July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
Before I discuss the two most important religious songs on Yeezus, I do want to address some of the questionable religious lyrics on this album. I’m not going to gloss over them, but I want to point out how even though Kanye seems to be using them as ammunition for jokes or his angry diatribes, it’s worth noting that the vocabulary of Christianity is still very much a part of his lyrics, as it has been since 2004’s The College Dropout. (side note: I’m not trying to turn Kanye into a beacon of religious excellence, but I do want to provide perhaps a more nuanced perspective to how some religious people view him.) Outside of the obvious religious nature of “Jesus Walks,” The College Dropout features an interlude of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Through the Wire” invokes spiritual ideas near its end: “I must got an angel, cause look how death missed his ass…So I turn tragedy to triumph, make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.” Late Registration and Graduation also have a number of songs that reference spiritual concepts: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Hey Mama,” “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and “Everything I Am,” to name a few. Religious ideas keep popping up in Kanye’s lyrics, and often in very strange places, as I’ll point out later when I bring up MBDTF, but rarely are they as negative or offensive as some of the references on Yeezus.
I want to tackle these few moments, because while they are certainly offensive, I would hesitate to call them blasphemous or sacrilegious. I’ll start with “I’m In It,” easily my least favorite song on Yeezus and perhaps in Kanye’s entire discography, which contains some questionable comments on religious ideas and figures. In a song that is basically only about sex, it would be hard for these lyrics to carry any kind of beneficial religious significance, and the way Kanye uses them here make that a near impossibility. Let’s just say that invoking God’s name when talking about your girlfriend, ahem, revealing certain portions of her anatomy (“thank God Almighty, they free at last”) may be a fine reaction to have in private, but I’m not sure it should be immortalized in song. I could probably spin this line in a positive light if the rest of the song wasn’t so vulgar/misogynistic, and if the final lines of the song didn’t reference “getting head by the nuns.” Really, “I’m In It” isn’t funny or intelligent, but it is interesting to see a reference to God pop up in a song of this type. Later in the album on “Send It Up,” another track ostensibly about sex, Kanye offers up this line: “Yeezus just rose again.” Now, whether this is merely a sophomoric joke (I’m sure you are smart enough to figure out what that could mean) that ends up treating the resurrection as a comic matter or whether ‘Ye is trying to be Jesus, this line again shows a very important piece of Christian doctrine being employed by Kanye to add further levels of depth to a fairly meaningless song.
In fact, this particular fragment of a lyric may be operating on multiple levels of meaning. For example, it could be a joke that nonetheless reflects a religious idea to which Kanye still ascribes or gives some credence. Ironically, the song that best demonstrates this idea is “I Am a God,” where, according to certain critics, Kanye suggests that he is a deity. However, a closer listen to this incredibly compelling song reveals something else entirely. First of all, I find it difficult to claim this song as Kanye elevating himself over God, oh, I don’t know, maybe due to lyrics like this: “I am a god, even though I am a man of God, my whole life in the hand of God, y’all better quit playing with God.” Outside of proclaiming himself as a god, this is a shockingly orthodox statement of trust in God, and in the next verse ‘Ye talks about chatting with Jesus. That kind of discussion would not sound out of place in any evangelical church service, which makes this song so bizarre, and why I read this song as more of an indictment on claiming to be a god. I mean, come on, “Hurry up with my damn croissants”? If that’s not a suggestion that the idea of being a god is superficial and absurd, than what is? Also, “I Am a God” is punctuated by violent screams and gasping for breath near its end. If claiming to be a god leads to a nervous breakdown, then take me off the list.
The album closer, “Bound 2,” takes up some of these themes as well and extends a theme from MBDTF‘s closing track “Lost in the World,” bringing all of what I’ve been discussing into clearer focus. Most evidently, I think that “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain for a moment near its end, allowing Kanye to shed his persona for a moment, much like he did at the close of MBDTF—what’s behind the façade is someone a lot like you and me. Why do I think this is the “real” Kanye? Well, two things: one, “Bound 2” is the only song that sounds like old Kanye, dripping with soulful samples and goofy lyrics; and two, a couple lines in the song seem to be addressing the listener directly. For example, “admitting is the first step, eh, eh, ain’t nobody perfect,” confronts those people who have called Kanye out for his stupid decisions and who would give the same justification for their own poor decisions. Then, one of the final lines, “I’m tired, you’re tired. Jesus wept.” The exhaustion of keeping up this persona has finally caught up with Kanye on this final track, and this line treads similar ground to one from “Lost in the World”: “Let’s break out of this fake-ass party, turn this into a classic night.” This “party” shows up again in “Bound 2” and provides an answer to the reason Kanye invokes the image of Jesus weeping. “I know you’re tired of loving, with nobody to love, so just grab somebody, no leaving this party with nobody to love,” goes “Bound 2,” foregrounding the idea and importance of love. The weeping Jesus is the human Jesus, the one crying out of love for his friends. And this is the Jesus Kanye chooses to leave us with as Yeezus closes.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Biblical story, Jesus weeps and then raises Lazarus from the dead, leaving some puzzled as to why Jesus would be crying when he knew he was about to perform a miracle. Perhaps Kanye’s reason for titling this album Yeezus and concluding it with such an evocative image of Jesus is just as puzzling to some. What’s clear to me, regardless of whether or not this music is edifying or not, is that religious ideas, notably Christian ideas, still float throughout Kanye’s music, even on an album (given its title) that should not be taking religion seriously. Furthermore, one of the final images of Yeezus is not Kanye parading himself as a god, but a picture of Jesus as a human, deeply connected to humanity and sharing in its sufferings out of a deep compassion. We all need more of that kind of compassion, regardless of where or who it comes from, and Kanye is admitting that here. The most startling aspect of this admittance is that I don’t hear it more often.
For my take on Jay Z’s latest, check out my review at the Mockingbird Blog.
July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Six months later, I return. Part 2 should be around next week.
You know, the internet doesn’t really need another review of Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus. If you are looking for a review, go check Pitchfork or PopMatters: they’ve got some solid takes. So, this won’t be a review, although my aim here may be as absurd as actually trying to come to a consensus about this bizarre, disturbed, compelling piece of music from Mr. West. Let’s face it, Kanye titled this album Yeezus and it contains a song titled “I Am a God,” so, whether you like it or not, Kanye has made religion an explicit part of this album. While it may be a fool’s errand, I want to draw attention to Kanye’s use of religious ideas (Christian ideas in particular) on Yeezus and illuminate some of the intriguing religious statements made by ‘Ye. Is Yeezus dark and hellish? Yes. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Devoid of religious worth? Not at all.
Of course, all of this lyrical/religious analysis needs to be grounded in the music of Yeezus, because the music tells us a lot about how to interpret some of the religious references that Kanye makes. Additionally, Yeezus does not stand on its own, bereft of the context of Kanye’s previous albums, but is deeply connected to both 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. To be fair, most of the religious references on Yeezus come on a handful of tracks, but the music (outside of “Bound 2”) is consistently dark and industrial, occasionally punctuated with soulful samples and extended musical outros, which bring a glimpse of beauty and hope amidst the dark soundscape. I would posit that the music on Yeezus reveals Kanye’s (or his persona’s) fractured psyche and his attempts to sort through some of life’s spiritual, mental, and physical issues. First, I’m going to look at some of the interesting musical decisions on Yeezus, and then, in part 2, I’ll turn more fully to the lyrics and focus on “I Am a God” and “Bound 2,” the two most spiritually significant songs on the album.
There are two emotions coursing through Yeezus: anger and regret. Opening track, “On Sight,” is a vitriolic blast of electronic blips, distorted drums, and profanity: “How much do I not give a f—? Let me show you right now before you give it up.” The angular electronica is broken up by a brief children’s chorus, a momentary reprieve to the bleak soundscape. Is this Kanye showing how much he doesn’t give a f— or is it something else? Considering moments like this pop up over the course of the album, I would venture they serve a larger purpose that simply messing with listeners. The explosive intro to “Black Skinhead” marks another anger fueled track, as relentless drums, random guitar squeals, and primal background vocals cavort behind Kanye’s screamed lines. “New Slaves,” while being slightly less manic than “Black Skinhead,” still features ominous synths and a barrage of a bridge, which is followed by another strangely melodic outro, featuring Frank Ocean. Contrasting so strongly with the preceding music, the glorious strings and reverb heavy vocals and drums lead to some questions: where is the real Kanye on Yeezus? Is he in the rage or the calm? Do these peaceful moments serve to prevent the anger from overwhelming the entire album? Do they stand as moments of enlightenment on an album that is mired in the dirty realistic crap of life?
For the most part, Yeezus is not a happy album. If ‘Ye isn’t angry, he’s obsessed with his past experiences, and the music slows down, enveloping him in a haze of reflection/regret. Along with this, when the music takes this reflective turn, it develops a feel similar to Kanye’s work on 808s & Heartbreak, relying on auto-tuned vocals and electronic dithering. The connection to 808s is key, as a number of tracks on that album show us a deeply injured and insecure Kanye searching for meaning in life. On Yeezus, the effect is largely the same, breaking up the braggadocio and vulgarity with some honesty and vulnerability. On “Hold My Liquor,” the moody ambiance, supplied by Justin Vernon’s vocals and Chief Keef’s auto-tuned, echoed hook, feeds into Kanye’s narrative of his latest heartbreak. In fact, the triumphantly depressing second half of “Hold My Liquor” would fit in perfectly on 808s, and songs like this on Yeezus let us see behind the egotistical persona that Kanye has cultivated for himself. In the same fashion, the second half of “Guilt Trip,” with its repeated refrain of “if you loved me so much, then why’d you let me go,” drips with regret before ending with delicate strings over a glitched out drum line. This is the kind of album Yeezus is: hate morphs into regret and bitterness, yet juxtaposed against all of these terrible, draining emotions are moments where it seems like beauty and goodness are still trying to break through into the proceedings. Are these moments Kanye screwing with us or are they the things that he can’t escape from? Are these moments grace finding a way through the morass?