Now that the latest mutant creation of the artist known as Kanye West, entitled Yeezus, has had some time to marinate in the minds of fans, critics, listeners and even haters, I will attempt to review it track-by-track and give my takes on the work. First off, it is such a diverse album with many different messages that it’s nearly impossible to touch on all of them, so I will be hitting on the few veins of perception I experienced on each track and the album as a whole, which includes lyrics, concept and meaning.
On Sight – Right from the moment you press play, you can tell this is a whole different Mr. West. A strobe-like, pulsing synth beat blasts through the speakers, and Kanye comes in with authority : “Yeezy season approachin’, fuck whatever y’all been hearin‘” . The initial verse makes me picture a kid storming through a house in a fit: knocking over lamps, jumping on the furniture (“Black Tims all on your couch again”) . Then, as the beat continues to freak and you think that we’ve lost Kanye forever, a haunting choir sample cuts in with perhaps an explanatory lyric: “Oh, you give us what we need… It may not be what we want,” . This likely best describes what you will experience for the next forty minutes.
Black Skinhead – Never one to shy away from the edge, Yeezy provides us a title that alone is provocative. The table is set perfectly for a marching, militant, yet dark, new-wave-sounding beat. The guts of the song, from the heavy-breathing rhythm to the way West invents his flow over it, set up what is actually being said to be taken in. It feels like a bumpy ride in the back of an el Camino and Kanye is beside you “ranting” about his encounters and outrage against critics. It’s noisy, so you can here what he’s saying, but not really. A lyric that came through to me on the first verse was , “if I don’t get ran down by Catholics, here comes some conservative Baptist/ claimin’ I’m overreactin’ like the Black kids in Chi-raq bitch” (Chi-raq is the nickname given to Chicago based on its warzone-like conditions). He ends the verses with a spiteful reflection: “If I knew what I knew in the past, I woulda been blacked out on yo’ ass“. Somewhat of a double entendre, Kanye would have been way darker, spazzed out way more and been much more driven to “fuck shit up” if he knew how things really worked before. Another interpretation is the reference to race: if he would have known how tightly locked the control system was, he would have gone way “blacker” from the jump. The song ends with a spiteful chant of “God, God, GOD”, which enters perfectly into the next track.
I Am A God – This is undoubtedly the point of no return of this album. If you’ve made it this far, then you’re in it until the end. If you haven’t, well, it happens. I heard this from Jay Z, but I’m not sure if he was the first to say it: “Great art is polarizing. If it’s not polarizing, it’s not great.” Kanye certainly spins most people to the poles on this one. A mellow grinding baseline intros into a understated, unconventional synth beat, with a sound that can be described as a demon moan. Then comes, “I am a God,” repeated before entering the first rant-ish verse. Kanye ends the first verse with: “Until the day I get struck by lightning, I am a God”. He speaks on this concept in a new interview with BBC Radio’s Zane Lowe which I will link to, so I won’t reiterate too much of what he said here. But I think an important distinction needs to be made as to how one looks at this song’s meaning. If you listen and judge the artist, you wonder what planet he woke up on when he recorded it (or you may have a much more extreme view than that). But play this song and sing along with it, and suddenly, you are a God too. And doesn’t that feel a little empowering? My initial impression was that this was Kanye’s “David Icke move”. Mr. Icke was a musician and turned into a conspiracy theorist seemingly overnight. In the early 90’s, he appeared on a few television talk shows claiming to be the second coming of Jesus, but not only that, he had a handful of theories on the illuminati; the thirteen families who control the world as we know it; and, as he believes, the reptilian bloodline running through the global ruling class. The reason I think this is Kanye’s “David Icke move” is that while putting forth theories that expose mass organized control and conspiracy gets implanted into consciousness, calling yourself Jesus or God nullifies the validity of those theories for most, if not all, listeners. This is his setup for next track, the first single, whose video accompaniment was projected on sixty-six buildings worldwide. But we don’t escape the God cave without a visit from Justin Vernon, a previous ‘Ye collaborator, treating us with a haunting vow: “Ain’t no way I’m giving up, I’m a God.”
New Slaves – This is where the rhetorical shit hits the fan. Sonically, Kanye creates a curious cadence with his words over a Rick Rubin-reduced beat. This is musically in the same vein as Watch The Throne’s “Otis”, in that both songs rely on the artist(s) to really utilize their flow as a guide to the vibe of the song. Kanye’s rapping cadence shifts beautifully over the spooky electric keyboard stabs of the minimalist beat. The opening line, “my mama was raised in the era when/ clean water was only served to the fairer skin” , evokes the teeming frustration of racist policies experienced by his family. But that is really just the tip of the iceberg; by the second verse, Ye has called out corporate control with a visceral tirade, and posits that “the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] teamed up with the CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] /they tryin’ to lock niggas up, they tryin’ to make new slaves” . It’s not all that farfetched to think that he is speaking to an actual fact and a sick part of the paradigm in which we exist. In a recent performance on Later… With Jools Holland, Kanye riffed off of the original lyrics:
Around the 1:40 mark, he broadens the concept of what a slave is when he sings: “New slaves… In your brand new car/ A new slave… With your brand new job/ You’re still a new slave… No matter who you are” . This deeply enforces idea that we as a society have moved from racism to class-ism, or “place-ism”. Now it is evident that, in his view, “nigga” is not solely referential to black people. He lays it all on the table and, at the end of the song, angrily wonders “what the fuck they gonna say now.” For me, the chilling part of the song comes at the end/interlude where the beat changes up and features a high-pitched Kanye Being Kanye. He catches me with an almost condescending lyric: “I can’t lose, I can’t lose, no I can’t lose/ but I can’t leave it to you/ so let’s get you high, get you high again“. I interpreted this as a spiteful challenge, looking at it as a creative person: to me, when he says “I can’t lose” , he’s not just saying I am too good to lose or I am just not able to lose, but that I will not lose. “I can’t leave it to you” is taking control and not leaving it to another person to advance creatively. So, “let’s get you high again” is his resignation to providing a spark of some kind of inspiration in the listener, to “get you high” with his music, his expression of excellence and idealism that happens to come through in the form of beats, rhymes, notes and keys.
Hold My Liquor- After the lucid, manic ramblings of the song (night) before, this song is a hangover anthem. A grovelling Justin Vernon returns with a signature voice before giving way to a heavily blunted Chief Keef, who exclaims “I can’t handle my liquor, but these bitches can’t handle me…” over the running tempo. Then the beat stops and Kanye is “back out his coma” with an instrumental screech. His lone verse is much like a half-drunk, one-sided phone conversation. The rest of the song features Vernon hazily crooning “calling up your uncle’s place, shit’s all over the place…” and a freaky, squealing solo from what I can only assume is a guitar. This song feels like a creation of Bon Iver (Vernon’s most notable music project) featuring Keef and Kanye, and obviously with West’s fingerprints all over it.
Part 1 of Yeezus review/summary: fin.
Here is Part 1 of the Kanye West BBC Radio interview with Zane Lowe: