Proto-‘Ye

The album cover should’ve tipped us off

Make your peace with his abrasive personality (and his afflictive behavior) because his artistry is utterly unapologetic — and, on Yeezus (out June 18), completely unhinged.

Following 2010’s  highly-acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the music community politely tipped their hats to Mr. West. But, as is often the case, our appetites for innovation (and our expectations) were only temporarily satiated. We soon began to wonder, “What’s next?” and Kanye responded by prohibiting everyone involved with the creation of his sixth solo studio LP from broadcasting one word to the press about the album. There was no pre-release party, no promotional single, virtually no hype-building marketing scheme of any kind. (You couldn’t even pre-order the album on iTunes.) All we got was this cryptic line:

“When I listen to radio, that ain’t what I want to be anymore.”

Well, he has nothing to fear. Yeezus is easily Kanye’s most sonically ambitious (read: not radio-friendly) effort to date. Replete with squelching synths, industrial force and thunderous, tribal drum beats (in addition to the seemingly-de rigueur vocoder gymnastics), the album sounds like surrealist,  avant-garde pop — or maybe EDM on a Lebowskian acid trip. Needless to say, it’s not easily accessible and that’s the point. It’s a daring anti-pop record from this generation’s most definitive pop star. Moreover, where MBDTF stressed the creation-by-collaboration process with multiple featured artists on several tracks, Yeezus is indelibly guided by a singular voice and vision (though, as always, ‘Ye’s not alone behind the sound board), and it’s a not a particularly palatable one.

Kanye has always told his stories in a confessional tone — a kind of emotive chest-pounding aimed at catharsis — and plenty of the lyrics here are angry and arrogant  (“Hurry up with my damn croissants!”) and politically-charged and otherwise not fit to print. But, whether or not you agree with his ideology, one thing’s clear: the album’s themes are all treading in the same murky waters. ‘They see a black man with a white woman,’ Yeezy drawls on “Black Skinhead,” the album’s first standout track, ‘At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.’ And that’s just the beginning.

He devotes “Hold My Liquor” to waxing elegiac about his alcohol-induced misadventures and regrets (and he’s backed by stellar guest appearances from Justin Vernon and Chief Keef, a fellow Chicago rapper). Later, West irreverently borrows a hook from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”  on a song bemoaning all of the (primarily financial) trouble caused him by his “second-string b*****s.” Proving again that Kanye regards propriety and decorum the same way he does our expectations of him — with a tetchy sneer.

Yeezus probably won’t make many new converts out of his detractors (and, of course, haters gonna hate) but the album deserves admiration for its sheer creativity, its minimalism (it clocks in at 10 tracks and just one second over 40 minutes long) and its cohesiveness. Subsequent listens don’t reveal deeply-layered production. Rather, they demonstrate just how much more West, and his team of top-notch producers, can do with less. The results are nothing shy of stunning.

It’s insufficient (and reductive) to call this just another rap album — it practically defies classification — but whatever it is, Yeezus is proto-‘Ye, and that’s what matters. So when he declares, “I ain’t finished, I’m devoted/and you know it, and you know it” we believe him. Well, then, what’s next?

Album score: 9/10
Key tracks: “Black Skinhead,” “Hold My Liquor,” “Blood on the Leaves”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.