News Column

Kanye West's 'Yeezus': Angry Self-love

June 18, 2013

Dan DeLuca

The first words heard on Yeezus, Kanye West's sixth album, that do not come from the lips of the vainglorious rapper himself are from a 1986 recording by the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family.

"He'll give us what we need," the choir sings, in the first break from the furious industrial assault of "On Sight," the album's lead track. "It may not be what we want."

The higher power being referenced on Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam ***) is, of course, West himself, who has combined his nickname, Yeezy, with that of the deity he name-checked in "Jesus Walks," the song from his 2004 debut The College Dropout.

After a decade of commercial, critical, and controversy-starting success -- including, last weekend, the birth of a baby girl with his celebrity girlfriend Kim Kardashian -- if there were any doubt that West considers himself worthy of worship, he clears that up with a song called "I Am a God."

Showing off the sense of humor that's one of his underappreciated attributes, West rhymes "massage" and "menage" with "Get the Porsche out the damn garage!" Later on in the song, one of several collaborations with Gallic electronic duo Daft Punk, he shows that he knows even more words in French: "In a French-a- restaurant," he raps. "Hurry up with my damn croissants!"

But for the most part, Yeezus is no laughing matter. It's a serious statement of artistic independence that's proudly abrasive, drawing on the likes of Chicago industrial band Ministry and New York "no wave" duo Suicide, not to mention the alt-hip-hop spoken-word poet Saul Williams, whose 2007 CD The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! is a clear reference point.

Although West has been busy with Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Jay-Z, and last year's posse project Cruel Summer, Yeezus is West's first solo effort since his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And the brutalist approach of the 10-song, 40-minute album, whose minimalism was brought to market with the help of veteran hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin, can be understood as a reaction to the kitchen-sink maximalism of that last album.

With Yeezus, West has declared he's no longer interested in catering to radio programmers or a mass audience.

It's similar to the strategy he followed on 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, the Auto-Tuned breakup album that didn't make him any less popular despite its refusal to pander, and has held up quite well.

This time out, though, the rapper-producer-pop star is even less eager to please, stripping his songs of easily digestible hooks. (At least until the album-closing "Bound 2," which samples Brenda Lee as well as the Ponderosa Twins Plus One, and finally gives in to the pleasure principle.)

West is also at his most angry, and at times, politicized on Yeezus. "Black Skinheads" and the tribal "New Slaves" are the most militant songs he has recorded. Each is fueled by a rage at racial inequity. And the latter, with an outro featuring Frank Ocean, links old-fashioned segregation ("My mama was raised in an era when fresh water was only served to the fairer skin") to pernicious, soul-destroying materialism. It's a fairly well-constructed argument, though it is muddled by its own racial stereotyping, and by its fashionista messenger elsewhere crowing about his Maybach, Mercedes, and untold millions.

Yeezus sounds great. The booming bass rumble that pushes it forward, coupled with expertly employed blurts, bleats, and siren sounds, make for commanding listening, particularly in the album's early stages. As it plays on, however, it loses its grip.

That's partly due to a lack of memorable tunes. One of them, "Hold My Liquor," is a sluggish track that wastes the potentially inspired pairing of the raw 17-year-old Chicago rapper Chief Keef and the ethereal-voiced indie hero Justin Vernon.

But it's also because West cannot maintain the blistering pace of the furious four-song opening. The injustices he's so worked up about are mainly perpetrated against him by women. (Though in a recent New York Times interview he also revealed himself to still be ticked off at an eighth-grade basketball coach.)

He misfires particularly badly on "Blood on the Leaves," which uses a speeded-up sample of Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit," the anti-lynching song originally recorded by Billie Holiday. In unfortunately predictable fashion, the outrageously talented West uses that civil rights anthem to enumerate the crimes committed against the man we all know to be the most important person in the world: Kanye West. Holiday and Simone deserve better, and so do we.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at inquirer.com/inthemix.

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