While previewing Yeezus at a listening party in New York, Kanye West explained the rationale behind the album’s title: “West was my slave name; Yeezus is my God name.” Of course, if Yeezus is West’s “God name,” and if the album is any indication, then West’s God is of the Old Testament variety, vengeful, violent, and ready to rain down a shitstorm of jagged, art-fucked beats, modular synths, dancehall vocals, head-spinning smash-cuts, and agitprop rants about race and hegemony. That being said, Yeezus isn’t just about race and hegemony…exactly. In fact, outside of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves,” most of the album’s political threads rise out of less overtly political subject matter via West’s grandiose attempts to dismantle anything that resembles polite society, including religion, sex, wealth, and, of course, race.
Before opening that can of particularly squirmy worms, though, let’s talk about the most obvious confrontation on Yeezus—the production. From the distorted synth strains that open “On Sight,” which quickly mutate into a furious house arrangement, one thing is clear—Yeezus
is not going to be a comfortable album. As if to drive this point home harder than the arrangement’s glitchy mess of beats and blips can on its own, right around its halfway point the song smash-cuts to a soulful, untreated clip of Holy Name of Mary Choral Family’s “He’ll Give us What We Really Need,” then smashes right back into the electronic assault. Elsewhere, “Black Skinhead” layers distortion and immense bass drops over a beat that sounds like the unholy union of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll pt. 1”; on “New Slaves,” West offers more skittery, dub-influenced house music leading into a brief, abstract outro that sounds like psychedelic boomer-rock piped in through a shitty AM radio, with Frank Ocean’s falsetto riding over top; and “Hold My Liquor,” which features pleasantly nuanced guest spots from Justin Vernon and the insufferable Chief Keef, builds around a wall of throbbing synths before dropping some Tangerine Dream style guitar into the mix.
While all of the above are surprising and, for listeners that come to Kanye West’s music with specific expectations, punishing, the album’s boldest, most bizarre and confrontational production decisions are also its best—the batshit, gravity defying mashup of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” with TNGHT’s “R U Ready,” on instant classic “Blood on the Leaves,” and, on “Bound 2,” a long-form sample of Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound” (plus other-worldly “uh huh honeys” via Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothings”) scissor-kicks into a chorus of fuzzed-out synths, over which Charlie Wilson sings something that sounds kind of like a conventional pop song. Despite the way these disparate ideas come together, though, at the center of Yeezus’ production is its much hyped, Rick Rubin-assisted minimalism. These songs are so stripped down and direct that they, to mix some contradictory metaphors, hit with the precision of a blunt instrument—think, maybe, about that bolt pistol used by Javier Bardem’s hitman character in No Country for Old Men. By reaching for maximalist impact with a minimalist aesthetic, and doing it through stylistic choices ranging from the aggressive to the absurd, West has made a set of songs that shouldn’t work in any universe, but do, and because they work they are beyond jarring, threatening to buck us from the Yeezy-train if we don’t double down and listen harder.
And, of course, it’s when we’re listening harder that some of West’s more difficult confrontations become apparent.
For the first half of his career, West’s reputation as a hip hop personality revolved around his impressive skills as a curator and producer, as well as his clever, smart-assed persona built on boasts, jokes, and occasional bouts of social consciousness. On 2008’s 808’s and Heartbreaks, and 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though, West turned his attentions inward and set about exploring the dark corners of his own life and personality. On both of those albums, but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in particular, West portrayed himself as unhinged and grotesque, a Frankenstein’s monster built of power, libido, fame, heartache, his own id, and an uncomfortable co-dependence with a popular media that couldn’t get enough of Crazy Old Yeezy. On Yeezus, West continues his monstrous self-representation—he gives this away right off the bat in “On Sight,” saying, “Monster about to come alive again”—but to drastically different ends. If, on Twisted Fantasy, West constructed himself as a monster out of a self-loathing desire to interrogate and expose his own darkest impulses; on Yeezus, West’s resurrection of that monster is a celebration of those dark impulses for the express sake of confrontation.
And this is a big part of the why Yeezus is such a powerful and uncomfortable record—just as (to paraphrase Ann Powers quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr.) Gangster Rap allowed for the creation of a nineties update of “The Scary Negro,” by embracing his personal inner monster, West is forging his own 2013 update of “The Scary Negro” as a One-Percenter. But let’s take this a step further—Powers argued, way back in 1995, that “…the artful gangsta rapper manipulates that common nightmare, setting up a symbolic confrontation between the rapper and the listener.” On Yeezus, West does the same thing, setting up confrontations between his listener and his own wealthy, powerful, and hyper-sexual version of that common nightmare.
Of course, on Yeezus, these confrontations take the form of West’s transgressions against comfortable norms. In some songs, this transgression is enacted against religion, as on “I Am a God,” where West asserts his power (“Hurry up with my damn massage”), worldliness (“In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants”), and straight-up blasphemy, (“I just talked to Jesus/He said, ‘What up Yeezus?’/I said, ‘Shit, I’m chilling. /Trying to stack these millions’/I know he the most high/But I am a close high”). Elsewhere, West disrupts the hegemony of the white ruling class by calling out the prison industrial complex on “New Slaves”: “Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA/They tryna lock niggas up, they tryna make a new state/See that’s that privately owned prison, get your piece today”; challenges sexual convention with his (porno)graphic gonzification of sexuality (with racial politics on the side!) on “I’m In It”: “Black girl sipping white wine/Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”; and, on “Bound 2” demolishes the myth of sweet, romantic love, juxtaposing the sample from “Bound,” (the chorus of which sings, sweetly, “Bound to fall in love”) with more porn-inspired sex and challenges to traditional romantic love: first, “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/After that give you something to drink/Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink,” then, “Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?” At every turn, West is pushing the center to the margins, layering taboo after taboo onto his spare, jagged arrangements, and, in the process, constructing himself as the big, scary black monster who won’t rest until he’s turned the culture surrounding him inside out.
One of the more confrontational wells to which West returns, time and again, on Yeezus, is the politics of interracial relations. That, of course, is a polite way of saying that a number of songs on Yeezus feature Kanye rapping about fucking white men’s wives. Let me hit the pause button a moment. Already, just based on that paraphrased version of West’s lyrics, we can see a couple of the bigger problems with West’s approach—first, the women West sings about having sex with are referred to in line with the outmoded patriarchal notion that they are the property of their husbands, and second, the women are completely and utterly objectified as devices of West’s vengeance against their wealthy, white husbands.
The first instance of this shows up in “On Sight,” in which West sings, “Black dick all in your spouse again/And I know she like chocolate men/She got more niggas off than Cochran.” West returns to the idea in “New Slaves,” in which, on the heels of calling out the wealthy elite for making shitloads of money by loading up prisons with black people, West sings, “Fuck you and your Hampton house/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse/Come on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth.” When taken in concert with the song’s chorus (“You see it’s leaders and it’s followers/But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”) it’s hard not to read West’s boast about those Hampton wives as intentionally wishing to degrade them as an act of disrespect against their husbands. In addition to the irony of West challenging a system of oppression by further subjugating another oppressed group, these moments are just flat out gross, right? Which leads us to another moment of interracial commingling, which arrives amid the fucked-up-jock-jams and vocal squawks of “Black Skinhead”: “They see a black man with a white woman/At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” And…shit.
That last one doesn’t quite fit the script, does it? And we know it doesn’t fit the script because, first, nobody is fucking anybody else’s wife, and second, we know that we live in a world where Kimye is a couple, and so we can speculate that West is singing from his own experiences, here, and so when we place this lyric beside the other two, we’re forced to revisit those other examples and puzzle out what, exactly, Kanye West is doing. Is he being a misogynistic asshat because misogyny is so deeply intertwined with hip hop’s ideas about masculinity? Or is West recognizing and openly confronting race-based fears by aggressively becoming the object of that fear—by becoming King Kong? Certainly, there are enough casual, normal-hip-hop examples of sexism and misogyny peppered throughout Yeezus—most of the women are “bitches,” there is a screed against gold digging groupies on “Blood on the Leaves,” and at one point—probably the album’s lowest point—on “I’m In It,” West degrades Asian women with a racist punchline, singing, “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce”—that if you want to read Yeezus as horribly misogynistic, I will absolutely agree with you. But I also think that, at least some of West’s misogyny, here, is a calculated attempt to turn white, patriarchal fears inside-out through his transgressive self-portrayal as The Big Black Monster, as King Kong, as the 2013, One-Percenter update of “The Scary Negro.”
Now, I don’t want to send this review crashing completely off the rails, but this all begs the question—do a transgression’s ends justify its means?
Honestly, I don’t know. I do know that Yeezus is a deeply affecting album because of its ugliness. It’s an album that makes me squirm, and challenges me as a listener precisely because West draws on the margins of sex, gender, and relationships to throw down some hard truths about race in Obama’s America. When West sings about rim jobs and black power fisting on “I’m In It,” he isn’t just trying to shock us, he’s piling onto his own monstrous self-image to further confront his audience. Call me a prude, but some of that imagery is gross, and it makes me uncomfortable, but that’s the point. However, with all that being said, whatever West’s intentions, I still don’t know how to truly judge the transgressive nature of Yeezus because I don’t know how to grapple with West’s transgressions outside of my personal listening context—it makes me uncomfortable and challenges me, and I like that it makes me so uncomfortable (and, I have to admit, I relish the idea of how uncomfortable this album will make suburban folks and the conservative religious set—if they ever hear it), but West’s intent is a little too murky, and the album is a little too messy for me to definitively say that Yeezus either does or doesn’t earn its misogyny because it is capital-T-Transgressive Art. This is all a nervous, round-about way of saying that, I get what West is doing with some of the ugliness on his album, and I get why he is doing it, but despite the album’s grandiose themes and despite the fact that this album is Art, ultimately, Yeezus is also still a piece of popular music, and I know that, in the Real World, Yeezy’s brand of misogyny will absolutely perpetuate harmful attitudes toward women. Call it a cop-out, but I don’t know the answer to this dilemma.
In the end, regardless of where or how we draw the line on West’s transgressive misogyny, Yeezus is an important album that will almost certainly be influential over the next several years. I know it’s something of a cliché to say by now, but Yeezus has the potential to be to Kanye West and hip hop what Kid A was to Radiohead and rock and roll. That is to say, Yeezus is a major, genre-shaking shift from one of the biggest artists in the game. That West complicates his next-level production with noisy politics and troubled gender dynamics will make Yeezus the kind of album that will be puzzled over and discussed for quite some time. Whatever you want to take away from this review, know that Yeezus isn’t an easy album—transgressive art never is, nor should it be—but when Brenda Lee’s coy, “Uh huh, Honey”—unceremoniously yanked out of the white-washed fifties to peddle raw sex and non-conventional views of romantic love—closes the album, it’s hard not to be seduced by the sheer audacity of West’s project, even knowing full well that, that project is built on some ugly shit.