So Yeezus gives us a new Kanye: minimalist, “black new wave,” hyper-fragmented, stripped down. Well, I’ve been listening and I’ve been reading reviews, and here’s my final answer:
The MUSIC is tight: surprising, eclectic, unfulfilling, jagged, intelligent. I am thinking of “Bound 2,” the album’s closing track and my favorite song, the one I keep replaying. Yes, the samples are titillating but shift before your heartbeat finds the record’s groove. The album curates a huge swath of American music, from Nina Simone to breezy 70s disco to early, obscure rap to a rising Caribbean influence. West has perfected DJ Kool Herc’s originary hiphopvention of cueing up the best moment on a record–but unlike Herc, West doesn’t loop it: he gives us just a taste, then pulls away. It’s up to us to loop. Loop Yeezus.
The reason I don’t keep playing the whole album, though, is that the LYRICS are banal. Even when the rhymes are good, I would argue they’re coy about the emotional stakes. Sure, West has some funny and transgressive lines about courtship and civil rights sex acts, but we’ve seen them all before. Kanye’s last two albums spent considerable lyrical real estate exploring the power of a rock star to explore and exploit younger, inexperienced women. On MBDTF we got gems like “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy” and “She learnin’ a new word, it’s yacht” (rhymed, wonderfully, with “Basquiat”). On Watch the Throne Yeezy asked a potential mate to “Meet me in the bathroom stall/So we can see if you deserve to have it all” and, on another track, contrasted dreams of “the girl in all leopard” with “coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra.”
GREG TATE for SPIN disagrees. Hethinks the album is bangin’, but only 8 outta 10 bangin’. Tate thinks more highly of some of the lyrics than I do.
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.
Yeezus’s shortcomings lurk unmentioned, dropped between the lines of Tate’s purple prose. Ok, “Spouse again” rhymes with “Coch-ah-ran” is a great mosaic rhyme. “Swaghili”? Eh. The only line on the album that made my jaw drop was “Whole fist in her like a civil rights sign.” West still has a real talent for probing the profane. But onwards.
CHRISTOPHER BAGLEY at W portrays Kanye as the eternal student, oblivious to Parisian formality, concerned only for new and revolutionary information. I’ll take it – I’m always on the education tack, after all. Similar revelations from the under-edited interview with JON CARAMANICA for the NYTIMES.
I agree with TOM HAWKINGS for FLAVORWIRE that “West’s imperfect rhymes form quite the contrast with his consistently flawless production” and that “for all his studio genius, West’s still not a particularly great rapper.” But Hawkings doesn’t want to dwell on that; he wants to talk about how un-hiphop this record’s production is, except insofar that it kind of copies Saul Williams’ s 2007 The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
But it was reading EMMA CARMICHAEL and KIESE LAYMON for the Hairpin that really popped my bubble of Kanyapologia, when they called out my very response: “Kanye, do you really hate the white man? Really? So you’re gonna fuck his woman to get back at him? Really? Go further than that, homie.” Dang. I appreciate how Laymon positioned this issue not as a failure of Kanye’s reactions but as a failure of imagination or creative pressure to push beyond these tropes we’ve heard before.
After reading all these reviews and listening to the albums a few more times, I found myself thinking back to comments Ye made about privacy in his interview with the New York Times.
[Ye:] I don’t want to explain too much into what my thoughts on, you know, fatherhood are, because I’ve not fully developed those thoughts yet. I don’t have a kid yet.
You haven’t experienced it yet.
Yeah. Well, I just don’t want to talk to America about my family. Like, this is my baby. This isn’t America’s baby.
We all know that Yeezy has been falling in love with Kimmy K for the past year or more. Now as of a few days ago, they’ve had a child together. And I wonder whether this album’s lyrical ho-humminess comes from a novel inclination, on West’s part, to keep his love life (now his family life) private. These lyrics are boring because they don’t give us any new feelings. There’s a little bit of lovin’, sure. I hear it on Bound 2: “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches.” Ok. And the sample itself: “Bound…to fall in love.” But there are no one-liner gems here about the pains, joys and ironies of falling in love. “Yeezy reupholstered my pussy” is an awesome line because it is crass and it is funny and it reflects a real emotional experience, of being the worldly man with a naive girl and, you know, turning her out. And I really believe Kanye has the potential as a writer to craft lines that are funny and profane about falling in love. The best lines on this album are about narcissism, on “I am a God”:
I am a god
So hurry up with my damn massage
And a French ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants!
These lines are funny and self-questioning even as they are dead serious. Judging by his interviews with W and NYT, Yeezy really thinks he is a god. But he also knows that’s ridiculous well enough to see that this croissants line is hilarious. Maybe Yeezy’s just lived with his arrogance longer than with true love, so he knows it better, knows how to poke fun affectionately. Because these kinds of lines, about love, they’re not here. They’re not on this album. Whatever this album says about male-female relations, we’ve heard it from Yeezy before. And the pressure is even higher here, because minimalist production demands minimalist lines. Kanye hasn’t left himself the room he had on “All Falls Down” to tell involved stories that make the chorus really sing. Yeezus is brief and brash: Ye needed those lines you can repeat again and again and they move past catchiness into unfolding layers of meaning. “Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce” is not that line. Despite the cultural reference, neither is “Got more niggas off than Cocharan.” I am thinking of lines like:
Got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.
Gonna let her lick the w/rapper.
We real cool, we skip school.
These are the breaks.
I guess we could say that Ye’s mask is ON. It’s interesting, because in the visuals Kanye’s released so far he’s engaging directly with representation and minstrelsy. I see that loud and clear in the high-contrast closeup of his face–which is a black man’s face–that constitutes the video for “New Slaves,” and in the closeup of his eyes which accompanied the SNL performance of that song. But I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m disappointed. Yeah, I’ma keep listening to this album. I think the music is dank, but I’m a lover of words, and these words ain’t much to love.
P.S. LOU REED for TALKHOUSE totally agrees with me, even if he sounds way cooler than me saying so.