“Whatever I wanna do, gosh, it’s cool now.” Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus, is a bold test case for that boast he made in “Monster.” It dares mainstream pop-culture to accept a record drenched in ugly sounds and uglier sentiments. The album acts as a sequel of sorts to that 2010 single, without any fun Thriller-style dress-up. The monster takes off his mask, looks exactly the same underneath. But you’re the one who was so desperate to come to his party, so why should he give a fuck? He’s aware he’s a wolf.
A pristine state of not-giving-a-fuck-ness is the key to understanding everything on Yeezus. At times, the album seems like the definitive answer to a question I posed earlier this year. Turns out not giving a fuck is more punk. Sonically, not giving a fuck equates to a full embrace of discordant, minimal synths. Many of these tracks are built on nothing but metallic tones and blown-out beats. Though common in the underground since at least the late 70s, and especially the post-punk and cold wave of the early eighties and all the modern bands who aspire to them, that level of harshness has almost always proven to be too much for the radio to bear. The reason Nine Inch Nails comparisons are getting bandied about is because we’ve got few other truly commercial examples to point to. Kanye’s not the first rapper in recent memory to try this. M.I.A.’s Suicide-sampling “Born Free” seems like a more-on-the-nose test run. Azealia Banks dropped “Yung Rapunxel” into a strikingly similar dystopian techno zone early this year, then deeply screwed herself by not getting her shit together enough to release a debut album ahead of Yeezus. But neither song landed with the crossover impact of anything here. (Anyone claiming Odd Future has ever gotten anywhere close, please leave the room.)
West can’t help himself from turning this ugly music into really big pop. He goes one key step beyond where songs of that type would typically stop. The huge beat of “Black Skinhead” takes a goth-industrial sound back to that genre’s glam rock forebears causing a debate online whether it sampled Marilyn Manson or Gary Glitter, while actually sampling neither. “New Slaves”, which more than matches James Murphy or Olof Dreijer for its sparse but fully melodic tones, goes past them to close on that gorgeous, melted soul outro. He’s declared himself a “black new wave” artist enamored with vintage synths and Peter Saville record sleeves but, of course, no Factory Records release features anything nearly so modern. (Neither does a record like Savages’, we should all take a second to note.) On the album opening, “On Sight” he shows everyone how easy it’d be to keep doing his old hugely commercial pitch-shifted soul move, stopping the chill on a dime to get real warm, then snapping his fingers to make it all go away again. “How much do I not give a fuck?” he asks first, and then answers “that much.” His never glossy yet still oversized appropriation of all this noise, his reckless attitude in arranging it in contrast to his previous styles, makes for deeply thrilling futuristic music.
When you get past how it sounds to dig into the ideas of Yeezus, it becomes a real fucking muddle. There’s plenty of lines here that don’t seem calculated to the music. There are lines that are straight-up racist or mysoginist all over the place, with no thought to self-censorship. To put it as Ye might: He’s a Super-Ego with no superego. Something deeply gross like the “I’m In It” line, “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce,” can’t even slide by on the hack comedian’s “anything’s fair game” defense because it’s deeply, like, 1950s lazy. It’s made worse because when Kanye takes the time to craft a real joke in his songs, he’s pretty hilarious. Take the elegant construction of “Send It Up” s three-part dismissal: “She say ‘Can you get my friends in the club?’ I say ‘Can you get my Benz in the club?’ If not, treat your friends like my Benz, park they ass outside ’til the evening end.”
It’s often hard to suss out a real coherent point Kanye’s trying to make, or if there even is one. “New Slaves” is the most strident song, rushing forward with an itchy insistence that makes you feel like he must have a grander point than avenging personal slights, even as you start to suspect he doesn’t. The opening riff on the different sorts of racism that come with different strata of African-American success seems wildly relevant to the Obama era. But, where a political album like The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual—and get ready for these two to get compared a lot in end of year wrap ups—comes with an attached anti-capitalist worldview that’s made clear almost to the point of being annoying, Kanye’s main objection to corporate malfeasance seems to be that no one has thought to put him in charge of it yet. (While he overtly compares himself to Jesus on the record, he exhumed Steve Jobs in a later interview as if he regretted the oversight in not offending metropolitan heathens.)
Then there’s his use of Nina Simone’s gut-wrenching version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. While he obviously knows the power of that song, juxtaposing its stark anti-slavery imagery with the rest of “Blood on the Leaves”’ petty bitching about alimony payments and Jay-Z’s old girlfriends seems like a malicious non-sequitur. If he’s trying to further his “New Slaves” equating of bling materialism’s oppression with, like, actual lynchings, he’s not really making his case. Of course without context, that sample is ravishing. In a way, you can see it as extension of West’s extreme luxury persona. Why let uncomfortable politics keep him from using anything but the very best sounds? It could be the same impulse that keeps him using Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon strictly as a vocoder robot. He just wants the most soulful robot on the market. Again and again he sadistically fucks with righteous things in his lyrics, making them nasty, or even pornographic. Who doesn’t shudder at a line like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”? You can think he’s cynically drawing artistic power from extremes, and still find it almost impossible to look away from someone who really truly DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK. You might call him a nihilist if he didn’t so obviously believe in himself.
But, think about it, do you really want Kanye to be coherent? How in the world would him making straightforward politically conscious Common records be a more interesting use of all that talent and unfathomable self-regard? He’s messy and infuriating, but the way he fucks it up and gets it right in equal measure is why his work always feels new, and every so often feels truly dangerous. Did he just make synth-punk sneering as mainstream cool as he thinks he did? I guess we wait and see. But this record will live on for years, if not decades, rattling around in the heads of people who love it or hate it. I’m sure this punch left a mark.