Once in a while Kanye West goes ahead and does something that's truly impressive. You can't always tell this because, for West, there's no difference between an act of genius and being a genius. For him, genius doesn't stem from action; genius is an extension of his very state of being.
His unwavering sense of “complete awesomeness at all times” is bolstered by a weird feedback loop of celebrities, fans and critics who hate to love him and love to hate him. Each, however, pumps up his self-importance to the point where his sixth album, Yeezus — a very good, but not great work and one of the few records in recent history that can actually live up to the claim of being eagerly anticipated — is already being proclaimed as a masterpiece, despite its lack of focus and center.
Musically, Yeezus is an enjoyably-adventurous deconstruction of industrial rock, electronic dance, ragga and new wave that more than once eschews drums and often pulls in reggae vocals for ominous effects. (For added measure, there's a snippet of a chorale on “On Sight” and an outro, provided via sample, by Hungarian Rock band Omega on “New Slaves.”)
The album is short, clocking in at 40 minutes, and only one of its ten songs is listed as primarily produced by West. Whereas his past albums have concentrated on radio-friendly melodies, lush production, arena rap and navel-gazing, Yeezus is stark and minimal and seems determined to be the music that comes on in sketchy warehouse parties at about 3 am when your second wave of drugs is wearing off and you'll try whatever anyone has, because YOLO.
Much like 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, the rapping on Yeezus seems to be an afterthought. (Rick Rubin, who executive-produced the album in the 23rd hour, revealed that vocals for five songs were laid in two hours before West caught a flight to Milan.) This is actually a good thing, because as a rapper West is often silly, sloppy and belabored — the type of guy that may or may not be serious when angrily demanding croissants, and doesn't realize that the 300 were Spartans (not Romans) or that C-Murder came from the Calliope (not Magnolia) projects. (He also doesn't know who starred in In Too Deep [Omar Epps, not Mekhi Phifer]). None of this stops him from rapping with gusto, because even when he gets bested by guest rappers on his own songs, as on Late Registration's “Gone,” he claims his superficial raps as super-official.
Yet the glaring deficiency in West's raps on Yeezus is not his skillset as much as it is his utter lack of empathy for women as human beings. So, yeah, the guy with the trophy girlfriend who just gave birth to his daughter manages to throw a few lines that could be read as unintentional jabs at Kim Kardashian. On “On Sight,” he raps “I know she like chocolate men/ She got more niggas off than Cochran” which seems a little too close to home on too many levels.
See also: Sorry, But Kanye Is the GOAT
“I'm In It” manages to spin race and sexism for maximum offensiveness not once, but twice: “Eating Asian pussy/ All I need was sweet and sour sauce” and “Black girl sippin' white wine/ Put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign.” On “Hold My Liquor,” he mixes wealth and power with sex and misogyny proclaiming “One more fuck and I can own ya,” after dismissing that he “smashed your Corolla” while parking his Range Rover–which is like, whoa dude. No one man should have all that anger.
The two punk-channeling songs he premiered on last month's SNL performance — “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” — are the album's most pointed numbers; they're also the kind of songs crafted to be played very loudly in order to make white people incredibly uncomfortable.
On the surface that's all bravo because, you know, fuck your post-racism fallacy. But with Kanye, his rants — about celebrity, about art, about race and class — are always about personal injustices done to him masquerading as some sort of quest for social reform. He begins “New Slaves” making allusions to picking cotton and Jim Crow, and if you imagine listening to “New Slaves” outside of the context of contemporary Kanye-ism, it sounds like the Last Poets. And the release of the video — not through traditional outlets but projected onto buildings in places like the University of Tucson, Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, and the heart of Fifth Avenue — was incredibly revolutionary. But it was also visual screed against consumerism by the guy who produces fetish item sneakers and has worshipped at the storefront of more obscure high-end brands than any rapper ever.
So of course his finger-pointing at the prison industrial complex and racist attitudes is marred by Kanyecentrism: his response to such harsh realities is to use his resources to move his family to foreign lands (because he's fucking rich and fuck the rest of us) and, more tellingly, to cuckold a powerbroker by taking his wife and ejaculating “on her Hampton blouse and in her Hampton mouth,” because, for Kanye women are objects and the best way to retaliate against his oppressor is to violate said oppressor's most prized object. On the one hand, his move is all about powerlessness exerting power in the face of power; on the other it's all about his personal sense of satisfaction. Power to the people? Not so much.
In his attempts to be politically astute, Kanye West falls woefully short, but music and culture would probably be worse off without him. The same night that he premiered “New Slaves,” Birdman and Rick Ross dropped a song named “Pop That Pussy” while Plies released a ditty called “Fucking or What” — both being the type of lowbrow, ignorant music that makes you ashamed to say you like rap in mixed company. When compared to regressive bullshit like that, Yeezus is truly impressive.