Kanye West’s Yeezus is a blast of sexually charged distortion that continues West’s trend of consistently entertaining idiosyncrasy. His over-indulgent tendencies act like a blinking light between pure brilliance and irritating exhibitionism, an aspect present more than ever on the thrilling, raucous, and occasionally puzzling Yeezus. Most albums suffer when recorded in haste, but the rage inherent in the delivery of tracks like “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves”, and “Hold My Liquor” shows that – for the most part – the speedy creation process does not hinder Yeezus, a solid release but by no means a masterpiece. According to producer Rick Rubin, Kanye recorded all the vocals and wrote some of the lyrics to Yeezus in a two-hour span, before he had to catch a flight. Only on sample-infused soulful closer “Bound 2”, the closest resemblance on Yeezus to Kanye’s early albums, does Kanye sound relaxed – as if it was the only track he recorded after the plane landed.
Kanye’s full-throttle delivery is ceaseless on Yeezus, and becomes more admirable upon repeated listens. He is only occasionally given an intermission, but it is usually supplemented by a brilliant cameo – like Frank Ocean closing “New Slaves” with a gorgeous slice of psych-soul, or Kid Cudi delivering his hazy charm over a hauntingly spacey synth-bass accompaniment. Kanye is the star, as expected, though on Yeezus. Although some gripes exist that Kanye’s debut of “New Slaves” on SNL was a more ferociously enjoyable performance, it’s hard to fault its barebones production consistencies. The studio version is less snarling, but more coherent; it allows the punchy synth stabs to form a numbing sensation, making the gothic choral accompaniments an even eerier sample choice. Over this, Kanye delivers a frustrated rant on the role of authority in society, punctuated by a line like “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” Sexually charged rage continues in entertaining form: “Fuck you and your Hampton house, I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse and in her Hampton mouth.” Social divide, racial divide, and sexual divide are themes throughout Yeezus, which focuses on the concept of divide and the frustration that stems from it, and often turns into backlash when the pot boils over.
While the lyrics often show their hasty yet successfully executed creation with thematic rage and angst, clearly an ampler period of time was spent on the beats within Yeezus, which are consistently separated between the two halves. The first four tracks on Yeezus use elements of starkly distorted electronica and climatic bass-drum, whereas the second half (with the exception of the anxious ambulance-siren electro of “Send It Up”) is more varied and melodically accessible. This is often due to the use seamless use of samples on tracks like “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2”. Another first half highlight, “Black Skinhead” is the natural complement to “New Slaves”, featuring a very cinematic percussion lead that sounds like Morricone on energy drinks. With a cold robotic sample repeating the word “black”, a stampede of percussion envelops the track, subsiding into subtle clapping as Kanye lets out a series of unpredictable shrieks before repeating “God” with a devilish venom. “I Am A God” seems more forced in its approach and over-reliance on tonal shifts, and it doesn’t hit with as much force as the tracks that sandwich it, despite great (and now infamous) lines like “hurry up with my damn croissants!”
At the center of the album’s second half is “Blood on the Leaves”, perhaps the most fascinating track Kanye has ever put out. The track’s name is mentioned in a verse on “New Slaves”, and it’s not surprise that Yeezus seems slightly centered on it. Making prominent sampling use of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”, “Blood on the Leaves” expands from a stark piano line, with Simone’s nasally repetition of the word “breeze” concluding each musical verse. It provides a melodic backbone before the track bursts into an energetic fury, as blaring synth-horns and pounding percussion descends upon the listener without any notice. The abrupt emergence of this moment, auto-tuned vocals and all, is well-executed despite Simone’s “breeze” sample becoming gradually grating. Still, the chorus here is the most accessible moment on Yeezus apart from Frank Ocean’s “New Slaves” finale. At least on “Blood on the Leaves” and the furiously engaging “New Slaves”, it’s as if Kanye has successfully infused his polarizing yet inventive 808s & Heartbreak stylistic approach with the critically acclaimed directness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
While the lyrics on Yeezus have plenty of shock value and Kanye provides some clever commentary on societal divide, the abundance of extraneous innuendo and asserted dominance makes certain efforts – like “Send It Up” and the cameo-dominated clutter of “I’m In It” – seem very weak in comparison to true Kanye gems, the efforts like “New Slaves”, “Black Skinhead”, “Blood on the Leaves”, and “Bound 2” that show Kanye as well-deserved of his continuing acclaim, and also as an erratic personality whose inconsistencies contribute to his entirely idiosyncratic sound, for better or worse. There are noticeably more successes than mishaps on Yeezus, which is another quality album in Kanye’s catalog, but the weak spots are glaring enough to prevent Yeezus from being his best work. What it does show is that there are few in the industry that will continue to fascinate and engross as much as Kanye, who will always attract attention for his releases. And with his commendable decision on Yeezus to abandon radio conventions entirely, fans can be assured that he will continue to entertain, perplex, and stir the pot for years to come.