Kanye West – Yeezus

Album Review by Bram E. Gieben | 27 Jun 2013
Album title: Yeezus
Artist: Kanye West
Label: Def Jam
Release date: Out now

Already this year's most talked-about album, Kanye West's Yeezus came with a rash of promises and boasts from the rapper – as usual, he was going to completely redefine music with his latest offering, and much time was spent discussing how revolutionary the bitcrushed, stripped-down beats would sound. The central problem with the album is just this – to anyone who has listened to a little Death Grips, the abraded, excoriating bass-warfare of tracks like opener On Sight will already be familiar, if not tired, and when Kanye appears to drop some lines, the level of interest falls drastically, because he has absolutely nothing to say. Rather than pairing stripped, brutal electronica with nail-biting, surreal, rabble-rousing statements – as promised, and as delivered by the likes of MC Ride – he raps about himself. Relentlessly. Yes, he's angry. But that anger comes off as petulance, even when he is addressing serious cultural isssues.

Kanye's collaborators – and they are legion – cannot save him. Daft Punk's fingerprints are all over the album, with co-writing credits for Bangalter and De Homem-Christo on several tracks. Also heavily involved is Tri-Angle Records ingenue Evian Christ, and LuckyMe star Hudson Mohawke, whose contribution to Blood On The Leaves is impressive. Stripped of Kanye's self-absorbed wittering, this would be a decent instrumental album, although not a ground-breaking one – Daft Punk's last seminal work is nearly two decades behind them, and it is quite clear that the other contributors have kept their best ideas for themselves. It's adventurous, but only enough to (almost) justify West's blathering about his own superiority and originality.

True, Yeezus might sound like transgressive noise art to someone who had never even remotely heard of the likes of Death Grips, but to a music-literate listener, this is safe territory – the underground constrained and filtered through a pop lens. Credit is due, to both Kanye and executive producer Rick Rubin, for trying something new, and keeping the beats raw and real. But it is still Diet Coke to Death Grips' full-fat version.

And then there are the lyrics. Relentlessly sex-obsessed and constantly veering into misogyny; factually innacurate ("I keep it 300, like the Romans," he excretes on Black Skinhead); constantly reminding the listener of Kanye's domineering, repellent ego, his massive wealth, and his supposed relevance. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, every word is like a turd that comes out of his mouth is like a turd falling into your drink.

The apex is reached on the brain-dead I Am A God, where West hollers, without a trace of irony, "Hurry up with my damn croissants." A satirical review of the album, which did the rounds on social media shortly after the release, had a six-year-old boy reviewing Yeezus. "So he’s rich?" comments the boy, "and he’s famous? And he can buy whatever he wants?" Yes, replies the journalist. "Then why is he so angry?" asks the boy.

It's a good question. Kanye's anger is appropriated, whether it is announced by tastelessly invoking the civil rights struggle (New Slaves, Blood on the Leaves), or simply expressed as a fashionable pose (I Am A God, On Sight, Black Skinhead). It is unconvincing, and crucially, humourless. The question of whether Kanye West the man and Kanye West the media personality can be separated – whether all of this is an act – is completely moot. Fact or fiction, his lyrics are at best boring, asinine, repetitive and dull – take for example, the implicitly homophobic and lazily under-written hook of New Slaves: "There's leaders, and there's followers / But I'd rather be a prick than a swallower." There's only one part of a couplet that unimaginative that's worth agreeing with.

At worst West's lyrics espouse a deeply questionable morality and a sickening lust for money (which is equated relentlessly with power and identity) and a flagrant disregard for historical fact and context. The fact some of these charges could be levelled against commercial hip-hop as a whole is also irrelevant – rappers who make themselves larger-than-life stars are ten a penny, but the ones who stand out, from Kool Keith to A$AP Rocky, do so because of their talent, not because of their wealth or status. 

The album's latter tracks, which see West returning to territory more agreeable to those who enjoyed his original and best album, College Dropout, are the most convincing. Guilt Trip's nod to the vocoder-driven balladry of 808s and Heartbreak is decent, if unimaginative commercial R 'n' B; while the loping boom-bap beat of Send It Up does a passable impression of stripped, underground hip-hop. Bound 2 also feels like a return to previous form, and as such sits oddly with the growling, posturing first half. You're left feeling that perhaps even Kanye himself is unconvinced by his attempts to sound 'real' and relevant.

As a whole, the album is stagnant; at times deeply unpleasant. What could have been a showcase of underground musical ideas, and a chance to elevate his lyrical concerns against a darker-hued backdrop, has been utterly wasted. If the beats appeal, do yourself a favour and seek out work by his collaborators – cop some TNGHT, some Evian Christ. Cop Homework. If you want hyped-up rap over raw, stripped beats, investigate Death Grips, Clams Casino, SpaceGhostPurrp. If the combination of talents involved in the album sparks your interest, wait for the instrumentals. But when it comes to Kanye's own input into Yeezus, this reviewer's advice can be summed up: avoid, avoid, avoid.