“You see it’s leaders, and it’s followers,” Kanye West tells us. “But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” And Yeezus, Mary and Yoseph, does he mean it. Yeezus is the darkest, most extreme music Kanye has ever cooked up, an extravagantly abrasive album full of grinding electro, pummeling minimalist hip-hop, drone-y wooz and industrial gear-grind. Every mad genius has to make a record like this at least once in his career – at its nastiest, his makes Kid A or In Utero or Trans all look like Bruno Mars.
Being a work of Kanye West, Yeezus is also a brilliant, obsessive-compulsive career auto-correct. Kanye is 36 years old, a fashion-world comer and a tabloid fixture about to have a kid with one of the dozen or so people on Earth who are more famous than he is. This isn’t just a way to stay ahead of the competition; it’s a way to stay ahead of himself.
“We get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s,” he implores over the system-shock body rock of album opener “On Sight,” one of three songs co-produced by Daft Punk. Yet, if the overall feel is jarring, the sonic palette is as typically rich as ever. There’s bunker-club hipster dance music, ring-the-alarm Jamaican dance hall, forlorn Auto-Tune soul, crackling old-soul samples and downcast techno rap of the sort he pioneered on 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak – often all at once. “Hold My Liquor” is an elegantly wasted house ballad, with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as dyspeptic diva crooning under the amber waves of drank and teenage Chicago rapper Chief Keef playing the sad gangsta. “Black Skinhead” is Marilyn Manson reanimated as a mechanical animal programmed to chomp whitey.
Executive co-producer Rick Rubin gets a beard-load of credit for helping make what could’ve been an assaulting overload feel contained and of a piece. He and Kanye deployed a less-is-less strategy, making sure that every contusive hit has maximum impact. Kanye’s lyrics are pretty focused too, rendering his classic themes as petulant primal screams. On “I Am a God,” a lurching, nightmarish throbber, he raps: “I am a god/So hurry up with my damn massage/In the French-ass restaurant hurry with my damn croissants.” During “I’m in It,” which sounds something like the soundtrack to a snuff film for Cylons, Kanye sounds at once righteous and evil: “Black girl sipping white wine, put my fist in her like the Civil Rights sign.”
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On that song, Kanye brags that he wants to “start a new movement.” It’s ironic, then, that Yeezus‘ best track is classic soul, and vintage Kanye; “Blood on the Leaves” is a buzzing, bluesy, static-y track that flips a chipmunk-soul sample of Nina Simone doing “Strange Fruit” into a fevered tell-all about a pregnancy with another woman (“We coulda been somebody,” he laments in a pained sing-yell). Only Kanye West would take an American masterpiece about a lynching and use it to back a song about what a drag it is to have to attend basketball games with a girl you knocked up sitting across the court. And it’s hard to imagine anyone else making it this urgent. The dick sure has some balls.