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?
November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
Regardless of what you think about Kanye West, there is no denying his celebrity or his meteoric rise to fame in the past decade. It’s quite possible that, at this point in his career, Kanye is more infamous than anything else, due in large part to certain incidents involving George Bush and Taylor Swift. Some might think he is simply another celebrity with an enormous ego, making vacuous music to garner profit from the masses. However, if we actually consider his music, especially of the past four years, Kanye is quite a complex figure; he is a person with real feelings and real struggles, who, even with all his fame and fortune, seems to be searching for something more in this life.
Beginning with his first album, The College Dropout, Kanye’s music has always been deeply personal, highlighted by songs like “Through the Wire” and “Family Business.” His next two albums, Late Registration and Graduation, would follow in a similar manner, balancing the personal with typical rap braggadocio, always backed by fascinating beats. This pattern is so irrevocably severed, lyrically and musically, by 808s & Heartbreak that it comes as a shock. It is with this album, an intensely personal reaction to a painful break-up, that Kanye begins to reflect on his fame and celebrity, and his vulnerability and honesty are surprising.
The auto-tuned electronica that comprises the majority of 808s & Heartbreak allows us to see a different side of Kanye. The cocky exterior is gone, replaced by a broken human being, questioning his life. “Welcome to Heartbreak” illustrates this with a certain profundity, as Kanye takes a different perspective on his material possessions than normal: “My friend showed me a picture of his kids/ And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/ And all I got was a brand new sportscar.” This lament is tinged with regret, a common theme throughout an album concerned with lost love.
The song I find the most interesting on this album is “Pinocchio Story,” a live freestyle from Toyko, Japan. Kanye repeatedly mentions his desire to be a real boy, wondering if he has missed out on “real life.” Once again, he sings about the inability of his possessions to bring him contentment, “There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time/ There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?” For a hip-hop artist who constantly references his style and material wealth, this is an incredibly candid statement. However, with his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye, perhaps in an attempt to drown his sorrows and inner demons, dove headfirst into the deep end of celebrity.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is opulent, reveling in its luxury and gigantic production budget. Filled with A-list guest spots, it nonetheless remains Kanye’s show, magnifying his ego and celebrity even as it delves into some of his deepest struggles. Contradictory and profane as it is, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reveals the insecurity that still remains in its creator. Pop culture and designer style references abound, the possessions that Kanye hides behind. However, on songs like “Gorgeous” and “Power” he takes aim at those who have made fun of him in the media, offering a harsh defense of himself and his actions. In fact, it seems as if Kanye can’t take a joke, as he directs profanity laced rants at those who “tried to black ball” him, South Park writers and the cast of SNL.
Indeed, the end of “Power” hints at suicide, with its coda, “Now this’ll be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ Letting everything go.” Clearly, all of the “power” that Kanye possesses cannot banish his problems. It’s very easy to lose these moments of honesty amidst the sheer force of ego that Kanye normally exudes, but they are there to be seen. “Monster” is a hard hitting track with multiple guest stars, where Kanye assumes the title of “motherf—ing monster” as a badge of honor, turning the insult back around on those who have talked about him behind his back.
Kanye’s sensitivity seems to be a recurring theme, as “Runaway” and its chorus evidence: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/ Every one of them that I know.” Given the multiple times this is repeated and the many different names Kanye gives these people, there seems to be quite a few of them. In many ways, this album is a send-off to the haters, but the vitriolic language disguises something that hearkens back to 808s and that will come into focus on this year’s collaborative album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.
The last song of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, excluding the bizarre outro, offers a note of transition to Watch the Throne. In “Lost in the World,” Kanye raps, “Lost in this plastic life/ Let’s break out of this fake-ass party/ Turn this into a classic night/ If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in that afterlife,” which is followed by a woman’s voice singing very clearly, “Run from the lights/ Run from the night/ Run for your life.” So, we come full circle, and Kanye is still looking for love, even though he knows that his life and all the parties can’t offer him the validation he seeks. He knows he has to run, break free, but he is trapped by other’s opinions of him.
Watch the Throne is much less of a personal opus for Kanye, and he seems to be having fun making music with Jay-Z, but issues of insecurity still surface. Now to be sure, Jay-Z has his share of songs where he is dissing others, but they don’t carry the same emotion as Kanye’s. Even on a peaceful, uplifting track like “Made in America” Kanye can’t resist mentioning his haters, “South Park had ‘em all laughing/ Now my n—— designing and we all swaggin’/ Ignore the critics just to say we did it/ This ain’t no fashion show, motherf——, we live it.” In an insightful review of the album, Calum Marsh point out that this is “the second time that Ye’s indignantly referred to that good-natured South Park ribbing from, what, two years ago?” Marsh goes on to mention how this shows how even a little joke can have unexpected outcomes in celebrities.
Marsh is right, of course, but Kanye’s reaction reveals more than just injured pride; we see ourselves mirrored in his reactions, as we all search for acceptance and love. None of us want to be judged, why should Kanye be an exception? The words he spits on “New Day” are poignant and resonate with me, even though I am a poor, white guy, who can’t even imagine the life that Kanye leads. Speaking to a future son, he raps, “See, I want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/ Just want him to be someone people like/ Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged.” These few lines speak volumes.