We were halfway through the curriculum in my Revolutionary Milton course in my senior year of college, and the next item on the reading list was none other than Paradise Lost. My professor–a wise, humorous, and blunt woman who has read the epic 12-part poem countless times—had a proposed method to tackling the literary giant. “Pour yourself a glass of scotch at dusk. Open the book and start reading. Don’t stop, and take your time on the liquor. You’ll be done with the poem by dawn.” I know, you’re probably wondering why I started a review on Kanye West’s Yeezus with a nerdy English major anecdote about reading 17th century poetry. The point is, I wanted to hear this thing from start to finish.
Yeezus isn’t one of those albums that you skim through, picking out songs that might earn spins on the radio, or certain tracks you think you will hear at the club. Like every Kanye West work, modern-day concept albums, Yeezus is something you need to listen to all the way through while you attempt to process 1) what the hell he’s talking about it, 2) Where you recognize this or that sample from, and 3) if you even like it or not.
Well there I was, pouring a glass of scotch, waiting for the Yeezus leak to download in my iTunes (Forgive me, but I bought it on Tuesday). The album certainly didn’t take me an entire night to finish, but by the time the last track, Bound 2, came to a close, it only felt right to start over again. By the fourth listen through, I was buzzed; from the scotch, sure, but I was more intoxicated with cycling thoughts on how to digest the album.
Yeezus is one, continuous assemblage of cacophony; a ten-part thread of self-assured fury, cynical blasphemy, and raw sexual destruction. Amid this dark, vicious blend that puts Kanye among music’s greatest rebels–Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Ministry to name a few—West manages to mix political protests against racism and consumerism with silly one-liners about impatiently waiting for croissants at a French bakery. Compared to the symphonic greatness of Kanye’s last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is completely stripped of pop choruses and flashing lights. Kanye must have been offended by Twisted Fantasy’s commercial flop (he should be, it was the best album of 2010), so he ditched all efforts to satisfy radio’s hunger for mainstream pop.
What emerges is a more confident, twisted, politically roused reinvention of 2008’s 808’s and Heartbreaks. And just like the mainstream’s initial reaction to 808’s, Kanye fans expecting to hear anything reminiscing College Dropout or Graduation are in for a surprise.
Yeezus’s best track, “Blood on the Leaves,” circles around a racially charged Nina Simone sample about lynching. Just when you think Kanye is gearing to spit a manifesto on present-day racism, he picks up where he left off on “Gold Digger” to vent about money-hungry women and gloomy relationships doomed by pregnancy, all of this on top of a bass-breaking sample from TNGHT’s “R U Ready.” That’s when you know, to quote Yeezy, “something strange is happening.”
Speaking of strange, there’s “Hold My Liquor,” featuring Chicago’s own gangster child Chief Keef and indie icon Justin Vernon on the same track. Whereas we know Chief Keef for his cocky, glock-slinging songs of rebel gang violence, he appears on this track as a sad rapper grasping for control in the spotlight of newfound fame. Alongside Vernon’s trademark crooning, the duo produces a depressing chorus to parallel Kanye’s drunk escapades of car crashes and one-night stands: “Late night organ donor/After that he disown ya/After that he’s just hopeless/Soul mates become soulless/When he’s sober it’s over.” While Kanye seems, at times, fully in control of his patented antics and self-glorified proclamations, he stops here to admit his imperfections in one of the album’s scattered moments of self-destruction and guilt.
For critics shouting blasphemy, twisting religion isn’t something new for Ye. This is the same guy who came into the rap game shouting “Jesus Walks,” and penned the line “make a nun cum, make her cremate, yeah.” “I Am A God” is next in the catalogue, as Kanye claims his crown as “the only rapper compared to Michael” before he has a conversation with Jesus about stacking millions. While the track surely touts greatness, Kanye is not nearly as cocky as you might expect from the title. Instead, we find him burdened with his iconic power, struggling to convey a message of truth to an audience of doubters. He doesn’t exactly hide the Christ parallels. The album is called Yeezus, after all.
“New Slaves” gives us the album’s most politically fueled verses, which is perhaps why Kanye chose to project the song on a worldwide platform (both on buildings and on his live SNL performance). Here’s a world famous icon throwing present-day racism, in form of controlled consumerism and mass incarceration, into the crowd of countless white spectators. It might be aggressive. It might be angry. But it is certainly not false.
Kanye decides to close out the album with its most Kanye-esque track, “Bound 2,” with his patented soulful repetition, clever comedic punches, and an angelic Charlie Wilson bridge that comes out of nowhere. This far from a coincidental ending. After an album’s worth of rule-breaking rebel rants and civil-rights-laced sex scenes, he steps back into his comfort zone to remind us that he can still reach back to his old College Dropout self, even when he’s exhausted: “But first, you gon’ remember how to forget/After all these long-ass verses/I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.” The point is, Kanye can break endless boundaries, step out of his own trends, take rap to weird, seizure-like levels, and we’ll still be bound to his music, his story, his life’s work.