I prefer Kanye angry, as he’s simultaneously at his most electrifying (I’ve watched “Black Skinhead” on SNL about a dozen times, just absolutely mesmerizing rage-fueled egomania) and his funniest (it’s just as awesome on record, even if his repeated snarls of “GOD!” in the last 30 seconds make him sound like Napoleon Dynamite). This is a vicious, petulant, abrasive, colossally vain, frequently hilarious record, most of the time intentionally — he thunders, “HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS” fully cognizant of how many thousands of people would be powerless to resist tweeting those words verbatim within 30 seconds of hearing them. I would not want to work at a Starbucks this weekend.
Way into the grating, unnerving, forbidding clatter of most of this — better he emulate the Knife than, like, the National. At first blush what I miss is a “Blame Game”: a sober, somber, marginally humbler acknowledgment of what all this narcissism and hostility costs him. (“Blood on the Leaves” is gunning for that spot but had better work pretty goddamn hard over the next 20 or so listens to earn “Strange Fruit.”) Leave the corny horrorcore screams ‘n’ synths chicanery to Tyler, the Creator; leave the diminishing-returns retarded sexuality to Lil Wayne. But as exhausting as this dude can be, pretending that any other rapper alive is one-tenth as fascinating is doubly so. I hope he and that lady on Bravo are very happy together. I very much look forward to his next album, when it is revealed that they are not.
Early score: 8/10
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Production first: I have been waiting to see who’s gonna bring back IDM (intelligent dance music), that maligned and ill-christened style of clicks-and-clacks that overtook Aphex Twin-sweating producers in the early 2000s. Time is ripe for a response to the corporatization of “EDM,” but who the hell ever expected Kanye would be the one to do it? But he couldn’t have done it without the help of HudMo, and Daft Punk, and alla them. Credits unavailable at press time, but HudMo tweeted that his involvement goes beyond the TNGHT-and-C-Murder-chomping, voracious nastiness of “Blood on the Leaves.” There are shades of Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb-humping EBM, too, also known as Electronic Body Music (so many acronyms!), reinvented as demonic dancehall courtesy Beenie Man and Capleton samples. This is Kanye’s way of serving true spirit and not giving a fuck (copyright B L A C K I E, who should have been given Chief Keef’s feature, or at least replaced Boring-Ass Bonny Bear). Psyched especially to know that UNO NYC producer Arca’s on one of these tracks — my money is on the bananas “Send It Up,” which recalls both the sub-bass on his awesome EP Stretch 2, and the demonic elasticity of his beat for Mykki Blanco’s “Join My Militia,” my favorite rap track of 2012.
Lyrically, ‘Ye rails against the systems aligned against him — imagined and very real, as the most important quote in his fascinating, well-circulated New York Times interview illuminated: “I’ve had meetings where a guy actually told me, ‘What we’re trying to figure out is how we can control you.'” Hello, “New Slaves.” He complicates things with lines like “put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign” and the disgusting, racist line about Asian pussy and sweet-and-sour sauce — perhaps purposely. But his album has the same woman-as-chattel vibes ‘Ye’s been pumping since at least My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bitch, he’s a monster, as the old proverb goes. But goddamn if this ain’t a “9” for challenges and sonic bananasosity, maybe upgrade it to a “10” if you holler at me in late July when it’s real humid out.
Early score: 9/10
Kanye doesn’t eat rappers, he consumes what rappers try to represent. Not to mention musical genres. And musicians. And sociocultural points of view. And the media’s ability to micro-manage the conversation. And, yes, white women, lots and lots of white women, rich white women, in particular, because if America and the Civil War were about slavery and money, and they were, they were also about white men having dominion over black women in an even more intimately vile way as a further form of punishment and penalty and control-freakism, so, yes, Kanye fucking white women is about bluntly referencing Black Panther-style reparations for all that shit, but it’s just as much about him being a 21st-century celebrity narcissist monster who feels misunderstood and persecuted because he wants to fuck everything all the time, in every sense of the word — just like those white men! Now-again! Now-again! It’s powerful and petty, or powerfully petty, but it’s definitely an extension of his ongoing paradoxical project to loudly, disruptively, simultaneously embody Truth and Bullshit, pushing pop music to its materialist/activist extremes. It’s Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, with their embittered and/or pussyhound warts magnified and foregrounded. It’s Madonna’s Sex book, except Kanye’s playing Madonna and Madonna’s playing Big Daddy Kane, all of which is kinda exhilaratingly, if often repulsively, gangstalicious, right?
The music itself deserves more listening. First, Yeezus is a hip-hop album, not a rap album. Seemingly contradictory soundworlds and subject matter are selected and slapped together. The history of music is ransacked for very specific reasons, sampling and collapsing borders and creating movement forward out of the chaos. On the opening track, “On Sight,” producers Daft Punk help Kanye scramble “Acid Tracks,” from 1987, generally considered the first acid-house record, from his Chicago homies Phuture. It sounds wildly outlandish all over again, like EDM as a screaming genius infant, before it became domesticated and mutated by capitalist-loco gangstas and poorly designed drugs. As for this being his “punk” or “post-punk” or “industrial” record, well, you can hear all that, if that’s your life experience or critical orientation, but hip-hop has always been about noise and dissonance and dance music as agitation, et al., so don’t act like this is some sort of 1,000 No Homo DJs or Yeezus Built My Hot Rod scenario. After all, Harry Fraud just sampled This Heat for Danny Brown, and yeah it was sorta weird, but not really.
Ultimately, like every Kanye album, Yeezus will be the most important record of the year, for a variety of reason too numerous to list here. For now, I’m just gonna go out to brunch at a French-ass restaurant (why the fuck else do you live in urban Anywhere?) and extremely politely ask the serveuse to please expedite the plate of baked goods before the main course. God knows, she’s probably been through enough bad jokes, already. Or maybe I’ll just prank call. Regardless, this is fun.
Early score: 8/10
I’ll give Kanye credit: He makes me examine my responses to his music far more than any other musician. Does my being turned off by the “New Slaves” line “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” mean I’m a prude? (Never mind that my favorite part of the track is the Night Ranger-esque power ballad breakdown.) Or, like, yes, I rationally understand that “Black Skinhead” and “I Am a God” say things about race and fame that are rarely said by high-profile people with massive audiences. I just don’t think that fact alone makes the stuff crazy-interesting, let alone enjoyable or something I’d want to hear on the ride in to work. Is that reaction proof of my debilitating racial-political naïveté and/or ignorance? Hey, probably.
Because Yeezus forces those kinds of questions, coupled with the way that every Death Gripping grind and provocateur’s punch registers as so fiercely intentional, and West himself as so massively self-assured, I’ll keep trying to find a way into the album. (Though a melody here or there would’ve helped.) Kanye West is a more magnificent human than I am and certainly the most important person making music in 2013. He’s a genius synthesist, a giant gadfly, a justified megalomaniac, a man for whom my initial album score is sure to rise, and on first pass his will to power is more than I have emotional space for in my actual, non-professional-music-journalist life. I can’t fuck with ‘Ye — I’m just trying to get through the day.
Early score: 6/10
“How much do I not give a fuck?” Yeezy asks in the glitch-blitzed Atari Grown Man Riot of an opener, “On Sight.” As tempted as one may be to tally the man’s official fuck-count at the ever-popular “zero,” Kanye gives so many he should start a charitable organization that supplies the needy with hulking fucking concerns — his raison d’être is nothing less than pushing the awkwardly congealed spheres of art and social awareness all the way up Fuck Mountain. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he purposefully painted himself as Damocles. On Yeezus, he’s Sisyphus suddenly blessed with Herculean strength. Yes, Middle America, he is a god. Or at least he operates like one, turning an omnipotent, omnivorous eye to the soil where mortal musicians like Frank Ocean, Iamsu!, Charlie Wilson, Hudson Mohawke, Arca, and even Chief Keef toil over seeds whose magical fruit were only ever meant to feed the local fief. (Case in point: Frank Ocean on television.) From his position in the clouds, ‘Ye plucks with aplomb, then sets out to make ambrosia. He came very close in 2010, but spent so much time worrying about the sword over his head he failed to notice that he had neighbors in Valhalla. Enter Rick Rubin, a messianic motherfucker with both the beard and the CV for the job. And listening to a song like “New Slaves,” there’s only one reasonable response: These gods must be cray.
Aurally speaking, there’s almost too much to geek out over, which is wild considering Rubin’s job was to pare everything down. Nitpicking critics could tell you that everything here has been done before and they’d be right to a degree. If you don’t hear a half-dozen great preexisting ideas in each of these ten tracks then you aren’t paying attention. But that doesn’t matter, really. What’s important is that West has been paying attention on our behalf, and he’s now putting a vox-dei-decible megaphone up to the mélange. In terms of actual words, our host is as turnt up as he is turned on, screaming about being a “Black Skinhead” over lurching Antichrist Superstar drums in one moment, and promising to put his fist “in her like a Civil Rights sign” in the next while Justin Vernon handles the coitally dripping chorus. In other words, he’s hitting mainstream America where they live — right in their Hamptons mouth (and we know what he did in there). Kanye uses other people’s ideas about race like he uses other people’s ideas about music. He inhabits the, ahem, nucleus of the thing so that he can break it. In the case of the former, his objective is to destroy. In the case of the latter, it’s to shed light. Regardless, he puts his faith in the act of exposure. Last time he called his citizenry forth to watch while his id and ego had it out in the arena. This time it’s West against the world, the martyr himself, Yeezus in the flesh, ready to represent the best and worst of us at once. Does he have delusions of grandeur? Undoubtedly. Diagnosably so, but so what? Picasso was a pig; Kerouac a lush. This man dies so that his art can live. In terms of fucks given, he’s on the cross bleeding out and we’re a bunch of fuck-taking Judases, all the richer for it. Mix as many heavenly metaphors as you want — this is goddamned good art.
Early score: 10/10
Yeezus, wherein Alexander Wang and Adam Sandler’s B-B-B-Bobby Boucher huddle together in the dark. Yeezus, wherein Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is prompted to spit venom against venom. Yeezus, wherein Kanye West, our gifted anti-hero, “gets this shit shakin’ like Parkinson’s” with a battery of barbed electro, cratered dance-hall, million-dollar drone, and carefully considered, elegantly curated rage. Yeezus, wherein West bares his soul and his heart and his id and his fangs and his undercarriage one more time — a gallery of dick pics and Daft Punk-assisted selfies set aflame at the end of the world. Yeezus, wherein West, Son of Jay and eccentric uncle to Keef, turns left and guns it, checking for us in the rearview mirror, hoping deep down that we’ll follow. We must.
Early score: 9/10
In that New York Times interview, Kanye framed his new one around “minimalism,” but half-broke synthesizers popping and moaning isn’t a dive into uncharted rap territory because hip-hop is ruled by that stuff right now: The airy drift of Mike Will Made-It, the rubbery simplicity of DJ Mustard. So, he’s just doing the thing that Kanye always does. Namely, puffing up the tics of radio rap — though the music even seems weirdly separated from those trends. Yeezus is a minor album (not that many guests, just ten songs), so it can’t really lose, but it also sounds like it should’ve come out between Graduation and 808s & Heartbreak. It all seems a little clueless, like Kanye isn’t letting a lot of new air in. And that’s a first. The jagged transitions (the drowning underwater fanfare “I can’t lose” coda on “New Slaves” being the best example) and the tendency for screams and moans to interrupt the songs are inelegant in an actually sort of punk rock “who cares” way, though.
The actual content here is frustrating because it’s pretty unambitious. It’s the same enervating problem of Watch the Throne, where Kanye stalked around mad that he’s slept-on (relatively), ready and willing to indulge, and wishing that the world would just burn down. On Throne, he was like the devil on the shoulder of Jay-Z’s businessman Booker T. Washington sincerity, so it worked. Here, it’s just about Kanye menacingly winning or winning because he doesn’t care that you don’t think he’s winning. The end of “I’m In It,” where he raps about being kind of scared of the idea of settling down over, like, Markus Popp digital clicks and glitches, is incredibly moving. For the first time maybe, Kanye isn’t even getting a perverse thrill out of being a screw-up. His defenses are completely down there. Yeezus needs more of that.
Early score: 8/10
Kanye West has stepped outside the traditional promo cycle with Yeezus, but he still knows how to play the game. His sixth solo album is not the ambitious political protest album that his Saturday Night Live performances of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” had led us to believe. Instead the bulk of the album has its roots in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tracks like “Hell of a Life” and “Blame Game,” in which West fights both sides of a war between sadistic hook-ups and monogamy. Even “Blood on the Leaves” — complete with a “Strange Fruit” sample — is about a man whose life gets locked down by having a child; an uncharitable reading of its final verse would be that he compares paying alimony to being lynched.
Those aforementioned MBDTF songs are two of that album’s most lackluster, droning tracks. But the album that the two birthed is West’s most kinetic in years, thanks in no small part to beats that are propulsive and urgent, whether pulling from acid house (“On Sight”) or Clams Casino (“I’m in It”). The lurching production rids Yeezus of the specter of indulgency that had cast a shadow over his last album — instead, this feels like a body forcing itself to spit up bile. From the thundering entrance of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” to the multiple samples of wailing dancehall singers, Yeezus is an album where desperation scratches and claws for salvation. West will never make another College Dropout, but in this sense, Yeezus traces a direct line back.
Early score: 9/10
If our fathers are our models for God, what kind of dad will Kanye be? Do Maclarens come in 24-karat? Yeezus is West’s assaultive self-examination of his role as Holy Father — of music, of controversy, of womb-leavening orgasms. And like all men on the precipice of new fatherhood, he’s freaking the fuck out. In the complex case of ‘Ye, that manifests as hypercharged braggadocio and lazy machismo, but six albums in, who has the energy to crucify him for it anymore? Praise Rick Rubin for scraping off the civility and laying Kanye’s id bare, Yeezus is technically dense, psychically dark, and sonically ugly, more Future Sounds than Timberlake could ever fathom from his bubblegum-scented marital cocoon. It’s funny: A line like “Eating Asian pussy / All I need is sweet-and-sour sauce” won’t win him any Father of the Year awards, but it might’ve landed him the Album of the Year instead.
Early score: 9/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 8.4