Kanye West is having some serious fun with us on his new album, Yeezus, starting with the title; it's a play on his nickname, Yeezy, and his penchant for placing himself just this side of the Son of God in terms of cultural importance. That's just the first clue as to how assiduously aggressive and transgressive West wants to be on this album. Over the course of Yeezus, he cuts across boundaries — musical genres, historical references, good taste — with slashing rhythms and precise wordplay that will strike some as lacking in hip-hop beauty. My reaction upon first hearing the whole album all the way through has remained firm throughout subsequent listens: This is a strikingly unified, eloquently ugly record that demands, boldly but also desperately, beseechingly, to be heard.
"Black Skinhead" samples Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" to bolster its rebellious lyric. It's too easy to hear a lot of the sentiments on this album as merely arrogant, a quality West has done little to downplay in a recent interview with The New York Times in which he compares himself most favorably to innovators such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, or in a song title such as "I Am a God."
But that song has already yielded a funny phrase that's been repeated all over the Internet, with the highly self-aware Kanye posing as a pampered star, snapping at the staff of a French restaurant to hurry up with his order: "I am a god so hurry up with my damn massage and a French-ass restaurant. Hurry up with my damn croissants."
Kanye West remains a good collaborator: The album's numerous producers include the French duo Daft Punk, while Rick Rubin, who's worked with everyone from Black Sabbath to Johnny Cash, says he was brought in by West near the completion of the record to help strip down the sound. One result is that this album's diverse, cacophonous music fills even his most hostile lyrics with dread. I think you have to hear it in many moments as the cry of a man who wants the world to know how vulnerable and self-conscious and shrewd he is every time he presents a resentful, tough-guy, I'm-a-genius image to the world.
Some people have been scandalized by the song "Blood on the Leaves" — scandalized that a black artist as erudite as Kayne West could take Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" and turn its devastating metaphor for lynched slaves into a whine about difficulties he's having with the women in his life. The album is shot through with sex — talk about how much the singer likes it, but also how much he uses it as yet another power strategy.
But scandal is what West uses as a come-on, before diving deeper. His tabloid romance with Kim Kardashian is, whatever their private relationship may be, practically designed to drive serious people nuts — how could, the feeling goes, one of the most gifted contemporary performers find satisfaction with a reality-TV star? Yet this is the way West likes his art: superficially messy, only to reveal itself as rigorous, something joyous or tortured, and which invariably proves more complex than it appears. Give the man some croissants, will ya?