The key to understanding why Kanye West’s sixth album is such an aggravating dichotomy of 50-percent brilliance and 50-percent bullsh*t comes in a brief interview with executive producer Rick Rubin, recruited shortly before the release of Yeezus to give it more coherence.
Sayeth the bearded guru in The Wall Street Journal:
“Kanye came over to play me what I assumed was going to be the finished album at three weeks before the last possible delivery date. We ended up listening to three hours of partially finished pieces. The raw material was very strong but hadn’t yet come into focus. Many of the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet, and many of those still didn’t have lyrics. From what he played me, it sounded like several months more work had to be done…
“We were working on a Sunday [the same day West attended a baby shower for girlfriend Kim Kardashian] and the album was to be turned in two days later. Kanye was planning to go to Milan that night. Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, “Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.” In the two hours before had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat.”
A remarkable feat? Only if we consider a mad dash to the finish line extraordinary, and we ignore the fact that the lyrics are the most clichéd, trite, sexist, racist, pandering, and empty in the career of the most creative, influential, and important voice in hip-hop for the last decade.
I’m late to the game in weighing in on Yeezus for this blog because I spent most of the last two weeks in a New Jersey hospital at my mom’s bedside, taking a break only to drive to Philadelphia to tape the Sound Opinions review of the album via ISDN from WHHY.
Listening to this music on ear buds as my mom moaned in her sleep, inching her way toward recovery, the disconnect was startling. Here was the latest from an extraordinary artist who several times has powerfully written about the exact situation I was experiencing, fearlessly rapping from the heart about his mother and grandmother, and love, hope, and loss. Only this time, despite having crafted some of his most inventive sounds, he was dropping lyrical turds such as these::
“I keep it 300, like the Romans/300 b------, where’s the Trojans?” (“Black Skinhead”). (By the way, ’Ye, those were Spartans in the movie, not Romans.)
“Eatin’ Asian p----/All I need was sweet and sour sauce… Uh, you know I need that wet mouth/Uh, I know you need that reptile” (“I’m In It”).
“F--- you and your Hampton house/I’ll f--- your Hampton spouse/Came on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth” (“New Slaves”).
“Soon as I pull up and park the Benz/We get this b---- shaking like Parkinsons” (“On Sight”).
“I wanna f--- you hard on the sink/After that, give you something to drink/Step back, can’t get s---- on the mink” (“Bound 2”).
And so on, and so on, and so on.
On his previous albums—the phenomenal opening triptych of “The College Dropout” (2004), “Late Registration” (2005), and “Graduation” (2007), the dark night of the soul minimalist classic “808s & Heartbreak” (2008), and the sprawling, masterful canvas of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010)—West progressed from honest and funny portraits of the way a majority of young African-American men live on the South Side of Chicago, gloriously free of Chief Keef gangsta fronting to soulful ruminations of love and loss following the death of his mother and the end of his first true love.
Never 100-percent politically correct, West’s less enlightened lines about women previously had more context and a lot more humor. Why, at a point where he has found love again and become a father, is he resorting to such denigration of the opposite sex? One theory, bolstered by the guest appearance of the aforementioned young Chicago rapper Chief Keef, is that he’s trying to stay relevant amid the wave of harder so-called drill rappers. But I don’t buy it: Ye always has set trends, not followed them. And at this point, he certainly doesn’t need to look “cool” in the eyes of Keef and his thug pals.
I chalk this lapse down to sheer laziness and the misdirection of his anger—It’s so hard to be a black superstar dating a mega-celebrity white woman!, he tells us again and again—though he barely scratches the surface in really examining that issue (“They see a black man with a white woman/And at the top door they gon’ come at you King Kong”) or anything else more substantive (“Like them black kids in Chiraq b----“) before going back to the bonehead gutter.
Whatever the reason, the lyrics and themes of Yeezus are near irredeemable, which is all the more tragic given the quality of the music. It’s as if West bought a mutli-million-dollar gold-plated picture frame for a piece of shopping-mall art by Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light.”
Ah, the music: Largely recorded in Paris, with several tracks crafted with EDM superstars Daft Punk, it is dark, simultaneously complex and minimalist, and unlike anything that’s been heard in the hip-hop mainstream (though certainly there are reference points aplenty in the underground). West doesn’t turn away entirely from his love of soul dusties, but here those samples are recontextualized within grinding industrial soundscapes that are jarring, much less familiar, yet still oddly musical, hence the many comparisons to Nine Inch Nails.
Nine out of ten of the reviews I’ve read praise these sounds—and rightfully so—but either ignore or give West a pass on the lyrics. This is a problem in far too much hip-hop criticism: This is an art form that sprang from the word, and the word remains integral to appreciating it. By no means is it everything. But it’s a lot, and with Yeezus, by not giving it the craft it deserved, West has ruined what should have been a masterpiece.
Kanye West, Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella Records)
Rating on the four-star scale: 2 stars.