If Kanye West wasn't such a gifted producer, his obnoxious lack of humility would surely be his downfall. But, the fact is, the man has broadened hip-hop's landscape and is constantly pushing the genre forward by thinking outside the box.
Calling his album "Yeezus," may be a little much. Having a track called "I Am A God," with a humorously added "featuring God" credit listed shouldn't be a surprise. It'd be better if he subtly came into the party and knocked people's socks off, but that's not Kanye's style. He believes he is the best and doesn't want anyone to think any less.
As an album, "Yeezus" is a streamlined sonic attack. At 10 tracks and 40 minutes, it's one of the leanest mainstream hip-hop releases since Nas' "Illmatic." It's a pleasantly menacing record often delivered with a punk-like, venom-filled ferocity. With titles like "Black Skinheads" and "New Slaves," it is bound to raise some eyebrows from the easily offended, but Kanye has never been about making friends. He's successfully courted and won over the mainstream by being himself, unfiltered. If that questions the establishment, so be it. If that involves way too many references to his manhood, so be it.
In the opener, "On Sight," he frequently declares how much he "doesn't give a f***." The track features some stellar production from Daft Punk, one of many collaborations here with the French electronic duo. Funny thing is their work here strangely surpasses that on their much-hyped but somewhat disappointing album "Random Access Memories."
"Yeezus" continually maintains an apocalyptic feel. "New Slaves" has a minimalist groove, over which West compares modern hip-hop stars to slaves, sarcastically declaring, "Y'all throwing contracts at me. You know that n****s can't read." The irony is, he is saying this on what will perhaps be one of the biggest-selling albums released by a major label this year. (And you can bet Kanye will be well-paid.) Also, his message might get slightly lost beneath his sexual bragging and with the white suburban section of his audience. (I fear a mosh pit full of misinformed white kids shouting along "yeah we the new slaves …" No. Cultural context is very important.)
Nevertheless, it is delivered in a driven, ear-catching manner. But then again, Kanye has always been more about style than lyrical content. When the track breaks into a slightly sunnier final minute, it comes as a breath of fresh air. The setting becomes a tad claustrophobic before the break - a feeling which I'm positive is intended.
"Hold My Liquor" shows a return of the Autotune that fatally marred "808s and Heartbreak" a few years back, but somehow the track still works within this album's context. The computerized voices of West and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon add a signature sense of alienation. I say signature because alienation seems to be driving theme here and it's as if West is trying to make the strangest record possible to push mainstream hip-hop out of its comfort zone. The results could be disastrous, but he is an expert.
"I'm In It" is about just what you think. It's an often crass, graphic sex-rhyme that places harmonized pitch-shifted vocals over a spare electro beat. If such things offend you, you are definitely listening to the wrong record. A dancehall reggae style breakdown is welcomed in the middle of the track.
Continuing the theme, the title of "Blood on the Leaves" calls back to a repeated line in "New Slaves." Again, with an Autotune aid, West brings something oddly compelling to the table. Backed by a cold synth-horn section and playing call-and-response with a spare, looped Nina Simone sample, West shows he can arrange something stirring. Even when his "sex-dream" rhymes come in, it is still a powerful listen.
"Guilt Trip" is again coated with Autotuned and slowed-down voices. The latter element is somewhat hypnotic. It ends up being a surprisingly lush, enveloping arrangement. Extra points are earned with the lyrical callback to Lords of the Underground's hip-hop classic "Chief Rocka."
"Send It Up" is a slow-burning club-banger backed by a strange siren-like synth, while closer, "Bound 2? finds Kanye rapping over a warm soul sample, which brings back memories of "Through the Wire" from "The College Dropout." Brenda Lee's "Uh-huh, honey" quote from her classic, "Sweet Nothin's," makes an interesting appearance as well.
On the whole, "Yeezus" is an often brash, shocking, pointed record about excess, sex, race and the quest for success, delivered with the kind of openness and vulnerability often reserved for emo-rock bands. It's a continuous suite. It's a solid piece. Maybe that's why Kanye didn't release a single. It's a dark, foreboding collection, bringing to mind a sad sense of isolation. At the same time, it will be a polarizing record people will either love or hate.
It's obviously the record that "808s and Heartbreak" should have been and yet it's not quite up at the level of "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." It is close, but it doesn't possess an amazing show-stopping track akin to "Monster."
This is Kanye's least commercial record, but at the same time it could be a game-changer, helping redefine the expectations for how commercial hip-hop should sound. The album's spare, minimalist (almost forgotten) packaging mirrors the album's no-frills approach. Kanye's flaws, as always, are open and apparent but, in spite of all that, he has delivered another fascinating record.
Perhaps with his relationship with Kim Kardashian and their newborn daughter, his next release will sound brighter. Here he has delivered a mesmerizingly lurid, compact collection.