I almost didn’t buy Kanye West’s Yeezus.
It’s not because I’m not Mr. West’s biggest fan, although I’m not. I think he has a huge amount of raw talent as a producer, arranger and record-maker, but he’s never found a way to focus that skill. Virtually every critic I can think of hailed 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a masterpiece, but I found it overly long, tedious and self-indulgent. (And those were its good qualities! Bam! Still got it.)
Besides, disliking a musician has never stopped me from buying their records before. I haven’t really enjoyed Tori Amos’ work for a long time, and I’m sure to buy the new Ministry album, laughably titled From Beer to Eternity, despite flat-out hating a lot of what Al Jourgensen has done for the past decade and a half. I like Kanye West as a sonic craftsman better than I like either Amos or Jourgensen these days, and what I’d heard of Yeezus before plunking down my cash was, at worst, fascinating.
And in fact, as I suspected, my problems with this album have nothing to do with the music. West has taken an extraordinary left turn here, darkening up his sound with industrial-tinged synths and abrasive… well, everything. This record keeps you tense, as if suspended over knives, waiting for the ropes to break. The helmeted geniuses in Daft Punk co-produced about half of it, Justin Vernon sings on it, and Rick Rubin helped West assemble it into a lean, 40-minute whole. It’s quite unlike anything West has done – there’s almost a diseased feel to some of it, and you never know where he’s going to go next. It’s riveting.
No, as usual, my issue with West is his persona, manifesting in his lyrics. I have no idea what the man is like in person, but as a public figure – and as a lyricist – he’s a self-obsessed, obnoxious, careless, misogynistic asshole. I realized, reading back over my previous reviews, that I haven’t called him out nearly enough for his thoughtless, objectifying words, sprayed out like graffiti over his impeccable music. West’s lyrics have always made me uncomfortable, and never more so than on Yeezus.
So why now? Why, after giving strong reviews to four albums in a row, ignoring the words and concentrating on the brilliant music, am I finally raising my voice? I think it’s been gradual. I’m definitely not the same person who called The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, and although I still contend that Eminem was perpetuating a grand-scale irresponsible satire, I don’t find it nearly as funny anymore. I’ve changed. At least, I hope I’ve changed, in 13 years.
Granted, most of what you’ll find on Yeezus isn’t any different from the content of most rap records. Why am I so concerned about West? Because he’s a genius, honestly. Most socially unconscious rap fails with me because its music is as poor as its lyrics. The same cannot be said of West’s work. On “Blood on the Leaves” alone, he stitches together an unsettling epic, allowing himself to duet with Nina Simone (her “Strange Fruit” is copiously sampled) in a startlingly effective way. His music is as innovative as his lyrics are depressingly average.
Now, I want to be clear. I have no issue with any of the words West uses. That’s not the point. It’s entirely possible to fill your album with the word fuck and still have a social conscience. But West has no concern about the effects of his words. The lyrics on Yeezus were reportedly completed in a couple of weeks, and belted out at the last minute, so we’re getting the unfiltered Kanye West here. And it’s an ugly picture. Right from the first song, “On Sight,” in which he presents this charming couplet: “Black dick all in your spouse again, and I know she like chocolate men, she got more niggas off than Cochran.” Then he shouts about not giving a fuck.
West’s view of women is on full display here. Every woman he mentions is either a bitch, or owns a sweet pussy. That’s it. Women are bitches with pussies. That’s the entirety of his breadth of understanding. The most romantic thing he writes here is in the soul-styled closer “Bound 2”: “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink, after that give you something to drink.” It turns out, though, that “something” isn’t what you expect: “Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink.” “Blood on the Leaves” is largely about how bitches get pregnant and ruin your life. (Hope you liked that one, Kim.) And the repugnant “I’m In It” includes this immortal line: “Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce.”
But the one that gave me the most pause this time is “New Slaves.” You’ve probably heard it by now – he performed it on Saturday Night Live, and released a video. It is, for all intents and purposes, the single from this album without a single. He spends a lot of time on this song talking about how rappers and athletes are the new slaves, and how he refuses to kowtow – “there’s leaders and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” – before getting to his criticism of the U.S. prison system: “See that privately owned prison, get your piece today, they prolly all in the Hamptons braggin’ ‘bout what they made…”
And then? And then he raps about raping the prison owner’s wife. “Fuck you and your Hampton house, I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse, came on her Hampton blouse and in her Hampton mouth.” It’s vile beyond belief. The worst part of it, to me, is that the victim here isn’t even the intended target. West treats raping someone’s wife like smashing the windows on someone’s car – a way to take revenge. It’s disgusting in its casualness.
Once that lyric hit, I had several conversations with some of my favorite women about it. Most said they would not be able to buy this record, no matter how good the music is. I’ve never come closer to feeling this way. I’ve always been able to find the good in music and hold onto it – I’ve lately been writing reviews of every Frank Zappa album, and his sheer musical genius helps me through his ugly, crude humor. Until now, West’s ability to completely rewrite the rules of hip-hop each time out has outshone the fact that he’s a sexist, irresponsible jackass. But Yeezus stopped me in my tracks.
I can’t really take the high road here, and condemn West for contributing to a culture of misogyny and rape, although he is. I did buy the album, in the end. I did so for two reasons, one not so good, and one hopefully better. First, I wanted it, because I am a collector and a historian, and this will likely one day be seen as an important album in West’s career. My picture of him as an artist wasn’t complete without this. That’s definitely not a good reason, and I know it.
But second, buying it allowed me to listen to it more closely, which allowed me to write this. And I hope just by laying bare the pervasive sexism and vileness here I’ve done some good. I know many would say that West is just playing a character, purposely trying to offend. Even if he is, the words he puts into this character’s mouth matter, and so far, he’s not saying anything that makes his rampant ugliness worth it. There are no themes to his work, other than his own self-absorption. If West is simply telling a story about a horrible human being, it’s a story that has not developed beyond its first chapters.
The shame of all this – and the reason I bought the album, really – is that West is a damn fine artist. His lyrics sometimes feel like scrawling graffiti over the Mona Lisa, so masterfully crafted are his tracks. Yeezus is no exception. My fervent hope is that one day, 20 or so years from now, a middle-aged Kanye West looks back on these early albums with embarrassment and shame. I hope he’s still making records then too, brilliant pieces of work, and filling them with clever, insightful rhymes. One day, I hope we’ll think of Yeezus as a necessary step to a more enlightened Kanye West. Because right now, very little of it feels necessary.
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Thanks for indulging me last week – I took a week off to celebrate (well, as much as a cranky old man can celebrate) my 39th birthday. And then I drop this review on you. Yeah, I know. Next week, I’ll be back to my breezy old self, talking about Hanson and Sigur Ros.
See you in line Tuesday morning.