The most meme-ified line from Kanye West’s excellent sixth album Yeezus, already, a couple days after it leaked, is the, “Hurry up with my damn croissants” bit from “I Am A God”. That that, more than any other line, is the one that everyone has been tweeting/parodying makes some sense: it’s the funniest line on an album that is bug-eyed in its devotion to scaring people off. The real line worth paying attention to though, in terms of being (somewhat) representative of the game Kanye is playing on Yeezus, is a line a little bit earlier on “I Am A God”. “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you, cause kissing people ass is so unlike you,” Kanye says, 90 seconds into the Daft Punk-produced track. It’s more straightforward than the “kill self” stuff from his NY Times interview last week, and it’s more of a mission statement than his “I don’t want to be on the radio” talk at that listening party in NYC too.
Kanye spent his first three albums trying to conquer the landscape, and succeeded. He spent 808s and Heartbreak lamenting that despite being on top of the world, a woman could leave him and his mom could still die. He spent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne wondering what it meant to be on top (and being bored), and why it was that he and Jay-Z (and Beyonce) were the only black people at the fancy parties they went to. Yeezus is Kanye openly questioning people’s devotion to him; instead of giving them the lush maximalism of MBDTF, or the lush soul-chirped beats of College Dropout, he’s delivered an album heavy on beats that sound like they’re taking place on the arc between two live wires, an album that sounds like industrial music you can rap to. Where other rappers are trying to go EDM as quickly as possible to get that Pitbull money, Kanye has torn up EDM with a pickaxe and is rapping over its electronic meltdown. To say that this is one of 2013’s most distinct, thrilling albums would be an immense understatement.
Boasting production and songwriting help from a stupid long list of collaborators—from Daft Punk and Young Chop to TNGHT and Rick Rubin to Lupe Fiasco and CyHi Da Prince (seriously)—Yeezus is West’s shortest, gnarliest album to date. It opens on “On Sight” with Kanye saying, “Yeezy season approaching/fuck whatever y’all been hearing,” over a song that singlehandedly blows up Death Grips’ spot. It’s noise-rap, a skittering, blaring track that asks, “How much do I not give a fuck?,” and has a sample that goes, “he gives us what we need/ it might not be what we want.” Reminder: As that NY Times interview confirmed, Kanye is more aware of how you perceive him than you even realize.
Elsewhere, attack drums make the racial politics of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” more insistent, with the former sounding more frayed and lacerating than anything than an army of horrorcore rappers has mustered. “Send It Up” is the kind of rap you’d imagine playing at a Molly club on Mars, sharing in common random and uproarious dancehall vocals with “I’m In It”, a vaporous sex rap that sounds rapped in the middle of a controlled demolition and a police chase. On the album’s most stunning track, he somehow mixes Nina Simone’s cover of a lynching poem (“Strange Fruit”) with a TNGHT track, and manages to include the best “drop” of 2013. He even throws the 2003 Kanye revivalists a bone with “Bound 2”, mostly, it seems, to prove that he can still do soul samples and dusty rap better than anyone else, but it would bore him to do it over a whole album.
One of Kanye’s greatest strengths, going back to his days as a producer, is how he can play collaborators like instruments. Look back at his discography, and you’ll find the greatest performances from Pusha T, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Lupe Fiasco, Consequence, and hell, Chris Martin and Adam Levine. Here, he pulls out a gut-wrenching screamo performance from Kid Cudi (“Guilt Trip”), lets Charlie Wilson run off with the entire album (“Bound 2”), and redeems Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (again!) for a generation of soft-rock haters (“Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It”). But the most high-profile appearances are from a pair of Chicago drill scene vets, King L and Chief Keef. Kanye has devoted time on multiple tracks counting murders in Chicago, but, with the exception of last year’s “Don’t Like” remix, hasn’t asked any rappers from that strife to appear on his records. King L’s dead-eyed tough talk verse on “Send It Up” is the part that everyone will try to recreate when that track eventually makes it to clubs. Chief Keef meanwhile, is turned into a disembodied robot ghost, croaking in a haze on “Hold My Liquor”.
Politically, Yeezus is a mess. It divebombs its attack on racism with vulgar tales of hotel hookups. “Blood on the Leaves” uses a sample about a song about lynching to make a statement about child support. “Black Skinhead” has that line about people coming for him like King Kong because he has a white woman in a luxury apartment. But here’s the thing: He’s the only mainstream artist, with the kind of platform he has, to openly call for an examination of racism in supposedly “post-race” America. In some ways, the firebrand statements of “New Slaves” (“there’s broke ni**a racism, that’s that don’t touch anything in the store/ and there’s rich ni**a racism, that’s that come in please buy more”) are a direct line from “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.” It’s easy to play down—or ignore, if you choose– the tough race relations amidst the icky, American Psycho nihilism on display on Yeezus, but the fact that the only two songs we heard from this before release were the two most forward in regards to Kanye’s long-discussed concerns of racism, privilege, and being manipulated by corporate overlords, speaks volumes.
Yeezus is another album that will have the “I wish he’d make another College Dropout” Philistines crying for their fallen idol. You can sympathize with them in some regard; it would be nice for Kanye to sound happy, to sound like he likes all the women he’s doing in hotel rooms, to make music you could play at a barbecue without offending your mom. But really, people want that version of Kanye back because they want the “better” version of themselves back. The version that has the world in front of you, the version that feels like sleeping with supermodels might fill the hole inside yourself, the version that sounded at least sounded like personal fulfillment was possible.
This version of Kanye is a harder one to consider; he’s a meaner, rawer, and ultimately more interesting figure, a guy yelling that the personal fulfillment he was looking for is still eluding him, even after all the sex, drugs, money and expensive brands. And that is the polar opposite of what anyone wants from their pop stars. We want affirmations that personal fulfillment from capitalism is at the end of the rainbow, with a pot of luxury automobiles and pretty (wo)men with loose morals.
Which is to say that it’s possible, with the exception of Michael Jackson—someone Kanye compares himself to a lot—pop culture has not produced a figure nearly as compelling as Kanye West. As long as he is making records—even if the next one isn’t as sonically daring and forward leaning as Yeezus—the world is a more compelling place. Yeezus saves.