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The most common criticism of both Yeezus, and Kanye West’s music in general as of late is “I don’t care about the music because I don’t care about his life.” Although this is partially valid, there are more implications to Kanye’s lyrical themes than just egotism. “I understand culture. I am the nucleus” said West in a recent interview with the New York Times, and love him or hate him, there is no denying West’s integral part in shaping modern culture. So to simply “not care” about Kanye West is, in a sense, culturally irresponsible, like all of those disillusioned concertgoers who chose to see the Avett Brothers over Kanye West at Governor’s Ball Music Festival in New York. As far as modern culture goes, and specifically modern hip-hop culture, Kanye is “a god”, but a nucleus is useless without the organelles surrounding it, and on his latest album Yeezus, West gets just enough help to form a fully functional cultural cell.
Its clear from first listen that Yeezus is, by far, the most inaccessible Kanye album to date. Filled with bare beats featuring sounds that have more in common with noise and industrial music than any traditional hip hop music, obscure, haunting samples, sporadic beat changes, and an almost comical list of features, Yeezus is, unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not a casual listen. Despite the minimal approach, there’s a lot more to dissect than any of Kanye’s previous maximalist efforts. On the most straightforward songs, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads”, Kanye discusses modern incarnations of racism and compares corporate exploitation to slavery. Kanye’s “Fuck you and your corporations” attitude is a complete 180 from the Kanye who was buying gold chains, acting ignorant, and pissing off Spike Lee in “Clique.”
Although other songs may seem to pale in comparison to these two when it comes to lyrical substance, what Kanye doesn’t say with lyrics, he says with his production. His most brilliant execution of this is on the production for “Blood on the Leaves." The beat features two prominent samples playing a game of musical twister, Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and TNGHT’s “R U Ready.” Kanye pairs the pitched up and chopped samples of a song about lynching of African Americans, deliberately choosing lyrics like “Black Bodies swinging in the summer breeze” against the modern sample of TNGHT’s cartoonishly belligerent horns and manages to make a beat distinctly his own. Further exploring the themes in “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads," the haunting Nina Simone sample is inseparable from the TNGHT sample, just as the evils of the past are inseparable from the evils of the present. Nina Simone singing about “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” behind Kanye West complaining about Instagram posers reveals that he may be more self aware and conscious of the frivolousness of his problems than it may seem. Either that or he is completely delusional, both possibilities equally entertaining. In this song, and across all Yeezus, Kanye assembles a collage of the modern cultural he has been so vital in shaping, and the results form a picture more vivid and detailed than any of the source material he clipped it from.
I love Kanye, Chief Keef, and Justin Vernon. I also like Instagram, twitter, and Facebook, but I’m considerate and don’t link them. But if there’s one thing we know about Kanye, it’s that he’s inconsiderate. On album highlight “Hold My Liquor," Kanye exploits Sosa to the fullest. The appeal of Chief Keef’s songs is in the way ignorance is glorified, equal parts blissful and violent, but Kanye took his signature ignorance and contextualized it in a way to make it seem dark and hopeless. Kanye’s verse is consistent with this theme, chronicling the less glamorous sides of partying and sex - abuse and addiction. It’s interesting that Chief Keef is chosen as the feature in this song, considering he is a poster boy for the hedonistic and violent lifestyle that plagues the youth of Kanye’s home of South Chicago, the lifestyle that the song is meant to criticize. Kanye’s desire to represent Chicago is understandable, but Kanye uses Chief Keef’s presence more as a symbol than a legitimate musical contribution, because if he wanted to do that, he could have spent all of 15 seconds on Google and found Chance the Rapper. That would be too easy though, and the last thing Kanye wants for Yeezus is for it to be an “easy” album.
Following “Guilt Trip” and “Send it Up”, two songs that sound like Kanye threw all of his idols and influences (mostly himself) into a wood chipper recorded their dying screams, Yeezus comes to a close with the unexpected “Bound 2”. The title is a little play on words referencing the lyrics “bound to fall in love” in the sample he uses “Bound” by the Ponderosa Twins Plus One, as if it’s somewhat of a sequel to the source material. Both Kim Kardashian and Kanye have had bad luck with relationships, but always find themselves in love. Now, as Kanye explores in “Bound 2”, they have to learn to keep that love or fall out of it, as they always seem to do. People claim that the song is back to the “classic soul sampling Kanye”, and although it is a soul sample, its significantly different that anything he has done in the past. He finds a sample that, 7 years ago he would be all over, in a crude, half disintegrated state and loops it relentlessly, until it becomes predictable, habitual. Kanye is a creature of habit, bound to sample soul, bound to cause controversy, bound to fall in love, but the more he repeats himself, each time the loop starts over, it’s a little more fuzzy and uninviting. There’s a lot to dissect in Yeezus, and as much as the artist is able to cover in these quick 40 minutes, he makes it clear that in the end, its still all about Kanye.
Kevin O’Brien is a New Jersey native who is studying film production at Emerson College. He is a Pitchfork Historian, accomplished musician, and aspiring Internet celebrity. Girls love him, boys want to be him, you’re just jealous because he’s famous. @kevinobrien_