To start, the perennial Kanye West question: how self-aware is Kanye West, exactly? The big viral takeaways from his infamous NYT interview involved the egomania ad infinitum/absurdum (“I am undoubtedly, you know, [the] Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture”, Yeezus was inspired by a Le Corbusier lamp, etc). But the interview also revealed an artist deeply concerned with the construction of a public persona based on his own contradictions. (It’s interesting, incidentally, that he not only views previous solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as his “backhanded apology” album, but that he places so much importance on the album as a unit, especially in this free mixtape era). And as a marketing stunt for an album that barely had any others, it was of course spectacularly effective. All of which raises the question – there’s obviously some core truth to Kanye’s presentation of himself as self-declared deity, but how much of it is, for lack of a better term, a put on?
The same questions hang around Yeezus, an album largely about Kanye’s problematic (to say the least) relationships with women – how much you like it may depend on how much you think the bad behavior described on it is meant as a cautionary tale. You’d be plenty justified in viewing the misogyny that the album is draped in as an honest depiction of Kanye’s views and rejecting it right there. But the misogyny here isn’t as simple as on, say, a Rick Ross song, where it’s stupid, unexamined wallpaper. Here, it’s almost always a perverse sort of political statement. The porno fantasies about the “Hamptons spouse” on “New Slaves” are explicitly marked as revenge against the DEA and private prison corporations, the warnings about gold-diggers in “Blood on the Leaves” are tied to the lynchings evoked by the “Strange Fruit” sample, and then there’s the whole thing with how the Black Power fist is re-purposed.
These ugly attitudes seem inextricably tied to historical traumas, tragic empowerment scenarios that are a legacy of the idea that when “they see a black man with a white woman/at the top floor they gon’ come to kill King Kong”. (Anthony Easton’s take on this idea at The Singles Jukebox is particularly interesting). And it goes beyond gender. People laugh at the line on “I Am A God” where Yeezus can’t think of anything better to do with his divine power than to expedite pastry delivery, but the absurdity is very much the point. He can bluster and self-aggrandize as much as he wants, any real power is very much out of his reach – cue the end-of-track shrieking and “New Slaves”, which is about figuring out where the real power lies.
Does all of that justify how ugly this album can be at times? Probably not – I certainly wish Kanye didn’t take so much glee in expressing the darkest and most twisted of his fantasies. But it’s not uncomplicated. And there’s the further complication of how terrific all of this can sound – jagged pop fashioned out of the shards of industrial noise and primal howls. The cool, modern referent for the sound on most of this album is the abrasive industrial rap of Death Grips.
But the funny thing is that Kanye, ever the canny sampler of forgotten sounds and genres, may have also created the greatest nu-metal song of all time in “Black Skinhead”. Which is faint praise of course, but this really is an electric single, a scream-laden Gary Glitter stomp (the internet rushed after its premiere to identify the sample – incorrectly – as from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”) that’s also a fascinating reclamation. Nu-metal was the sound of hip-hop (and black rage) co-opted to become the sound of alienated white suburbia. Here, Kanye takes it right back for a political song that’s about, among other things, the skyrocketing body count for young black males in what residents of Kanye’s hometown now call Chiraq, Illinois. (Same thing with the title, too – before skinhead was code for neo-Nazi, it was a British subculture that itself took its fashion ideas from Jamaican culture.) Touches like that are what make this album so fascinating – there are definitely better rappers than Kanye West and possibly better producers too, but it’s hard to think of anyone else who would even dare to release a sprawling, innovative, often-unfortunate, often-brilliant mess of an album like this one.