Only a couple of days after leaking, Yeezus was already the most polarising album of 2013. Professional reviewers were handing out five-star ratings like they were worthless, but at the same time there was a counter-current of people from Twitter to the Turl Street Kitchen abusing Kanye West’s latest effort as a total crock of shite. A friend of mine, having only given the album one spin, was very happy to confidently pronounce it Kanye’s worst and launch into the sort of ad hominem rant that the producer/rapper would be proud of himself. On the flip-side, The Independent published a gushing review five days before the album’s release date which stopped at nothing in lauding it as a masterpiece, even though the writer was bizarrely unaware of the names of its songs. Apparently “things get even more experimental on ‘Track Five’.”
Yeezus clearly needs a closer examination. The broad descriptions are accurate; the album’s sounds are darker, more minimalist, and more inflected with electronica and sketchy dancehall samples than any of West’s previous efforts. On the first listen it’s an incredibly abrasive work, one that eschews all of mainstream hip hop’s guidelines in a wonderfully inventive grab for the sort of sonics that you only ever hear a mile down in the genre’s underground. ‘Black Skinhead’ samples Marilyn Manson, ‘New Slaves’ lurches from a head-nodding Cruel Summer-esque beat into a euphoric chorus from a 1970 Hungarian prog-rock song, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ melds a haunting vocal line from Nina Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’ with 2012 TNGHT banger ‘R U Ready’ to truly stunning effect. At the same time the lyricism is even darker than on Twisted Fantasy: angrier, less dense, and rifer with the sort of cringe-inducingly wrongheaded one-liners that have spread around the internet like wildfire.
So what is there to say about Yeezus that hasn’t been said already? Its defining feature is probably that the contradictions at the heart of West’s character are more magnified here than ever: political and social consciousness mixes with blinding materialism; the desire to be taken seriously as a great artist jars with lyrics that seem to aim higher and higher on the scale of banal grimness (‘I’m In It’ in particular is full of them); and the “I don’t give a fuck what you think” fights for air with the “I’m really angry about what you think”. More than ever before these conflicting elements grind against each other loudly and prominently, and ultimately seem to resist resolution. This schizophrenic tension is reflected in the beats too, which seem ever-ready to cut out and then reignite in a completely different attitude.
All this is ultimately so interesting because of West’s larger-than-life persona and – it has to be said – his celebrity status. As with each of his recent albums, it’s the development of this reflection of himself as a person that makes it all so fascinating; there’s a real sense that here is an artist who will go down as one of the most explosive and influential of this period in pop music history, and on each of his records we’re hearing him get more and more unhinged as it happens. He definitely doesn’t come off sounding at all likeable from Yeezus, but there’s a sort of voyeuristic pleasure to be had in beholding the madness from the front row, and there’s a strong sense that West is revelling in the attention throughout. It’s a happy coincidence that the accompanying music hasn’t worsened and, though it too is crazier than ever before, still bangs like nothing else in hip hop. The line dividing Kanye’s lyrics and his production, it seems, is still that thin line between insanity and genius.