Just after 10 p.m. last night, Kanye West and Busta Rhymes were huddled inside Milk Studios in New York’s Meatpacking District. A slew of journalists, fashionistas, label heads and nightlife staples – plus Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Q-Tip and the New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler – had gathered to listen to West’s sixth album, Yeezus, due out next Tuesday, and Kanye had to shout-whisper over the din. “You know how you be on YouTube and it’s a bunch of related videos on the side that don’t got nothing to do with your shit? You may not even like their name or their face next to your shit!” he told Busta. “I ain’t want none of that! I don’t want YouTube giving nobody else related suggestions off my shit!”
This kind of rant squares with the rollout strategy for Kanye’s most raw and experimental album yet: He’s skirted industry-standard means of distribution, instead preferring to project images of himself performing new material on buildings around the world. (He’s also debuted a few songs live.) That means the crowd at Milk Studios was among the first to ever hear these songs in their studio versions – blasted out of towering speakers, with two massive screens flashing images of military aircraft and exploding bombs.
“This is just the beginning of an entire new mentality about how to make music,” West told the crowd, adding, “If you ever see anyone standing next to me, know that they’re better than me at something.” The gratitude was fitting, since Yeezus has a long list of collaborators: Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, RZA, Chief Keef, King L, Justin Vernon, Travis Scott and Charlie Wilson all chipped in, and Rick Rubin showed up late in the game and got an executive producer credit.
When Kanye cued up the 10-track album, it became clear that the confrontational “New Slaves,” which he debuted on SNL, is not an anomaly: Yeezus is full of rattling 808s, electro clatter, waves of fuzz and heart-racing BPMs. Lyrically, though, ain’t shit changed: Kanye flatly calls out institutional racism and consumerism as slavery, all while using humor to wink his way out of accountability for his most outlandish boasts. “This album is about giving . . . no fucks at all,” he quipped. But it soon became apparent that he’s never cared more. Here’s a track-by-track rundown:
1. “On Site” has been getting burn in British DJ/beatsmith Hudson Mowhawke’s club sets for about a month now. Its pulsing Moog loops grind toward a blippy climax as Ye warns, “Yeezy season approaches.” Just when it has you under its spell, the track abruptly cuts to a wrenching soul sample, setting the tone for the duality of Yeezus: When the album threatens to get too crazy, Kanye often tosses in something more comfortably familiar.
2. Marilyn Manson-esque thunder-drums kick off Ye’s self-professed theme song, “Black Skinhead.” The white-knuckle frantic pace of the live performances are somewhat lost on the studio version, but this polished edition also reveals a new hook: “If I knew what I know in the past, I woulda been blacked out on your ass.”
3. “I Am a God.” The drum-less barrage of brooding synths, booming pitched-down vocals and smoke-gray reverb sounds like something out of a boss level in Assassin’s Creed. Kanye demands a massage, a ménage and some croissants, while clarifying he’s still a man of God. And also God. An extended interlude of primal screams rounds out what will most likely be the least understood song of Kanye’s career.
4. “New Slaves” is still as electric as the day it was premiered on the sides of buildings across the globe, a snarling indictment of America’s interwoven legacies of consumerism, racism and mass incarceration. The most biting one-liners are here – “all you blacks want all the same things,” “you know that niggas can’t read,” “I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse” – but the rumored Frank Ocean vocals aren’t. Instead, we get Kanye’s own crooning. It’s still effective as a song and statement, providing one of the most arresting moments of the evening.
5. Chicago’s Chief Keef shows up for a proper cameo on the woozy, four-on-the-floor ballad that’s being referred to as “Can’t Handle My Liquor.” Instead of the gun-slinging problem child he typically embodies on record, Keef arrives here droopy and pained. “I can’t control my niggas, and my niggas they can’t control me,” he slurs from behind a white cup, blending Future’s wobbly sense of melody with Mixtape Weezy’s syrupy nihilism. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but that doesn’t mean I Don’t Like. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is here as well, though he’s kind of buried in the mix.
6. Kanye’s been all about black leather recently, so it makes sense he would try his hand at dominatrix music. More sirens and warped basslines punctuate Ye’s (really) dark twisted fantasies here: “Black girl sipping white wine, put my fist in her like the Civil Rights sign.” Word? It’s tough to tell who that is chatting reggae-esque patios on the hook.
7. A prominent sample of Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit” sets off Yeezus‘ centerpiece, apparently called “Could’ve Been Somebody.” “All I want is what I can’t buy now, ’cause I ain’t got the money on me right now, so I’ma need a little more time now,” croons an AutoTuned Kanye, before the whole track explodes into booming horns sampled from TNGHT’s “Higher Ground.” Thematically, he teeters between “Gold Digger” and “Heartless” to tell a tragic story about a pregnant side chick. Quotable: “Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side, gotta keep ’em separated I call that apartheid.” Jay-Z makes him run this one back.
8. On this track (whose title is still unknown) we’re still in 808s & Heartbreak territory, with heavy AutoTune and lamentations about a good girl gone bad. A chopped up sample of dancehall artist Popcaan (taken from from Pusha T’s “Blocka”) gets re-appropriated, before what sounds like a Kid Cudi cameo.
9. Chicago rapper King Louie delivers probably the hardest guest spot on the album here. Louie isn’t as famous as Chief Keef, but is arguably more respected in his city for his potent street-rap verses. “Dropped out first day of school, cuz niggas got cocaine to move,” he saunters before laying the hook over a siren-driven slapper reminiscent of Swizz Beatz. “Yeezus just rose again.”
10. First introduced as a snippet on Kanye’s website, “Bound” could’ve been a leftover track from The College Dropout sessions. Built around a sweet sample of a 1971 soul song (by Ponderosa Twins Plus One), it finds Kanye opening up to a significant other, in between Charlie Wilson’s crooning. “Close your eyes and let the words paint a thousand pictures / One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” he rhymes, and we’re left to assume just who that good girl is. (Hint: it’s Kim).