Small Clever Rooms
Thoughts on Yeezus
Yeezus makes me uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that this is a large part of the reaction Kanye West is trying to provoke. Yeezus is uncomfortable music: all sawblade synths, queasy riffs, samples appearing from nowhere and disappearing just as abruptly. But shit, I fuck with Death Grips and Clipping too. The industrial techno glitch crunk grime beats or whatever are novel for Yeezy and well suited to the aggression he brings to his raps here, but they don’t make me uncomfortable. What makes me uncomfortable is Yeezus’s lack of apparent sense of humor or even self-awareness as Kanye West flings that aggression outwards in all directions. Nowhere is this more jarring or nauseating than when, in “Blood on the Leaves”, Kanye repurposes “Strange Fruit”, a song about lynchings, into yet another screed against women using marriage (or, as he terms it, “unholy matrimony”) to soak men for their money. It’s “Gold Digger” again, except with all the winking and jokes replaced by, in case I haven’t made it clear how fucked up I think this is, a sample from a song that is literally about actual lynchings. Of course there are no jokes, though. Yeezus’s idea of a joke is “I’m In It”’s oft-quoted but still execrable “eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce.”
Yeezus isn’t all that terrible; in fact, most of my objections concern the lyrics. Musically, it’s everything its admirers say it is: trite as it may be, I have no problem calling it a daring step for Kanye, or a bold and uncompromising album coming from a man who is surely accustomed to having radio play. The only concession to radio-friendliness here is the presence of a few hooks, and even those are simple barked words or phrases as often as not: see the first and last (NSFW probably) songs. Nevertheless, the more I listen to it, the more I think I might end up liking the production here more than on any other Kanye album. Given different subject matter, Blood on the Leaves might have been one of my favorite songs of the year. The brass that comes charging in at intervals is thrilling and foreboding, just one striking element of an instrumental that brings together so many disparate elements that it’s a wonder it works at all. The whole album is kind of like “Monster”, one of my favorite cuts from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with the alienation and antagonism cranked up even further. Every one of the ten songs here has at least one line that makes me cringe.
In the end, I find Yeezus fascinating as a portrait of an extremely powerful and influential man nonetheless railing against his own powerlessness. “I Am A God” sums this up tidily, starting with its title (which at no point seems to be meant with any degree of irony) and ending with Kanye’s bloodcurdling screams, half terror and half frustration. They’re hardly the screams of someone who really thinks he’s a god, and it’s far more interesting to view his lazy, misogynistic, deadly self-serious lyrics as a façade over the turmoil of the production–one that gets pulled back, briefly and at the moment it seems thickest, for those screams–than to take them at face value. Because for all his power and fame, Kanye can’t stop the armchair psychiatrists of the world (including me) from diagnosing him every time he says what’s on his mind in an interview, can’t smash all the recorders that must hound him every time he’s out in public, can’t force the fashion world to take him seriously by dint of his myriad nigh-unimpeachable musical achievements. Can’t keep his mother from dying.
So in the face of this larger impotence, his lyrics find him still flaunting his wealth, raging about croissants, and of course, debasing and ejaculating in and on as many women as possible. Punching down is a time-honored tradition among people who feel powerless, so it’s not surprising to see Kanye doing it here if you accept the last paragraph’s thesis. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
No one psychoanalyzes Death Grips—who now have four albums and counting suffused with far more schizophrenic paranoia than Yeezus has even in its worst moments—like this. But Death Grips never wrote a “Roses” or “Runaway”, nothing to indicate that their shtick is anything other than just a shtick; they give few interviews and reveal little in them. Kanye’s whole life is a public spectacle, and while he might be playing a character on his albums, part of what makes his music compelling is that his songs seem to be come from an authentic, unfiltered place in him. Their details often match up with what we know of his life, and they have often revealed a complexity that is not much in evidence in the lyrics of Yeezus. I think that’s to its detriment, so I try to read complexity into it elsewhere. To an extent, Mr. West has earned the benefit of the doubt from me. But Yeezus is gross in too many trite and unchallenging ways for him to have earned a spot among my top ten this year.
Thanks to my friend Mary, a couple of whose thoughts in conversation about this album I have probably either knowingly or unknowingly incorporated into this post.