Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Kanye West - Yeezus

Do we really need another review of Yeezus? The zeitgeist surrounding this album hasn’t been paralleled by any one album since, well, Kanye’s last album, 2010’s over the top, overrated, more-is-more opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. A lot of the Yeezus reviews have been absolutely absurd, with many sites putting up glowing or spiteful (but rarely middling) reviews within 24 hours of the album’s leak, and tastemakers racing to see who can blow the most smoke up Kanye’s ass while sidestepping some of the record’s more troubling qualities (I’m looking at you Pitchfork). The unwillingness on the part of many critics to really grapple with the album’s problems and the inability of many fans to accept the sonic direction that Kanye took here are equally troubling.

In a recent Pitchfork feature on seven of the many Yeezus collaborators, engineer/producer/mixer Noah Goldstein reveled in the divisive response that the album has gotten, saying “I really like the fact that people are loving this album or they're like, ‘This is trash!’ I don't really like up-the-middle music, because where's the opinion in that? I'd rather have people hate it than be in the middle.” Goldstein is half right. Music designed to be middle-of-the-road, to not ruffle any feathers, to quietly move units only to be forgotten a year later is the least worthwhile type of music, but being excited that most people are unable or unwilling to form complex opinions about an album you spent months working on is an unfortunate point of view to take.

There is one area of the album that I’m willing to completely (though not unconditionally) praise: the beats. Sonically, Yeezus is incredible, with all of its signifiers from industrial, acid house, dancehall, and drill, and it’s amazing to hear such a popular mainstream artist embrace such an ugly sonic palette. But it’s these musical signifiers that make me chafe at critics’ claims that Kanye is some wholly original visionary. Yes, these sounds are new for mainstream hip-hop, but they aren’t terribly new to hip-hop as a whole. Death Grips, Shabazz Palaces, and a whole host of grime artists have been mining similar territory for years, and all of the beats on Yeezus are completely indebted to music that artists in other genres were making as far back as twenty years ago. Kanye deserved much of the praise he got for the originality of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s maximalism as that felt truly new. On Yeezus, Kanye seems content to compile the sounds of others into one coherent package, and while the music sounds great it doesn’t sound like Kanye West.

Kanye managed to outmatch the ugliness of the beats with the lyrics, but to the opposite effect. Back when The College Dropout came out and most critics were tripping over themselves to heap praise on him, he was never more than a serviceable rapper. His choice of subject matter set him apart from others, but he sounded unnatural as a rapper, struggling to keep on beat or use more than the simplest rhyme schemes while reciting his corny punchlines. Around the time of MBDTF, Kanye stopped sounding like he had to try really hard to be a passable rapper, but his lyrics were still rarely anything to get too excited about. ‘Ye has always been a producer first and a rapper second, but damn if he didn’t set the bar really low on Yeezus. Lines like “Black girl drinking white wine/ Stick my fist in her like the civil rights sign,” “Eatin’ Asian pussy/ All I need is sweet and sour sauce,” and “They be ballin’ in the D league/ I be speakin’ Swaghili” are embarrassing as examples of shock value over substance, and while those first two lines are some of the most jarring lines on the record, most of what’s on display here is just as boneheaded. When Rick Rubin started saying in interviews that Kanye wrote and recorded the lyrics to half of the album’s songs in less than two hours it became unsurprising that so many of the lyrics were so mediocre. To make matters worse, the album credits make it abundantly clear that most of the best lyrics on the album, “On Sight,” “I Am a God,” and “New Slaves,” were written by Rhymefest. “Black Skinhead,” the better of the two songs on the record that aim for some kind of political statement, makes some provocative statements but retreats before it gets past mere surface commentary on race relations. Since the song gives up right before it really says anything, it’s not too surprising to see that Lupe Fiasco has a writing credit on the song.

Kanye called on some of his buddies to write lyrics and then half-assed the verses that he did write. Daft Punk, No I.D., Hudson Mohawke, Mike Dean, Travis Scott, 88-Keys, Lunice, and several other people are credited with production. So if most of the production and the passable half of the lyrics were done by other people, then what exactly did Kanye do on Yeezus other than lending his voice to the proceedings? Where is his vaunted genius?

In that same Pitchfork article about the Yeezus sessions, Noah Goldstein claims that “Everything is him, to be real. Regardless of who additionally produced things, it's his curation. And this idea that he's not as hands-on in the studio now is bullshit. He is the consummate producer.” Kanye does play a curatorial role here, pulling together the sounds of all of these producers and genres into the Yeezus sound, but if ‘Ye was truly the one pulling everything together, then what did he need Rick Rubin for? Kanye showed up at Rubin’s doorstep with a bunch of unfinished song fragments (with most of those fragments produced or written in part or in full by people other than Kanye) and Rubin helped him trim the thing down from three-plus hours of unfinished, meandering material to a concise 39-minute album. It sounds like Rick Rubin is actually the “consummate producer” on Yeezus. Kanye’s curatorial abilities are incredible, but the amount of people overlooking all of the other artists involved and ‘Ye’s seeming inability to get anything done on his own is distressing.

Yeezus, for all of its flaws, is an impressive album for a mainstream star to make. If it is even half as influential as MBDTF was, then mainstream rap will get significantly stranger, and any album that’s capable of shifting popular culture in a more exciting direction is important regardless of its quality. But the conversation surrounding Kanye West as an artist needs to change. The days of him making his own beats and writing his own verses is over—if that time even really existed at all; remember, Rhymefest cowrote “Jesus Walks” and several other songs on The College Dropout)—and his artistry is so dependent on collaborators that I’d be amazed if he’s capable of making a great album without a dozen people in the studio with him at this point.

"Black Skinhead"
"On Sight"
"I'm In It"
"Bound 2"

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