There are a lot of similarities between Kanye West and Richard Wagner. Before you balk at such an odd analogy, hear me out. Both are acknowledged as giants by friend and foe alike, responsible in many ways for revolutionizing their respective media. Both have cultivated larger-than-life public personae, notorious for their womanizing ways and their abrasive megalomania. Both have earned reputations (rightly or wrongly depends on whom you ask) as visionary geniuses who also happen to be complete assholes, who indulge their gigantic, compensatory egos with massive, confrontational projects that you either love or you hate.
Yeezus (2013) gets straight to confrontational with “On Sight,” a track whose in-your-face vulgarity is driven home by a galling, borderline-atonal synthesizer backing. Minimalist soundscapes like these are this album’s hallmark, contrasting with the large-scale neo-soul arrangements that have characterized West’s earlier work. That doesn’t mean it’s predictable though. The Daft Punk-produced “I Am a God” opens with a sample from Jamaican musician Capleton and undercuts its almost awe-inspiring narcissism with tortured howls and a suddenly melodic fadeout. The hook of “Bound 2” is soulfully delivered by the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, while the main loop derives from the 1971 R&B chestnut “Bound.” Meanwhile, “Black Skinhead” (also produced by Daft Punk) revolves around a primal, pummeling percussion track and “Guilt Trip” combines menacing electronics with an unexpectedly affecting string arrangement. The sudden sonic shifts and out-of-nowhere samples are by turns inspired and jarring, never allowing the listener to grow complacent or even particularly comfortable.
In truth, West seems to go out of his way to discomfit his listeners: “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you.” “New Slavery” veers schizophrenically between clear-eyed rage against a deeply racist culture and crass sexual braggadocio that breezes past innuendo into TMI. “I’m In It” takes filth to a whole new level, straddling the line, Frank Zappa-like, between hilarious and disgusting. West is by turns prophetic and puerile, dropping razor-sharp critiques of modern society one moment and then reveling in his own misogyny the next.
His re-appropriation of African American symbology in particular is brilliant even as it borders on deeply offensive. Only Kanye West would have the audacity to drop a line like “Put my fist in her like a civil right sign,” or use the chilling “Strange Fruit” as the keystone of a self-pitying (and yet harrowing) divorce-and-abortion narrative like “Blood on the Leaves.” His use of religious imagery, from the self-deification of “I Am a God” to the sexual pun “Yeezus just rose again,” is similarly brazen. You hardly believe someone would say shit like this, let alone commit it to record. And yet West seems to be well aware of how inappropriate, even absurd, it all is. Indeed, there’s an almost calculated quality to his outrageousness, as if he feels the need to perform to the public’s perceptions of him at the same time as he does his utmost to upend all expectations.
At the end of the day, I’ll defend Wagner to the death (his music at least – the man was a bastard); I’m much more ambivalent about Kanye. But whether you walk away with tears in your eyes or with a bad taste in your mouth—and there are moments on Yeezus where you may well do both—there’s no denying that Mr. West is strangely compelling, in much the same way that Wagner is strangely compelling. It’s this peculiar fascination that renders Yeezus listenable, if often viscerally unpleasant.
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- Ten Favorite Albums of 2013 (luisbrunoblog.wordpress.com)
- (Hy)Lights #14: Kanye West – YEEZUS (thehybridone.wordpress.com)
- The Five Best Albums of 2013 (news.eshac.com)