Point/Counterpoint: Kanye West’s Yeezus

June 20, 2013

The FADER doesn't do straight album reviews, but when something gets everybody talking, we think it’s a good practice to examine big points of contention from a couple different angles. Here, in our first edition of Point/Counterpoint, Sam Hockley-Smith and Emilie Friedlander weigh in on Kanye West’s sixth album Yeezus, wondering whether its "weirdness" hits home or falls flat.

"Weird" for the Sake of "Weird" Does Nothing New

By Emilie Friedlander

Last Friday, Yeezus leaked while I was out on my lunch break. I returned to my computer to discover a blinking Gchat window from a friend, informing me that he was listening to the album and offering a few cursory impressions of the music, as he and I are wont to exchange on a semi-running basis. “Lol. This is fucking sick. This record is mixed so far in the red,” he had typed into the window in my absence. As he continued listening, my friend started waxing a bit more lyrical about how Kanye’s sixth album was making him feel:

_really_ weird
_really_ intense
crazy mixing
what's funny about this kanye west album is that there aren't really any like
social jammers
i can't see myself enjoying this in any kind of social situation more than i enjoy it by myself right now

It was the first review that I of read Yeezus, and pretty consistent with the flurry of responses that I would read over next few days. In its skeletal design, squelching electronic palette and ambiguously self-critiquing comparisons between Kanye and the son of God, Yeezus almost seemed like it was designed to garner adjectives like “weird” and “intense” and “crazy.” Like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy before it, it felt like social event—not just because it was a piece of music that everybody you know and everybody I know would be listening to, but because we were together in bearing witness to one of the most talked-about men in music unveiling a new incarnation of his shape-shifting self.

In keeping with a distinctly American sense of progress (and Kanye’s own statements, of course), we’ve come to expect that each successive Kanye album will be bigger and better than the one came before it. Recently though, at least since the vocoders and pitched drum machines of 808s and Heartbreak, there’s also been the expectation that it will be more psychologically overwrought and stylistically left-field, as though hearing the new Kanye album were akin to watching someone live out a perennial personal and artistic nervous breakdown in public. Hence my friend’s early review of Yeezus feeling retrospectively spot on while also pretty paradoxical: Yeezus is a social event, but one we’re more likely going to want to experience within the privacy our own earbuds—unsure how to sing or dance along to it, perhaps, but united by our fascination with a man simultaneously unravelling and reinventing himself.

In his recent interview with the 36-year-old rapper, The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica asks Kanye whether he still feels like an outsider trying to fight his way in to the commercial rap establishment. Kanye’s reply contradicts many of the other statements he makes over the course of their conversation, but it feels like a pretty good summation of the aesthetic he’s going for on Yeezus: “I feel like I don’t want to be inside anymore. Like, I uninvited myself.” Musically, Kayne draws a good deal of his sound, if not directly from underground musicians themselves (Hippos in Tanks and onetime UNO NYC artist Arca, who has production credtis on five of the album’s 10 tracks, along with Tri Angle's Evian Christ) than from musical building blocks that wouldn’t be wholly out of place at a dance night at a warehouse party in Brooklyn: blown-out, pitch-shifting synth notes that seem like they're designed to abrade your eardrums; mechanical beats that sound like they’re approximating the sound of a bass drum with its skin sagging a little too loose; an abundance of the kind of short, bark-like screams that make a Suicide song like “Frankie Teardrop” (1) scare the shit out of you. Experimental is a complicated word in music—perhaps as complicated as distinctions between “underground” and “mainstream” these days—but if we take it the sense of offering something that sounds “difficult” to the listener, Yeezus is Kayne’s most experimental album to date.

Historically speaking, as Sam Hockley-Smith points out to the right, our cultural universe (even our mainstream cultural universe) would seem to be ripe for it. The trouble is, just because a sound is “difficult” doesn’t make it interesting or even necessarily impactful. A big personality like Kanye’s may require a very big-sounding record to do it justice, but Yeezus, to my ears, is the sound of an artist trying very very hard to make an impact‚ to the exclusion of most of the things that (in my view, at least) make difficult music a compelling medium of expression. When I say that this album is one of the most heavy-handed albums I’ve ever heard, I’m not just talking about the tastelessness of lines relating sweet and sour sauce to performing oral sex on an Asian woman, or his flippant cut and pasting of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” into a song about his rich people problems. I’m also talking about Yeezus’ deployment of its pure sound elements, like the gargantuan, fog-horn like synth stabs that kick in mid-way through that song—”Blood on the Leaves”—as though the only way to kick up the ante on the track were to go from a speaking voice to a shouting voice.

When Kanye tries to equate this foray into the sound world of techno and industrial music with a movement away from the maximalism of his earlier work, as he does in the interview with Jon Caramanica, I think he’s got it all wrong. There is nothing particularly subtle about taking the same monstrously loud, blown-out synth pattern and repeating it over and over again with little modulation, just as there is nothing particularly experimental about jumping abruptly and without precedent from a techno passage to a pitched-up interpolation of a gospel song, or yelping over and over again over a beat that sounds like Jock Jams. If the beauty of minimalism is a beauty of tiny movements and gradations, then I’m afraid that a lot of the outside music that Yeezus sources—like the aforementioned sermon interpolation for on “On Sight,” or the gorgeously wilting passage of Hungarian psych-rock at the end of “New Slaves”—sounds a lot more minimalist than a lot of the original production.

Which is all another way of saying that there’s not much to Kanye’s attempt to do something really “difficult” this time around; it’s loud for the sake of being loud, ugly for the sake of being ugly and “weird” for the sake of pointing to its “weirdness.” I’m not opposed to the idea of appreciating Kayne’s latest artistic and personal meltdown on the level of a performative stunt; it always nice when a celebrity who feels alone and misunderstood sublimates all that anger and sadness into art so we can feel less alone by all experiencing it together. But as far as opening up the mainstream ear to a deepened appreciation of sounds from “without,” and the potential of pure sound to communicate, I don’t think Yeezus, for all its expensiveness and talented roster, is unlocking any doors. Rather, I think it’s just pushing them back outside, to where most listeners in America, up until weird became cool, seemed to think they belonged: the freak parade.

Kanye is Conflicted, Like He Should Be

By Sam Hockely-Smith

Right now, you can walk into a store and purchase a physical copy of Yeezus, a major label album that features no cover art and a lot of very angry Kanye West moments. It's a "weird" record if you want to boil it down to one basic descriptor. The guest vocals are plentiful, but often come in at unexpected places: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon appears multiple times, his voice layered and without a body, like everything he's singing is actually a lost transmission from space. Chief Keef appears singing about how you (we?) only know the old him. Frank Ocean pops up in a cathartic lo-fi epilogue to "New Slaves," Kid Cudi provides heartbreaking meta-commentary on his own career on "Guilt Trip," Assassin drops an incendiary hook on "I'm in It" that is so energetic that it singlehandedly revived my faith in dancehall in 2013. Yeezus also features relatively (relative to Kanye's world, anyway) unknown producers like Arca and Evian Christ sharing space with forgotten luminaries like the Heatmakerz. The album they collaborated to make sounds like a lot of stuff that has been floating around the internet for the last couple years, but it's all been drawn into Kanye West's orbit. Yeezus is Kanye's line in the sand, separating everything he's done before from what he's doing now. Every Kanye West album is Kanye's line in the sand.

Kanye's career has been long because he's a master of tapping into the underlying frustrations of the world at hand. Whether or not he can emotionally or financially relate to that world is beside the point. If we are on edge, reactionary, unhappy, stressed, broke, wanting to be more, Kanye wants all of those things times a billion. His highs are higher and his lows are lower. To make effective art, you need to push emotional moments to their extreme conclusions, while hopefully retaining all the nuance that comes with those emotions Yeezus is as weird as the world we're part of, which is a very weird, paranoid, often childish (2) place. 

Playing "spot the influence" on Yeezus is fun, but beside the point. Kanye's always been a late adopter who manages to use his obvious influences really well. Think Late Registration's "Drive Slow," and how that tracks DJ Screw influence seemed at once reverent and prescient. It'd been done before, but not by Kanye West. Kanye wants us to believe that he is aware of everything always. It's easy when you're playing the everyman, like he did (or tried to do) on College Dropout, or the man who is flabbergasted but—it should be noted—very accepting of fame on Graduation, or the lovelorn, lonely artist on 808s and Heartbreak. Kanye West started his career as a relatable rapper at a time when there weren't many of those in the public eye. Now he's too famous to be relatable. Too frustrated. Too rich. 

Since Kanye works in extremes, he couldn't make anything else but Yeezus, and he can't really make another album until music shifts again and he can pop a wheelie on another zeitgeist. Is Yeezus a weird album? Sure. Musically, yes, it doesn't sound like anything else on rap radio, it doesn't really sound like anything on any radio. It sounds like corners of the internet that used to seem bigger than they were, but now actually are bigger. 

The persona that Kanye West projects on Yeezus has serious issues with women, with the music industry, with sex, with his friends, with his life in general. Lyrically, he's gross. "I'm in It" is so brooding it is practically begging for serious subject matter. Instead we get Kanye at his most crass and unapologetically offensive. On that song alone he moves from Your titties/ Let em out free at last to Eating Asian pussy/ All I need is sweet and sour sauce. (He was similarly unrepentant in the sole promotional interview he did for Yeezus, basically retracting his apology for interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.) It's a whole lot of rich people problems, but they're still problems he's struggling with. He's fed up, or wants us to believe he's fed up. It's irrelevant if, when he's just sitting at home with Kim and the new baby he's actually a good dad, because the only Kanye we know is the one on record. He's made a fractured version of his life public, and it's the one we have to go on. Wondering if Kanye is a good person doesn't work, because he's already decided he doesn't have to pretend to be perfect for his audience. This is either laudable or annoying. Your mileage may vary.

So ten tracks, multiple guests, production that stomps, slithers and vibrates into these world-ending glittering towers of dollar signs and post-apocalyptic anthems to be played in clubs that don't exist yet. Is Yeezus weird? Yes, it sounds weird. Is Kanye West weird for making Yeezus? Not really. Kanye's just Kanye, maybe what's weird is that we don't expect all our biggest artists to be as conflicted.



Point/Counterpoint: Kanye West’s Yeezus