Kanye West - Yeezus | Album Review | By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Kanye West


Thoughtful, complicated, but lacking clarity in its intricacy.

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Author: on June 21, 2013
Def Jam Records
June 18, 2013

In 2013, we are lucky enough to find varied, sometimes diverging genres collectively morphing the very nature of their craft.  From Justin Timberlake’s gestalt of pop and soul in The 20/20 Experience to Deafheaven’s revitalization of the very essence of metal in Sunbather, the face of music is changing, and rapidly. Kanye West takes this momentum, for better and worse, navigating his own vessel of popular sounds and culture directly into outer space. One of many notable gems from his esteemed New York Times interview is, like most of his boastful responses, laced with truth amidst the blinding pride: “I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: This is the level that things could be at. So when you get something that has the name Kanye West on it, it’s supposed to be pushing the furthest possibilities. I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.”

While Ye may not exactly be the very nucleus of modern culture he claims to be, the underlying meaning of this statement comes between the lines.  Society needs innovation to progress culturally, but also needs leaders to take us there. Players like Steve Jobs, Justin Timberlake, and even Barack Obama redefine the envelope of expectation for their trades by using a pre-existing network of ideas and possibility to make their own visions of the future into reality. Kanye isn’t the most humble of personalities, but he does his absolute damnedest to lump himself into this category, very much succeeding with 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and attempting to go even further with his follow-up Yeezus.

Where Yeezus reins in several diverging philosophies of experimental hip-hop production under one attempted futuristic compositional statement, it does more so as a simulacrum than a true representation.  “On Sight” sets the tone for the record with its industrial-come-techno beats. Yet the quandary, as with sequential follow-ups “Black Skinhead” and “I Am A God”, is that Kanye rarely explores any compositional variation, in favor of repetitive, nearly abrasive electronic loops; no matter how interesting these individual parts may be, they do not resemble a true summation.  Ultimately, Yeezus feels rushed, where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy played with and expanded on all of its influences on epic compositions like “All of the Lights” or “Lost in the World”.

Sonically though, Ye does find a successful formula eventually in what seems to be a tale of polar halves. From “New Slaves” onward to “Bound 2″ Yeezus undoubtedly formulates its statement coherently by incorporating its industrial/electronic influences with production techniques reminiscent of the Jay-Z collaboration Watch The Throne. Yet, even when Kanye seems to achieve what he’s trying to do, he finds a way to still miss the mark. “New Slaves” laments the modern incarnation of racism in society’s emphasis on materialism in its marketing to African Americans; still, the commentary is misguided, attempting to compare the plight of his mother – “My mama was raised in an era when / clean water was only served to the fair of skin” – to the plight of the modern wealthy. Yes, there are parallels, but to place this form of discrimination on the same level of slavery is extreme to say the least.

Which finally brings us to the seemingly audacious “Blood on the Leaves”, a stark juxtaposition between lynched victims of America’s violent apartheid era (courtesy of Nina Simone) and at first glance the divorce of an immature young couple. FirstThings.com’s Nicholas Troester possibly hits the nail on the head with his analysis, calling the track a testament to the manner in which the protagonist – lowest common denominator and materialist – views abortion from a fundamentally flawed and selfish perspective.  The aborted (or born) strange fruit hang in the balance here. Thematically, though, this is a microcosm for the whole of Yeezus, in that the entirety of the record is a very tough pill to swallow emotionally.  Every beat is a contrast of dissonance with more aggressive forms of trap or boom-bap. Kanye is indeed successful in encapsulating an emotional response here, but to what end? Largely, this response basks in realms of negativity – bitterness, anger, and general upheaval.

Ultimately, Yeezus absolutely succeeds in its intent – bringing thoughtful, somewhat complicated content to a mainstream audience. But it surely would have benefited from a stricter quality control process, more time in the studio, and maybe even a bit of a paradigm shift in theme. As an artist, Kanye has near-endless resources at his disposal and his albums have always been real cultural statements. Yeezus is no exception, it’s just that we need the right kind of statements coming from such prolific figures.

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