It seems a little bit weird to be writing about a record whose lyrics I can’t in good conscience quote on this blog. It seems even weirder to claim that I liked said record. But none of that is as weird as the record itself. Kanye West has without a doubt made the strangest rap record in years, if not ever. He’s certainly made the strangest high-profile rap record ever, and that’s including Andre 3000’s half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But as weird as it is, it’s not wholly unexpected.
As soon as we heard about Yeezus and saw the dumb album artwork, I was sort of mad at Kanye. It seemed like he was finally collapsing under the self-inflicted pressure. He had finally fallen off the ego tightrope on the wrong side, where he landed in a vat of chemicals that had altered his brain structure so that he genuinely believed he was a deity. Of course, then he titled one of his songs “I Am a God”. And compared himself to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, as if Jesus wasn’t enough.
But once I listened to the album, I stopped being mad*. Because, on “I Am a God” and throughout Yeezus, he sort of made sense. “I Am a God” works because it’s tongue-in-cheek. At some points during the song, he’s making fun of himself, such as when he demands a croissant or when he talks to Jesus; at others, he raps about his takeover of the rap industry, implying that, when it comes to rap, he is often treated like a higher being by fans and the media. Kanye seems to be saying, if you’re going to treat me this way, why don’t you expect me to act like it? His flirtation with blasphemy would be totally off base if he meant it, but shockingly ‘Ye comes off as remarkably aware of the way our culture treats celebrities and expects them to act.
That self-awareness is the beauty of Yeezus, actually, and it’s been Kanye’s gift since his debut. His songs are always revelatory about who he is. There’s arguably no rapper in the world that is better about putting so much of himself into his songs. Drake would probably be second, but it’s a distant second, if only because Kanye is so far ahead of the pack. ‘Ye’s lyrics are unfailingly honest, which is why he comes off like a jerk in his songs. He probably is kind of a jerk in real life**, but I much prefer a rapper to come off as a jerk than to pretend to be someone he’s not.
That honesty may be a signpost towards why Kanye’s albums have become progressively more alienating. Yeezus is a big middle finger to…well, everyone. The government, women, white people, other rappers, rich people- especially white people. But amidst the strange anger and the attempts to offend (“I’m in It” should do the trick there just by itself), Yeezus ends up being a prescient diatribe against racism. There are references to being called a coon and being judged for his interracial relationship on the banger “Black Skinhead”, on which he also references Chicago as Chiraq, an appropriate comparison for anyone following the murder rate there. “New Slaves” takes on the subject more directly as Kanye raps about the way discrimination sticks around even when you’re rich, before the song devolves into an auto-tuned Frank Ocean singing perhaps from the perspective of one of the high percentage of imprisoned blacks whom Kanye references earlier. And then there’s “Blood on the Leaves”, which samples Nina Simone singing the seminal “Strange Fruit”, a disturbing lament about African-Americans being lynched, literally. Kanye sings along 808s-style from the perspective of a man beat down by his circumstances and, by implication, by the white system.
The lyrics aren’t the only middle finger; the production is equally as alienating. Some have called it industrial, whatever that means. All I know is that when I first heard it, I thought it was unlistenable, but after a few listens, I can’t get enough. I want more of the screams on “I Am a God”. I want to hear the deep, distorted synths on “New Slaves” again. I want to replay the weird mix of snaps, claps, and staccato drums on “Black Skinhead”. And shoot, I could listen to that proto-soul sample on “Bound 2” all day, the song that most hearkens back to West’s beginnings. It’s a fitting way to end the most divisive record yet by one of the most divisive artists ever. The record as a whole reminds me of Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… from last year***; both albums commit fully to throwing completely different sounds at you for their entire duration while still making identifiable songs. If this is where rap is headed in the next few years, it’ll be a tough slog, but I’m willing to wade my way through it.
If after reading this you still can’t figure out why I like a record that has sexually explicit lyrics and seems to go out of its way to be offensive on several songs, maybe it’s because Yeezus is such a complicated album. There are moments on Yeezus that make me shake my head with disgust at the depths to which Kanye is willing to go. And he does demonstrate a casually sinful lack of respect for Jesus, women, and people in general. But the same thing is at play as with his last record, and as with Drake’s Take Care from 2011: relentless honesty. As a Christian, there are many rap albums I’ll pass by because of their explicit content. But I’m drawn to Yeezus, because Kanye’s artistry isn’t rooted in the celebration of sinfulness but in how he’s dealing with being a sinner.
*Which is absolutely incredible, since there are about twenty trillion lines on Yeezus that should, in theory, make me furious.
** “Kind of” might be a little generous, but I’m doing my best not to judge here.
***Probably not the best album to cite to make a case for mainstream enjoyability, so it’s a good thing I’m not trying to do that.