In the current landscape of pop music, or at least the landscape of pop music coverage, an artist’s presence within the media is all but inseparable from their actual artistic output. This has been true since, well, forever, but is particularly apparent in today’s society, where seemingly everyone is suckling at the tit of social media. Kanye West is, in many ways, the embodiment of today’s pop music landscape: his every movement is scrutinized from a million different angles by a million different pair of eyes, and the elitism and alienation that comes from being under the public microscope shines through in his music. Yeezus, West’s newest album that was released on June 18th of this year, is incendiary, at times insightful, but also crass and vulgar; West revels in his stardom but also comes across as pathetically mortal. It’s the sort of album that seems less like a reaction to fame and more like fame’s inevitable endpoint.
Much ado has already been made of the musical style of this album by others, and indeed it’s unlike anything West has done before. Yeezus essentially combines the art-rap trappings of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with the electronic elements of 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak without sounding specifically like either one of those works. After all, neither of those albums could contain a song like “I Am a God,” a provocative, deliberately anti-commercial celebration of West’s fame that’s based largely on an extremely distorted Bollywood sample and high-pitched screaming. Or take album standout “Blood on the Leaves,” a harsh reflection on a destroyed relationship. Here, West pleads in heavy autotune that “we could’ve been somebody,” as a pitch-shifted sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” loops in the background. It’s either a brilliant juxtaposition or a happy accident, but either way, the song is one of West’s best. Such juxtaposition is also used to great effect on “I’m in It;” here, West compares sex acts to civil rights imagery and presents hedonism as contradictory and lonely. Much like on 2010’s “Runaway” West makes it clear on these three songs (and indeed much of the album) that he, or at least the character he portrays, is not at all a good person. His vices, material possessions, and fame leave him all the more alienated – an arbiter of cool with seemingly no human connections left in the world.
Yeezus isn’t all introspection and meditations on fame, though. At times West simply goes all out with social commentary, such as on Marilyn Manson-esque lead single “Black Skinhead” or fragmented, minimalistic “New Slaves.” These two songs are about as subtle as getting hit in the face with a brick, but are also extremely effective at getting their messages across. After all, when your every action is going to be seen as deliberate, why bother with subtlety? Sometimes the best way to get your message across is to crack skulls and scream from on high the injustices of our society, and if one is on the position to do so, why shouldn’t they?
Yeezus is scattershot in tone and occasionally sequenced awkwardly, but that’s always been a facet of West’s albums – after all, Late Registration contained both “Addiction” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” back-to-back. But the album contains no filler – skits or otherwise – and is extremely listenable, sitting at a slight 40 minutes and change. Though it isn’t cohesive enough to dethrone My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as West’s opus, Yeezus is still a dark, deep, and surprisingly enjoyable listen. He may or may not be a god, but the man managed to make Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon not sound like a whining sissy, and for that, West should at least be considered for sainthood.