Review: Yeezus

★★★★★
Five Stars

Kanye wants us to worship him. The primal snarls of “God… God… God…” at the end of New Slaves are a manifesto for Yeezus — the collision of superlative narcissism and industrial dissonance here is echoed throughout the album.  If we are going to get Biblical, though, then this is an album produced not by hip-hop’s saviour but by its Nebuchadnezzar, a mad king creating an exaggerated and hyperbolic image of himself for his devoted followers to venerate.

‘I Am A God’ goes a step further along the path to chaos, breaking down beyond individual words into yelps and gasping breaths as synths stab through a seething murk of bass-heavy production. Chi-town influences run through the album like seams of coal amongst diamond. Acid house, techno, and drill all lurk constantly in the background, even below the decayed auto-tune of ‘Hold My Liquor’The atmosphere created is tense and schizophrenic, and the influence of Rick Rubin on the uncluttered production is clear. Where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a maximalist effort, Yeezus is full of space, allowing us to experience the full weirdness of his primitive vocalisations, the full force of each unsettling sample and the full absurdity of his braggadocio.

Is Kanye subverting the Judaeo-Christian binary of god and man? Not really. He is just an arrogant, talented and immensely rich young man. To posture as a deity whilst demanding “hurry up with my damn croissants!” requires immense hubris but hardly points to a considered deconstruction. The true dichotomy which is collapsed here is not between god and man but between “broke nigga racism” and “rich nigga racism”, as Yeezy raps on ‘New Slaves’.

Where the black man was once constrained by his poverty, he is now constrained by the excesses he is supposed to aspire to (“What you want? Bentley? A fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want the same things”). In deifying himself, Kanye is doing nothing that societal expectations do not do to thousands of other role models for young, poor men.

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This paradox is embedded in the production, in the evident tension between the industrial soundscapes and melodic samples of Yeezus. This is seen most obviously in the juke-like synths which tear through the plaintive ‘Strange Fruit‘ sample on ‘Blood on the Leaves’. The qualities of excess and hedonism black people are now told they should venerate make a mockery of the struggle for emancipation which the sampled track describes. The bitter crop today’s black youth gathers is bound up in the cult of the individual Kanye embodies, the constant reminder they are defined only by their failure to achieve riches and fame. 

Of course, the rapper himself is entirely complicit in this process. No-one is forcing him to accept corporate sponsorship, or to rap about his wealth and talent. In doing so, though, he is only taking on the mantle thrust upon him by society, by the music industry and by the limited expectations of what a black man can achieve. Nebuchadnezzar only turned himself into a god when advised to do so by his insidious counsellors, and likewise then the very arrogance inherent in Kanye’s acknowledgement of his abundant fame and talent is calculated to sell millions. Just as murkily abrasive basslines skulk behind his manic vocals, so behind his boasts prowl the hulking shadows of the record-label executives, sponsors and millions of fans who have created the crown he here assumes.

Track to download: ‘Blood on the Leaves’