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.