Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Kanye West's Yeezus

The last week I've been reading a lot about Yeezus and it seems to be either universally loved or loathed. I have to admit that I am fascinated by it because it is a view into the madness of our pop culture icons. It is as thrilling as it is repulsive but it is never less than compelling.

On the music front, it's pretty great - that abrasive electro sound that El-P and Deathgrips have been mining. As a rock/punk fan, I think you'd find that's the hip hop that has the most in common with my tastes and the hardness of the music is bracing. It's the lyrics which seem to be the problem for most and that's what I want to discuss here.

On it's release, it was revealed that a lot of the vocals were recorded in the very last session and up to five of the songs were basically written on the spot. As such, what we have is an unchecked, untamed version of the inner dialogue running through Kanye West's head and that's what I find amazing. For all the narcissism, misogyny and misguided politics, it is simultaneously contradictory, revealing and bug nuts crazy.

Think for a moment what it is like to be Kanye West. The son of a Black Panther and an academic, he grew up in middle class comfort and even spent time living being schooled in China when his mother was teaching at Nanjing University. He is an intelligent man producing seminal hip hop music in a genre drowning in self aggrandisement, wanton consumerism and bravado. His every move is charted and discussed, he is demonised and praised every day of the week and has access to riches unimaginable to a person like me. This privilege belies the racism we see universally across the world and the expectation placed upon his as an artist by his fans,  record company and the press must be intense. His partner is famous for self promotion and their union has dragged West even further into the trashy TMZ vortex that passes for news these days. How disorientating and crazed must that life be? Would you doubt yourself or believe the hype?

If you've ever met (or were) a teenager whose emotions were extreme and all over the place, all misplaced anger and confusion - that's what this album sounds like to me. It is pure, uncensored id and a prism through which you can sense how maddening it must be to live West's life. Branding consumerism of the famous as the new racism (or rather, the way companies latch onto black artists), the self proclamation of divinity in hip hop and endless misogyny all run into each other and contradict but I see this as a pretty unique insight into the brain of one the world's most famous men. The lyrics and music bristle with a fiery anger, wildly swinging at whatever comes into view. I think if West had more time on the lyrics they would have been refined but here we get the rough mix and that lyrical brutalist is bracing as it is jarring. You could say a lot of hip hop covers these themes but I can't remember anything being this raw for a long time. How sorry do you feel for a Grammy winning millionaire with a celebrity girlfriend? I don't know but I know I couldn't live under the scrutiny famous people now live under.

I'm not sure if this album will stand the test of time but at the moment I'm enjoying it. A few weeks ago, West walked into a sign, gashing his head in front of a harassing horde of paparazzi. It is sad that I know this (I am another victim of voracious over reporting of celebrity life) and on Yeezus's release I glibly said to a friend that the record sounded like Kanye West hitting his head on a sign for forty minutes. The more I listen, the more I think this might be more true that I ever thought but that sign is a metaphor for the sickening popular culture we support and has swallowed West whole.



  1. Ever heard of a five percenter? Remember Brand Nubian? I strongly suspect that Kanye remembers, and is referencing five percent nation with the God references. It would also fit with the civil rights references as well. Same thing as if I were to say "Fight the power"- I might be talking about protest, or I might be referencing Public Enemy, or both. I think Kanye is doing both-
    Musically, though, I can't believe I'm the only one hearing the connection to power electronics. The yelled extreme statements over minimal, abrasive electronics? Really, even down to the obvious, willful misogyny in nearly ad-libbed lyrics, I'm hearing a lot of Whitehouse in this record.
    I'm more on the "liking it" end of the spectrum than the loathing end- but I can't say I'm fully sold, either...

  2. In classic comment fashion, I haven't heard this album yet. But, I was stunned to hear Rick Rubin produced it...
    cf this interview:
    Which also surprised me that he produced the last Sabbath cut...
    That man IS modrn music, methinks.

  3. Thanks Jon. I will consider this album recommended.