Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’ (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Just to make thangs interesting, let’s start this off in the gooey middle: Yeezus‘ midway point, wherein Kanye West reverts to his trillingly trill-talking Auto-Tuned voice, that bridge of sighs and lamentations that fan and foe alike know from 2008’s surprisingly graceful, soul-stirring, and unabashedly mawkish 808s & Heartbreak. One could argue, based on that accomplishment —and by dint of the three similarly robotic and romantic planks here — that Kanye’s android vocalese has injected some of the most unforced emotionality heard in Black American (as opposed to British) R&B this century. And now, on ”Blood on the Leaves,” he invokes the spirit and the letter of Lewis Allen’s evocative protest poem about lynching, made famous by Billie Holiday as “Strange Fruit,” using the poem’s “blood on the leaves” line to very moving effect, especially on the guts-out first half, which finds the MC crying over long-spilt milk — a lost lover of earlier vintage who clearly rocked his younger self’s world beyond easy recovery.
The vengeful second section is more pro-forma Spitta vs. Gold Digga-baiting. Because no matter how many multi-millions, numbed-nuts, and stroked lingams later, these brothers can still sustain the venom and traumatized innocence necessary to sell fame’s most horrific discovery: Some women only want to pleasure rap’s nouveau riche for the cheddar. West’s idea of a modern, high-tech lynching is other rappers being forced to pay palimony to the jump-offs they’ve impregnated out on the wide-open road — ”unholy matrimony,” he brands it. (A condom is a terrible thing to have wasted if you don’t want your seed to bloom into a human life, but once it does, you’re a daddy, so tough titty if here come de judge.) Still, West’s deployment of “Strange Fruit” isn’t quite as blasphemous a post-Civil Rights analogy as Lil Wayne’s recent, more sordid attempt to turn Emmett Till’s hellacious post-mortem visage into a sex-romp metaphor, and it’s way more musical to boot. The moments at song’s end when West’s robo-falsetto and his Holiday stand-in’s sampled refrain share the soundstage is pure plaintive bliss.
Now to the meat of the thing. Let’s first say that there’s a theory afoot that Kim Kardashian is darkman’s kryptonite: a mojo-draining succubus with roach-motel powers of deracination. Brothers check in high-powered, but limp out shells of their former selves. But West seems to have beaten the curse on evidence of Yeezus. Album opener ”On Sight” drops at least three hardcore hip-hop quotables in the first 16 bars: ”Soon as I pull up and park the Benz / We get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s”; “Black Tims all on your couch again / Black dick all in your spouse again”; “She got more niggas off than Coch-ah-ran.” This is what we would call meeting the Azealia Banks Challenge for ribaldry and sexually aggressive rhyming. What else, after all, is there for a po lil’ rich boy to do? Become another All-American hippity-hopping family man like Jay-Z or Wiz Khalifa?
West begs to differ, or at least suggest sonically on “Black Skinhead” that 21st-century hip-hop could benefit from a few choice re-animations of Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow. Later on, he’ll more openly voice his retro-Afro-Futurist aesthetic motivations in verse form: ”My mind moves like a Tron bike / Pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist / Fittin’ to start a new movement led by the drums / … / They be ballin’ in the D-league / I be speaking Swag-hili.” Swag-hili? Did he just define his whole career as a visionary lingua franca and genre right there? You gotdam betcha he did. And with as brilliant a neo-African neologism as we’ve heard since Boogie Down Productions let us know there were ”Robo-Coptic Boys” among us.
Big tribal drum paradiddles carry West aloft as he raps about his own royal badness. But why must a Sun’s gamesmanship stop at mere earthly thrones? When ”I Am a God” comes up, you realize he entertained visions of himself conquering EDM festivals during Yeezus‘ birth. So no, this is decidedly not an album of radio-, jeep-, or iPod-intended rap. This is coliseum-directed, decks-oriented, one-man-against-Skrillex rap. The lyrics have vaguely anti-consumerist pretensions, but on the real, this song really only exists so hip-hop’s Prince Hamlet can share this purgative, knowledge-of-self one-liner: ”I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” Naked displays of anatomical parts, anthropomorphic eros, and cultural-nationalist history pop up all over the more transparent ”I’m in It”: ”I know she need that reptile / She come from a different textile / She like different sex now / Black girl sipping white wine / Put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign.” A simulated techno orgasm straight out the electro jungle follows soon after with comedic brio.
Now, the Black Panther Party — and not the Civil Rights movement — actually owns bragging rights to the revolutionary fist West alludes to here. But hip-hop’s bailiwick has never been historical accuracy so much as tipping over sacred cows with transgressive gusto, so in purely lyrical terms, that line is a rude-boy masterpiece. We’ll assume the S&M-type fisting that West details went on between consenting adults, and that one night the role-playing redefined Black radical pleasure. Offensive as this lyric’s hyperlink of eros and movement-history may be to some, critiquing other grown-folks’ sex games is even more unsavory in our book.
Given that this is a 10-song album of relatively short duration, we suspect West is not done blessing us for the year. Prediction: His next 2013 album will be his answer to Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a new father’s love song to the aqua-boogielicious amniotic sac that provided nutrients and protection to his just-arrived daughter’s eight-month evolution in God’s pocket. Yeezus ranks as more than a glorified placeholder in West’s catalogue, but one can’t help feeling that parenthood will compel his muse to even more Olympian levels of bombast and grandiosity.