Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kanye West: Yeezus (2013)

(Def Jam)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The assault begins instantly. Partially an assault outward, sure, but mostly a deconstruction of image (think of the jukebox exploding in David Fincher's video for the George Michael song "Freedom '90") and, more pertinently, an forty-minute burst of self-destruction. At the very least, a frustrated self-examination, which coming from a Big Star can feel like the same thing. It's not as if Kanye West feels any need to apologize for the person and the artist he's become, nor should he, but the alienation of being constantly misunderstood and second-guessed would be a source of frustration for anyone. The solution in some quarters is to strike a concilatory tone -- "I said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong, and now it's all this" -- but West is one of our greatest contrarians, so he'd prefer to provoke, which only lands him in hotter water with himself.

So his sixth record, Yeezus, becomes musically and lyrically an act of simultaneous defiance and terrified, maddened introspection. The things on his mind (sex, self-identity, black identity, consumerism) aren't so many leagues from any of his previous work -- or from the work of his myriad influences, especially Prince. But West intuitively investigates and embraces the contradictory forces of his compassion, his ego and his anger, and then embraces the cry out in horror that results. We needn't assume that West is playing himself in this role, as we have little evidence implying that he's even marginally as unstable as this remarkable, brilliant album makes him sound (how could he even get it on tape otherwise?), but nor do we have any call not to take it as a document of a particular mindset. As much as Lars von Trier's Antichrist was an abstract scream of despair at the mental anguish of a slowly recovering depressed person, Yeezus is a chronicle of the worst parts of a man falling apart. Like von Trier's film, it's necessarily divisive, pained, offensive, and curiously Gorgeous.

In the first seconds of the ferocious laser pointer of an announcement from on high "On Sight," Yeezus separates itself harshly from the lavish prog-influenced sweep of the transformative, transcendent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; these twisted fantasies aren't beautiful anything, at least not conventionally. Minimalistic, beat-driven until it occasionally decides to collapse into a gospel sample, the song resembles acid house thanks in part to Daft Punk's production, but its paranoid streak hardly creates a sense of dance-floor bliss. West invokes The Dark Knight in his by now somewhat tired rant and rave against the state of urban radio that he influenced: "He'll give us what we need / It may not be what we want." Surely West, laughing like a mad scientist on the track, expected no more than anyone else that a mainstream audience would warm to this record's many left turns and almost abrasive minimalism, and he doesn't seem to care whether the bulk of his cult follows him down this road or not.

He probably also expected any fallout to come from material like "Black Skinhead," which conjures up Gary Glitter memories, Joy Division grit and King Kong metaphors in its parade-like pounding. The song was famously and quite gleefully performed in May on Saturday Night Live, a convenient stage and moment to use as a drawing of the battle lines between those who will permit West's left-field, aggressive expansion into industrial-rock territory (which he does more with, by the way, than any actual industrial musician I've heard) and those who will recoil for all sorts of reasons, destined to be painted with the same brush here. One is reminded of Stanley Kubrick's statement that no review of any of his films told him anything he didn't already know; not only is the baiting and doubt and button-pushing all expected, it's in the text: "Number one question they're asking / Fuck every question you asking / If I don't get ran out by Catholics / Here come some conservative Baptists / Claiming I'm overreacting."

If "Black Skinhead" seems perpetually to be threatening to take a left turn into pop but continually defies the notion, the next two songs don't bother to make even that much of a concession. "New Slaves" is one of West's scariest and most radical tracks so far, but "I Am a God" is one of the keys to the record. Its synthesized stop-start and incongruous pitch control experiments bring forth a chilliness and sense of isolationist dread. We aren't here to question or challenge its arrogance, which is plenty earned, and the consternation by some journalists is a depressing reminder that music fans can be a rather humorless crowd. "Hurry up with my damn croissants" is a hilarious throwaway line, a deliberate crack in the persona, not a flat invocation of privilege. Would it matter anyway? Rock bands in the '70s sang about wrecking hotel rooms and drinking hard and banging groupies, and a million sports figures receive little flack for proclaiming themselves the best, the point being that West is perfectly aware of the history leading to his conclusion. "Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go," he told W. "Man, I’m the #1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix. You can’t say that you love music and then say that Kanye West can’t come to your show! To even think they could tell me where I could and couldn’t go is just ludicrous. It’s blasphemous to rock & roll, and to music.”

He's speaking there about a fashion show-related snub that's about as interesting as Jay Leno's motorcycle collection, but his reaction is interesting, and the feigned shock that greets every interview or action by West is so annoying that you start to understand why he is so defiant. We don't need fifty more essays about the greatness of West's music that call him out as a person. We need to be glad someone is saying things like this: "I made that song because I am a god, I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend shit. That shit is rock & roll, man. That shit is rap music. I am a god. Now what?" We need to realize that one thing feeds the other, that anyone as smart and gifted as he is both seeks to push buttons and longs to be understood. It's a tired comparison, but fuck Axl Rose and Jim Morrison -- he's John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Prince, or any artist whose devoted individuality we find troubling, and we can whine that he is no longer speaking from the working class perspective of The College Dropout or we can realize that what he says now is equally honest; we can step outside ourselves long enough to realize that the life of a rich man with an unlimited recording budget, a famous girlfriend with a new baby and all eyes of the press on his every breath most likely carries its own frustrations. More importantly, we can realize that West's art is an outgrowth of his life, not a documentary about it. Does he let out those blood-curdling, tortured screams we hear on "I Am a God" regularly in an uncontrolled situation? Likely not, but how can they not be an expression of something real, if buried? "I'm so scared of my demons / I go to sleep with a night light," he says later on "I'm in It."

West is hardly the first rock star to craft an album on the basis of a slow slide away from sanity; Trent Reznor made a questionable career of it, and to return to Lennon for a moment there is Plastic Ono Band with its Primal Scream subtext... but I think most relevant to Yeezus is Talking Heads' Remain in Light, musically a much more instantly appealing but equally innovative record that eventually coalesces into an overwhelming sense of dread and nothingness, searching for an escape it cannot attain. The walls closing in are an apt metaphor not just for the travails of a public life ("I'll move my family out the country / So you can't see where I stay / So go and grab the reporters / So I can smash their recorders") but of human instability itself. So why can't we leave West alone and let him work, given that he has so much to say and says it so well musically and given as well that his work, while innovative, is in such a clear and well-defined tradition? There is a reason.

Institutional racism marches on even with the advent of privilege. "You see it's broke nigga racism / That's that 'Don't touch anything in the store' / And this rich nigga racism / That's that 'Come in, please buy more' / What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things.'" And there it is, in that mocking line on "New Slaves," the return of something we haven't heard in a while: the impassioned voice for the disenfranchised on The College Dropout, literally. It's a vocal tone we haven't heard from West since before the death of his mother. "New Slaves" cuts to the bone -- its hook, if we can call that, is dropped down to the essence of a single loopy keyboard trill, and West's voice must do the rest of the work in building its drama, catharsis and anger. It brings it all back home -- commercial aspirations and obsessions that West knows are bullshit and from which he is hardly immune, and how at any level of success, the role of the black individual is still seen in America as to somehow be subservient to those in charge. West posits, especially with his reference to the CCA, that his race is still seen as subhuman in the United States; the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida seems to validate this if we didn't already know he was correct.

But "New Slaves" also contains one of those Kanyeisms you wish had gone back to the drawing board: a lot of sludge about raping your Hampton wife, while it unquestionably plays on and is meant to satirize black man-as-villainous-monster D.W. Griffith stereotypes, somewhat lowers and cheapens the discourse. More: "Rather be a dick than a swallower" is annoying homophobia slash sexism from a guy who knows better. There's so much wrong with "Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce" that all one has to do is quote it to protest it. Comparing the juggling of a wife and mistress to "apartheid" is... tone-deaf, as much so as that butt-stupid stuff about the Holocaust on Watch the Throne. And "One good girl is worth a thousand bitches"? Well-meaning, I guess, but fucked up beyond belief: women as stock, first of all, and then a surely tired and old-world slut-shaming notion of what makes a woman "good" or "bad," and the idea that a woman's goodness or badness is predicated on her sex life or her appeal to a man anyway, plus goodness or badness themselves being a non-bullshit concept coming from a guy who just spent the better part of an hour laying down the law on personal ambiguities. No thanks, dude, and it's most irksome because he's so far beyond this.

But I can't fault a great record for being problematic -- I'm pretty sure that's what makes a lot of them great -- and another movie analogy comes in handy: if I can count Black Narcissus or "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" as masterpieces despite their rampant racism, it should really be far easier to look past some unchoice lines in West's record. It isn't, because it's 2013, but nevertheless: I'm no less annoyed, but it doesn't affect my overall impression of the album too much. And a great deal of the shock over the album's lyrical content has been about things I find pretty benign, like assigning Civil Rights metaphors to sex, or description of graphic sex acts (namely, fisting) which are apparently consensual and thus who gives a fuck. "I'm in It" isn't much more graphic than "Let's Pretend We're Married" or "Automatic," recorded before most of West's fans were born, or for that matter Lucille Bogan's "Shave 'Em Dry," recorded decades before West's parents were born, and if I'm reading the record's themes correctly, literal and metaphorical imprisonment as slavery and sex as liberation make perfect sense even though alimony and child support as lynching does not. I'm also not particularly bothered by the repeated point-scoring in regard to mixed-race sex (provided the women themselves are not dehumanized, which is a separate matter), because again, that's a fuck-you to old-South paranoia, and if expressions of black-man prowess in the bedroom are off-limits, we'd better toss out those old Big Joe Turner and Dominoes 78s.

The second half of Yeezus is ever more brooding, less immediate, but equally compelling: shaped by a bizarre penchant for strange percussion, for the use of heavy breathing and guttural grunting as punctuation, for an almost itchy bottom-heaviness, and by its endlessly surprising dancehall influences (note the verse by Assassin on "I'm in It," the Beenie Man sample on "Send It Up"). The twisted melancholy of "Hold My Liquor" even makes time for some sense of hard-won romance -- "You love me when I ain't sober / You love me when I'm hungover" -- which it of course instantly doubles back on, but mostly is remarkable for its dramatic and somber build in the background of verses and sequences that become increasingly demented. Somewhat less unique but more attention-grabbing is "Blood on the Leaves," which casts more histrionic romantic problems into sorrowful rhyming verses and, in the vein of 808s and Heartbreak, sounds genuinely wounded. The song's use of a "Strange Fruit" sample (as performed by Nina Simone, not Billie Holiday, presumably for copyright reasons?) at first glance calls to mind the Clash's "Complete Control," an outrageously angry song about something incredibly petty (CBS Records releasing a song as a single that the Clash didn't want to be a single, seriously) in the pantheon of the hilariously melodramatic. And indeed, using "Strange Fruit" in the context of any heartbroken anthem has the effect of making West sound insensitive, and making his own lyrics sound even more like small stuff, but perhaps never before has he so effectively married his apocalyptic blues to a document of his failed relationships and the fallout from his shady promiscuity, and how even this sails back to the garish exposure of the limelight.

"Blood on the Leaves" might serve as a bit of a microcosm, then -- the continued dive down a rabbit hole of emptiness, for all the richness and power in West's life; his catalog of previous relationships, and his relationship with his late mother, has culminted in a sense of overpowering loss. It can't be accidental that the same performer who gleefully mocked conventional hip hop misogyny on his first two records now demands "hurry up with my damn menage" and pictures himself exaggeratedly unloved, "the door locked by myself and I'm feelin' it right now / Cause it's the time when my heart got shot down." Is he really talking about being dumped, or about something he ruined? That verse is from the musically semi-calm "Guilt Trip," which also contains the nakedly confessional "If you love me so much then why'd you let me go?" But one song later, he presents a night of sex followed inexplicably by "Her heart colder than the souls of men." Maybe that attitude answers the first question. Can this be anything but an intentional burnout? If we can already acknowledge that it's a provocation, it seems we can go that much further. It's handy to note that "Send It Up" only has one note of real aesthetic sensuality, that provided by King Louie's muttered, spit-out opening verse; its closing Beenie Man sample posits nothing more than that West will finally be left just with his vivid, painful thoughts.

After the most despairing run of songs in his career so far, Yeezus ends with the ubashedly beautiful, arrhythmic and soulful throwback "Bound 2," surreal and deliberate like the prior nine cuts but with the possibility of some redemption. Its howling samples of the Ponderosa Twins and Brenda Lee, and a completely wonderful bridge by Charlie Wilson, background a goofy and unusually contended, even domesticated West, who sounds tired and drunk and fat and happy here. The hints of romantic satisfaction on "I'm in It" and "Hold My Liquor" culimate in what sounds like the buzz, blissful and otherwise, of an extended relationship and family life -- "I'll turn the plane 'round, your ass keep complaining / How you gonna be mad on vacation?" He even accidentally (?) paraphrases Yo La Tengo's "Paul Is Dead": "Hey, you remember where we first met? / Okay, I don't remember where we first met." As Wilson's cheap island-porn Quiet Storm-style bellowing marries Lee's sly "uh-huh, honey," West takes it a day at a time and sees a way out of all this insanity. We made it to Thanksgiving, so hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas.

As much as I'd like to "turn my flea market of information into a beautiful living space," after a couple of months with Yeezus this mess is the best I can do. In some ways it's a direct and logical movement forward from West's prior records; its self-effacing bravado, despite the hype, really only underlines past tendencies. And its passionately ugly strip away into dirty, funky drum-n-bass minimalism, propagated in part by credited "executive producer" Rick Rubin, is a reasonable enough reaction to and away from MBDTF. But its urgent, fierce creativity and audience-screwing touch of the avant garde are a new avenue. It's hard to recall the last time an artist on Kanye West's scale released an album so clearly designed to defy and stunt expectations, so fully dedicated not just to innovation but to being actually difficult to listen to, an act of musical aggression. Kid A doesn't work as a comparison -- its pleasing dinner music was never the left turn it was cracked up to be except in the context of alternative rock at the time; not many people bought or were really expected to buy Neil Young, Prince and Stevie Wonder's strangest records. Yeezus would be a bizarre and courageous record at any given point. As ever, West's ability to cultivate and curate the talent around him and to spin something new and fresh of it is stunning.

So in terms of going nuts and reaching an uncharted creative peak under a spotlight, we have to go back to the Beatles. Yeezus is West's White Album -- in every sense, encompassing its deliberate short-circuiting of its pleasures, its many odd and surprising moments, and its comical non-cover art. My other favorite record this year is Vampire Weekend's; I seldom become this obsessed with any new album, much less two simultaneously -- that hasn't happened as long as I can remember. But Modern Vampires of the City is a Sgt. Pepper album, one I can, would and have recommended to nearly everyone I know; its appeal is that innate. Yeezus, then, feels like The Beatles because its chaotic weirdness and suggestion of slight (or more than slight) instability seem to cater so much and so precisely to my impulses. It's a record that seems just for me and I imagine a lot of its fans feel that way -- I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone, but damn if it isn't just about perfect to these ears. As stated here before I'm sure, we're fortunate to be alive at the same time as Kanye West. "I've been a menace for the longest / But I ain't finished, I'm devoted / And you know it, and you know it." That's ego talking, sure, but it's ego well befitting America's very best popular artist.

808s and Heartbreak (2008)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
with Jay-Z: Watch the Throne (2011)

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