Thursday, June 20, 2013
Album review: Kanye’s Yeezus is an unapologetic piece of hip-hop mastery
Ironically, that makes it his most and least "hip-hop" release yet.
With no singles, no radio airplay and no album cover, Kanye West’s sixth solo album, Yeezus, is still estimated to sell half a million albums in its first week, adding another consecutive No. 1 album to Kanye’s catalog of all-platinum albums. But how did we get here?
West, now 36, was just an emerging producer-turned-rapper when he released his debut, The College Dropout, in 2004. Heralded by reviewers for how much it differed from other hip-hop offerings at the time, Dropout helped West to set forth the style that he would be known for, including intricate and tongue-in-cheek wordplay behind smooth and pitch-shifted soul samples. Where the status quo for rappers at the time were concerned with perpetuating gun violence and mink coat ownership, West proudly stood to the left of the genre, pink Polo shirt and all.
Today, West’s antics often do more to speak for him and his image than his music. His most notable incident involved interrupting Taylor Swift as she received her MTV Video Music Award in 2009, because he felt that Beyoncé deserved it more. Outbursts like these give plenty of ammo to his detractors, and even President Obama called West a “jackass” off-the-record.
It’s this same brutal, yet childishly uncensored egoism that has kept West at the forefront of popular culture since his debut. For the last decade, he has carried the torch for a type of hip-hop that is still problematic, but also thoughtful, genre-bending, insecure, and decidedly different.
Kanye West is one artist that has consistently reinvented himself with each release. By simultaneously taking his past with him and rejecting it for a more polished present and future, his sound evolves with each and every album he’s ever made. Because of this constant reinvention, rap fanatics that reach for Yeezus expecting club bangers to couple with expensive alcohol will be utterly disappointed. Yeezus possibly differs the most from West’s latest work.
RATING4.5 out of 5 stars
The radio-friendly feeling of his collaborative album Cruel Summer, featuring his label members from G.O.O.D. Music, and 2011’s gold-dipped tag-team effort Watch The Throne with Jay-Z, is missing from Yeezus. The beautiful, orchestral string sections from his second album, Late Registration, and the cinematic quality from his critically worshipped last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are not to be found either. West trades all of these notable characteristics and keeps the luxurious, name-brand braggadocio along with an introspective and questioning nature, creating his most angry and experimental outing to date.
At a time when hip-hop is heard by more ears than ever, West was in the perfect position to bring things “back to black.” After all, the culture of hip-hop and designer everything that Yeezus stands on is responsible for his rise to fame, not to mention the overwhelming gun violence in his hometown of Chicago.
At first glance, it might sound like West appropriates the impact of these tragedies as punch lines, but between the lyrics, West spits conflict. He’s stuck between a home he couldn’t hope to heal on his own, and the rest of the world who only knows him as the annoying partner to Kim Kardashian. On top of all of this, he now has the new frustration of being a father. Everything comes out on the mic, in a way that rattles your brain, shakes you by the collar and begs for an answer. The beats behind his lyrics only amplify the urgency behind each word, and they chop like an axe to the skull.
Industrial sounds on tracks like “On Sight” and “Hold My Liquor” are just plain unnerving, with synths and bleeps and glitches that are reminiscent of more experimental hip-hop artists, like Death Grips, Shabazz Palaces or Jai Paul. “Black Skinhead” features a driving drum roll that might remind listeners of “Power,” a single from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The samples from artists like TNGHT and even Nina Simone do less to boast about West’s musical eclecticism from a production standpoint, and effectively separate this album from all his others. The vocal contributions from singers Tony Williams and Frank Ocean take the reins where West’s vocal register simply will not go, and the results are surprisingly smooth. Chief Keef and Kid Cudi? Not so much, despite the novelty of these musical polar opposites sharing the mic.
If Yeezus were a musical, it’s the last track, “Bound 2,” that serves as a perfect coda. The slowed, soul sample-based production brings everything together in a sonic time capsule, representing how far West has come musically without slighting his present or future.
Yeezus is disrespectful, off-putting and unapologetically black, which makes it Kanye West’s most and least “hip-hop” album yet. Despite not being on your radio, chances are you’ve already heard it, or at least heard about it. It’s being lambasted by churches everywhere for its name. It’s on your Facebook timeline, your DVR and projected guerrilla-style across the walls of a city near you. It’s everywhere. By that measure, hip-hop has won.
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