptitude with the opposite sex."
This doesn’t feel like a stretch, at least, although it does seem far from a resolved truth (the lines between self-hate and misogyny are often blurry). But yes: Kanye has managed to avoid being pinned down. Separate the art from the artist, even if the artist’s work itself intentionally blurs those very lines. His art clearly does point to a broken down, insecure man; does it matter whether or not he’s aware of it? Much of the time, the answer is no. He can fail at the political, fail at being thoughtful, act as pure id; it’s all part of the performance.
But this logic breaks down when the weighty signifiers get the best of him. As Al Shipley wrote in Baltimore's City Paper, "Increasingly, Kanye West’s lyrics feel like the result of a gross misunderstanding of the phrase 'the personal is political': the rampant use of imagery loaded with poignant historical context in service of mainly describing the life of a drugged out, oversexed celebrity."
That's a good description of the album's apex, "Blood on the Leaves." Here, Kanye takes a revered piece of American history, "Strange Fruit," immediately drawing in a wealth of extra-textual concerns: ideas about lynching, terrorism, the most horrific oppression in this country’s history. And he weds it to a song about himself (or a character we think might be him), and his relationship with a woman, and personal feelings about it, and his particular agony. Is he really comparing his struggles with lynching? When you whittle it down, what possible justification could he have for this? Simply trusting this is a character study doesn’t really make this song pass any easier. It becomes a leap of faith, the idea that he must have some deeper message, and a pretty large one at that.
The more leeway you give him—and many fans and critics give him a lot of leeway—the more it seems like a reach.
The more leeway you give him—and many fans and critics give him a lot of leeway—the more it seems like a stretch. This is the hard line where cynicism feels justified, and no amount of mental gymnastics can make this song anything but ugly. "Blood on the Leaves" is the moment where everything should collapse.
If you’ve read this far, you might think this is an attempt to tear the record down. It started out that way. Unbelievably, despite it all, Yeezus is an incredibly engaging album. It is a curious puzzle; as an artist, Kanye refuses to be boxed in.
Even his "mistakes" feel like conscious decisions to overlook steps most other artists would take; the way the album fits together is often jarring, although one easily imagines 'Ye simply being unconcerned with the idea of a transition; why spend time crafting segues when there are more interesting ideas to occupy his time? A celebrity living untethered, he has no obligations to his audience, is interested purely in creation, spurning and upending our expectations at every turn. He has crafted, for all its faults, a piece of undeniable capital-A Art.
As a genre, one of hip-hop’s revolutionary victories came in reorienting our ears to the micro-developments of language in song. Rap is an artform of relative density. Whether listening to party-rap hedonists, gangster rap street prophets, or to the most lyrical of lyricists, we follow a rapper’s individual lines.
For all the talk of Kanye’s recent grandiosity, his musical overload has always been more about songcraft, macro-largesse. His style as a rapper, at least since 2007's Graduation, is much more tossed-off, impulsive, and uncomplicated. Rapping is simply a single dimension of the multivalent levels (there’s levels to this shit!) of a man seen as a cultural figure, visionary, celebrity, and personality. His rapping is in a feedback loop with Kanye as a personality, Kanye as a star. What he says indicates (or is intended to indicate) meaning "greater" than the literal meaning of his words.
But Kanye does locate art in his rapping—just not where most expect to find it. The impact of his lyrics is often better felt after you've turned off the record, later in the day. You're walking down the street and suddenly realize that you're repeating a line from the record; Kanye's verses have a way of sticking in the listener’s head. It’s an underrated, long-running characteristic of hip-hop. It’s one of the genre's great functional purposes, summarized so eloquently (if you forgive the conflation of "phrase" and "word") by Rakim: "I take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it, now it’s a daily word."
Kanye’s already hit meme gold with "Hurry up with my damn croissants." This is where he locates creativity in verse. It’s the kind of thing that, one imagines, doesn’t involve sitting down with a pen and a pad for hours, raking through precise political or nuanced statements. It relies instead on fluid, cathartic release of emotion, the unrehearsed, eye-roll-inducing lyrics ("Swaghili") and the more brilliant ones coexisting, each equally likely to become the next quote that achieves viral presence through culture.
While most rappers are painting, Yeezus takes up physical space.
This logic carries to his musical ideas as well; crashing Beenie Man into the alarm-klaxon production of "Send It Up" was a perfect blend of two unexpected elements that congeal into something completely new. This has been his genius from the time when he was only known as a producer. This time around, meshing these particular sonic ingredients might not make it the most colorful album—I mostly picture hard edges, plaster and steel, greys and whites. The record has the presence and substance of sculpture. While most rappers are painting, Yeezus takes up physical space.
Other critics have maligned him for not releasing the political manifesto "New Slaves" promised, instead continuing his solipsistic quest for creative greatness. This perspective seems to misunderstand his entire career, which has been based upon bridging, or destroying, the false dichotomy of "ignorant" and "conscious" music. As old heads fantasize about the return of a righteous Chuck D-like figure—whose own relevance to younger audiences was undercut by the rise of the morally-compromised narrators of gangsta rap—Kanye continues creating art that is radically subjective. He is blending narrative traditions: first person "reality rap," as a wildly successful celebrity rapper, with an awareness of—if not a deep understanding of—the progressive tradition.
As in "Blood on the Leaves," though, this doesn't excuse the flaws that do surface. Kris Ex's review in the LA Times points to the record's most actively hateful affect. "The glaring deficiency in West's raps on Yeezus," Ex writes, "is not his skillset as much as it is his utter lack of empathy for women as human beings." Kanye's misogynistic rage feels misdirected. It seems that he's aware of this, but not always in control of it. And it's so extreme, that his self-awareness is not always an adequate defense.
George Orwell once wrote a piece about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer entitled "Inside the Whale." Miller's novel was published at a crucial time in world history, when the German concentration camps were being filled and totalitarianism was reaching its long arm throughout Europe and Asia. Political writing was in vogue, although to Orwell, the bulk of it had blurred the line between art and propaganda so thoroughly that most of its writers had sacrificed honesty in the name of ideology. Meanwhile, the aesthetic writing of earlier decades was detached from world events, and now seemed woefully out of touch with hard realities of the world.
Tropic of Cancer never really addressed politics, but it also seemed uninterested in the bourgeois exercises in form. Instead, it was about the experiences of common man. And in times of totalitarianism, the common man was like the Bible's Jonah, inside the whale: he simply endures. Miller's writing wasn't railing against injustice, even though it was everywhere. His narrative was passive, his protagonist focused on survival in an environment of government control.
Kanye is using the language of the self to get at something the "common man" has experienced.
Kanye isn't passive, and the kind of totalitarianism that threatened Europe in the mid-20th century is different than the dangers of the world today. Slate's Carl Wilson—who has written perhaps the most insightful piece on Yeezus to date—noted that Kanye's self-contradictions reflect society's ambiguity about how power exerts itself in the era of data mining. "Letting Amazon track your tastes in power tools or Foursquare declare you mayor of the ramen joint doesn’t equate to telling the government it’s cool to read your mail," he writes. "But we may rightly feel complicit in fostering a culture that undervalues those boundaries, for fun and convenience’s sake." Contrary to Kris Ex's assertion that West's record is marred by a kind of "Kanyecentrism," I would argue that Kanye is using the language of the self to get at something the "common man" has experienced, which would explain why this record has resonated the way that it has.
Kanye West is not a progressive activist; that kind of stridency is its own creative cul de sac. He is not concerned with what else is going on in hip-hop; even as the genre develops and forms new shapes, it does so independently of Kanye, whose albums are ruptures in the space-time continuum that seem to affect those at the top of the mountain most of all. Nor is he a passive figure, simply enduring and chronicling. Instead, in our time of constant social media broadcast, when black voices struggle to be heard above the din, Yeezus is fighting to make noise through cacophony. He lashes out, not so much because he has something to say, although sometimes he does (otherwise, why would we listen?). His anger is directed at those closest to him, because where else can he direct it?
A grotesque statue of balled-up paranoia, resentment, and glee, the album simply demands attention.