What in the world happened to Kanye West? He once gave a fresh, whimsical sound to Jay-Z and others, and then, armed with courage and a robust cleverness sufficient to overcome his limited lyrical abilities, he became a novel, thought-provoking voice in a musical genre that had become suffocated by the reflexive fulfillment of its own stereotypes. Fast forward a decade, and West has created his own stereotype, which he acts out with utter seriousness.
West once challenged hip-hop’s hustler ethos by dressing like a frat boy and wearing a bear costume on the cover of his first album. Now, he wears only the most fashionable designer digs. West once satirized women who made a career of dating rappers and professional athletes. Now West is the father of Kim Kardashian’s child. West once proclaimed that he “never had nothin’ handed, took nothin’ for granted / Took nothin’ from no man, man I’m my own man.” Now he can be heard whining about his inability to win the Grammy award for best rap album. A Grammy award!
And why in the world is this fellow so angry? The great majority of Yeezus’s lyrical content mirrors the famous provocation of Mersault, the title character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger: “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” The album is a dare, not of the playful sort, but of the sort that issues from a grievance. “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” West rails on “I Am a God.” But Mersault had a legitimate grievance; he experienced how grievously two-dimensional daily experience inescapably was. What is Kanye West’s grievance? That observers thought it rude when he publicly insulted Taylor Swift? You can’t blame people for insisting on good manners. That he is insulting a pop culture laughingstock? No one forced him to join the circus. That the president called him a “jackass”? Well as they say, if the shoe fits . . .
Yeezus is an exhausting album, even as it only runs two-thirds of an hour, because West has become an exhausting spectacle. The album is a burdensome mix of juvenile braggadocio (“A monster about to come alive again”), third-generation decadence (the loathsome use “Blood on the Leaves” as a sample for a track about the disintegration of a relationship), undeserved and overgrown sense of victimization (“If I don’t get ran out by Catholics / Here come some conservative Baptists”), protest without credibility (Criticizing the idolatry of corporate dominion in “New Slaves”? Kanye West, of all people?), overdeveloped sense of significance (“I’ve been a menace for the longest / But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted”), and lewdness (no example fit for print here).
The primary reason that Yeezus requires so much energy is West himself, and whatever monument to vanity and self-importance and baseless victimization he has become. How aggrieved can he really be? How enamored of oneself can a person really be? I’m confident that when West intones, “I am a god,” that he is partly, or even mostly, joking. (Some suggest that the proclamation plays on the theology of the Nation of Islam descendant Five-Percent Nation that demonstrated a strong influence on hip-hop mainly in the 1990s. Perhaps.) But even so West is partly, in some way, serious. West is less and less an artist and more and more an event. But unlike his girlfriend and his pal Jay-Z, he is so serious about it, to the detriment of an observer’s ability to enjoy the event. Jay-Z laughs and makes no illusion about being “a business, man” (to the point of barely showing up as a rapper on Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail). By contrast, West is utterly humorless these days. Indeed, one notices a steady decrease of humor on West’s albums, simultaneous with a steady increase in the celebration of himself. Jay-Z puts on a show; Kanye West is a spectacle.
Make no mistake, though: in spite of West’s increasing toxicity as a person, Yeezus is an irresistible musical experience. I finished my first listen in complete disgust—disgust with West, disgust with myself for buying an album with which I knew I would be disgusted. I swore I would never listen to it again. Later on the day of its release, though, I decided to listen again, because how fair is it to judge an album on a single listen? I was still disgusted . . . but I noticed the music a little more. Then a few days later, I turned it on again. Soon, the album seemed to begin playing, not through any act by myself but through its own prodigious charisma, whatever the time and wherever I was.
The sound of Yeezus is heavy but hypnotizing, thick but smooth, fierce but sensual, and altogether dazzling. The bombastic regurgitation that made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so un-listenable has been smoothed and concentrated into a forty-minute act of hypnosis. The blinking, darting synth of “On Sight” sounds like Atari would have sounded as if it was electrified with an illicit stimulant. On “Black Skinhead,” West overlays driving, relentless drums with a bird call and an interspersed bass lick, to great effect. In “I Am a God,” a bass thumping like an overheated heartbeat is interrupted by a double-time synth that jars the beat like an electrical current. As if intent on keeping his most angry, harassing sound elusive, the throbbing pops of “New Slaves” transitions abruptly into a new soul symphony of lush strings, Kanye’s auto-tune, and Frank Ocean’s dreamy vocals.
My favorite track is the hypnotic club anthem “Send It Up,” a quintessential West amalgam dominated by a blasting metallic siren, overlaid at various points by a heavy bass, King Louie’s guttural rap, West’s most enjoyably playful lyrics on the album, and a sample from reggae king Beenie Man’s “Memories.” West proclaims his “Send It Up” as “the greatest s—t in the club / Since [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club,’” and I am not one to argue. Yeezus concludes with “Bound 2,” an ode to Kardashian and whimsical epilogue in the tradition of “Family Business” and “Last Call” from The College Dropout, and “Late” from Late Registration.
Yeezus completes West’s complete re-orientation of hip-hop music’s sound in the manner of, and possibly on the order of, what The Beatles and Bob Dylan did for rock and roll and what Wu-Tang Clan did for hip-hop music two decades ago. West began and completed this project. His sonic daring has been apparent at least since he compressed the rhythm of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” and rapped with his mouth wired shut (the result of the car accident that is the song’s subject) on “Through the Wire.” You hear the creative possibilities of in the simple multiplying of tempo on “The New Workout Plan” and the profusion of strings constricted sharply into the sound of mice throughout The College Dropout. The beginnings of West’s “new wave” fusion of hip-hop cadence and streams of electronic sounds in “Flashing Lights” and his unforgettable first project with Daft Punk, “Stronger.”
A significant break occurred with West’s fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak, on which West’s over-reliance on auto-tune vocals obscured a sleek, drum-heavy industrialism in the album’s production that paved the way for Fantasy and Yeezus. It should come as no surprise that dual trials—the unexpected death of his mother and the end of his engagement to Alexis Pfifer—preceded the completion of West’s stylistic evolution, for despair like nothing else reveals inadequate consolation provided by conventions. It is the completeness of this evolution—its aesthetic beauty, the irresistibility of Yeezus’s musical palette, the meditative illogic of its sounds, and West’s unyielding sonic brilliance—that makes the album difficult to dispense with.
Moreover, even at his most off-putting, West is gifted with one of hip-hop music’s most supple intellects. His is a mind that cannot go long without crafting a thought-provoking or clever needle even amongst a haystack of insipid decadence. I think of the lines from “I Am a God,” in which West’s pairs the image of him “stacking [his] millions” with the image of the Tower of Babel, with its motifs of idolatry and confusion:
I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “S—t I’m chillin’
Tryin’ to stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
Mi casa, su casa
That’s our costra Nostra
At work here is a measure of self-doubt that allows Yeezus to remain above the level of farce. There are other moments. The stream-of-consciousness chaos of “Hold My Liquor” sounds a note of the destructiveness of youthful partying that lasts two long into a man’s third decade. And there are moments of harmless levity. The album’s most clever bars occur in “Send It Up”:
She say “Can you get my friends in tha club?”
I say “Can you get my Benz in tha club?”
If not, treat your friends like my Benz
Park they a— outside ’till the evening end
And there are other indications that West is more aware of the play-acting behind his claims to minor deity than appears at face value. Primarily is the invocation in “Bound 2” of the character Jerome from the 1990s sitcom Martin. Jerome—the leisure suit-wearing, Afro-coiffed hustler several decades past his prime—was one of several Martin Lawrence characters that made recurrent appearances in the show’s five seasons. That the album’s final lyrics are Jerome’s mantra—“Jerome’s in the house, watch your mouth”—offers at least some residual hope that Kanye the God is entirely a persona that West has cooked up from the album’s first note. But like the man who knows the definition of humility but is not actually humble, it is difficult to believe West is entirely in on his own joke.
Assume, for a moment, that he is. Where does that leave us? With a brilliant marketing strategy. It is like Gertrude Stein’s declaration of her own genius: If you proclaim yourself a genius whether or not you are one, people will marvel at your audacity and argue about whether you are in fact a genius, and thus you’ve devised an ingenious method of making your name last whether or not you’re actually a genius. It is a profitable exercise inasmuch as it leads the masses to discuss you, buy your albums and books, and watch your concerts, but it is not art, which is the act of conveying human experience.
Stein had an actual claim to genius in her understanding of language. It lies in teaching us to play with language in order to create a greater congruence between the sound and shape of language and human experience. West has an actual claim to musical genius, or at least the kind of talent that could be chiseled into lasting genius. He is probably incapable of making an entirely poor album, as Jay-Z has just proven that he is. As West aptly explained in his mostly foolish interview in The New York Times, “[g]reat art comes from great artists.” But West seems to have forfeited that genius in favor of a weird mix of marketing and grievance. At his most brilliant, as in “We Don’t Care” or “Through the Wire,” West daringly discovers rhythms and sounds from new sources that, matched with his unique wit and insight, richly convey his own experience and the trying experiences of human life. At his best, he is an artist, and a fine one. At his worst, he is a marketer, a monument, a spectacle to the repellant seriousness of complete vanity. [Insert Kardashian joke here.]