A Letter to Matt concerning Yeezy
So, the early line on Yeezus is that it was going to be Kanye West’s angry protest album, which has occasioned some scepticism.
It’s not that Kanye West doesn’t care about other people. I mean, it’s easy to forget that he raced on that stage on behalf of Beyonce, not himself. The trick about him is that caring, deeply, about the advancement of fellow-humans is a deep feature of his self-conception. That is, the logic of his titanic self-regard involves a commitment to the belief that, deep down, Ye is for the children. (I suspect this strain of publicly benevolent self-aggrandizement is the key to many political personalities) This element of his makeup is not of recent vintage – it goes back to College Dropout, if not before – but as his stature has risen over the last decade, the scale of his triumphs and sufferings has escalated from “young Chicagoan on the come-up” to “world-historical figure.”
You might have thought this self-inflation regarding his social significance reached a nadir of tastelessness when he compared himself to Martin Luther King in the splendid “New God Flow“ (“I’m living three dreams / Biggie Smalls, Dr. King, Rodney King”), but he tops himself on Yeezus. Oh, it’s not the Jesus stuff – the Beatles already did that, albeit unintentionally. On “Blood on the Leaves,” Kanye uses a “Strange Fruit” sample as a backdrop for a tale about the emotional complexities of managing groupies. I don’t mean to be the culture police here, Matt, but there’s something just a little borderline here about using a song evoking a century of terrorism against the South’s black male population to elaborate one’s marital difficulties.
There is a further complication: rapwise, “Blood on the Leaves” is an absolute beast. A city-wrecking godzilla of a track. The distorted Nina Simone sample that leads off the track is like a ultimate, nightmare inversion of the Kanye’s trademark joyful soul sample. Then TNGHT’s brainshattering horns clamber through the track a minute in, and just lay waste to the whole landscape. Kanye wades through the sonic wreckage, elevating his petty regret to apocalyptic levels though sheer force of musical will. It’s a disgusting, impressive achievement.
I have to say that I’ve been impressed by the progression of Ye’s rhyme skills. Through diligent work, Kanye has elevated himself from “barely competent lyricist frequently killed by other rappers on his own album, with a 50/50 groaner-to-punchline ratio” to “serial microphone murderer with a 50/50 groaner-to-punchline ratio.” Kanye has always been best-in-class when it comes to appealingly lunkheaded rhymes, and Yeezus delivers some great material. (Current personal fave: “Star Wars fur / yeah I’m rocking Chewbacca”)
Actually, the whole damn thing is just splendid in its ugliness. Ye’s been doing ugly/pretty for a while now – “Flashing Lights” was the first Kanye song you listened on repeat despite hating its constituent noises – but this is the first time he’s got a whole album of ugly/ugly. Subject matter, personality, sound: everything works towards the dark. It’s full of boomy and distorted drums in lieu of the crisp snares of Kanye’s early work, and there’s virtually no sung choruses. It’s the first Kanye album I’ve heard nary lush moment: even Justin Vernon sounds haloed in doom, for chrissake. When the clouds clear up over a Ponderosa Twins sample on the final track, “Bound 2,” (seemingly an ambivalent tribute to commitment) it achieves this powerful, if uneasy, sense of catharsis.
Even more so than Fantasy, it represents the perspective of someone (unlike, say, Jay-Z) who is deeply unsatisfied with having everything that America and the world at wide can offer to a human being. It’s a protest album alright, but it’s not a protest for anything. Certainly not the children. It’s an album that is sonically and lyrically against life, against America, against sex, against money, against Kanye West.
Yeezus completes Kanye’s transformation from likable underdog making the best music of his generation, to supervillain making the best music of his generation. Each generation gets the supervillain it deserves, and this is his theme music.