Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Kanye West - Yeezus


There are so many ways in which I can begin this review, but so little time whereby I can actually go about discussing the grand spectacle that is Kanye West. For over a decade, the Chicago rapper/producer has, it seems, only himself to thank/blame for giving social media and cultured analyses the World over, the fuel to which has poured on West's ferocity as state celebrity posture and musical objectivity. Of course, West is human just like the rest of us (despite what holy comparisons he tries to project on this new album, which I'll be getting to later on), and he's entitled to his share of the argument. But given this is a man who is to controversy what bread is to butter, the cultural mockery and elevation his ego has taken over the past decade has helped as much as it's hindered West's conviction as an artist, in as broad a term that itself offers. We have plenty of past moments to flag up as theatrical as opposed to artistical; proclaiming [former US President] George Bush doesn't care about black people, talking over Taylor Swift's moment in the spotlight...oh yeah, and then there's that infamous South Park episode (mockery or not) that surprisingly made more sense to people than was to be expected. He is the celebrity the internet needs, but not the one that it deserves; an anti-hero personality whose equally the perpetrator and the supposed victim of such vigorous, savage events in life...but walks the very fine line between sympathy and stupidity. Musically, Kanye - lest we forget - has rightly become a recurrence in general chatter-chatter for (perhaps more credibly) his forward-thinking style of high-production hip-hop. But surprisingly, at least from my humble perspective, 2008's 808s & Heartbreak was the most provoking and exemplified take on the Chicago rapper as body, mind and soul, rather than ego, money and fame.

On the face of things, Yeezus sounds like a promising spectacle in that it reverts to that familiar stripping-back of sound for something more direct and harder-hitting. But while 808s' lyrical flow felt more profound and honestly emotive, here West's reverting to the signatory cultural and provocative themes of the majority catalog seems rather self-destructive...and not in a good way. The first track On Sight can't be faulted for cementing that intentional harder-hitting push, diving sharply head-first into an acid synth relay pushed and squeezed in its electronic pulses pushed to their utmost, tolerable level. Kanye comes in soon-after as the beats begin to rinse and repeat, and already we get an answer to the question 'how provocative is he this time?' Well if the line 'we get this bitch shaking like Parkinson's' is any indication, the answer seems to be 'too much even by his standards' this time. And even if the quickly-slid gospel sample gives some deserved calm-down, West's shunted lyrics and swaggered delivery unfortunately end up clogging a track which, ironically, doesn't feel integrally built or amplified in content. Black Skinhead is fortunately more rhythmic and more rewarding - West's first return to bold, punchy production. What starts with high-tense drum hits soon lowers to mid-range to allow West's lyrics to slot neatly into place. The majority percussion lead gives the song's fairly tense and revolted themes that deserved equal pace and slightly chaotic loosening. And while the instrumental and layered variety isn't any higher than the previous tracks, the interlinking manner at which these sounds play out gives the song that larger breadth of presence directly in front of the listener.

Unfortunately, when rhythm and tension aren't the focal point, it leaves West's lyrical monotony bare to see. I Am A God continues 808s simple, bass throbs as the lead. But again, West appears to be (and is adamant to be seen as) the centre-point, and because of it - his lyrical content laid bare for people to see, in all its disfiguredly theatric fashion. And that's not including the face-smacking declaraing his existence now is on par with a deity or part of perhaps some hip-hop holy trinity.  'Hurry up with my dam massage...Hurry up with my dam croissants' are but two snippets of a rather laughable self-proclaimed importance. Parody or not, I'm not even interested to decide whether or not Kanye is serious; the more ego-focused delivery offers little value, despite its charmingly entertaining flow through the music: 'I just talked to Jesus/He said what up Yeezus/I said shit I'm chilling/Trying to stack these millions'. And it's hindered not only by how bare and stale the guy's focus is, but more-so how unimpressive and unconvincing the beats are in the track. Even with the added swell of distortion and industrial tinge lingering in the backdrop, it all feels forced to the point of laziness, and all it does is create even more disconnect from this supposedly obvious prowess Kanye is so convinced he posesses.  


New Slaves works better because its better managed in asserting a balance and concern for what parts - lyrical and sonic alike - should be pushed. The actual lyrical themes and ways in which West presents them are more emotively hitting for which the listener can latch onto. Here, he paints - unable to hold back his lividity any longer - a bluntly, revealing inequality to which racism played when growing up, 'Clean water was only served to the fairer skin' (and something of which seems to have spread even to shopping retails and jail) and is still a present taboo he can't tolerate any longer. It's thanks to the music's equally fronted, point-blank graze of beats and swirling unsettling ambiance that lets West's ranting of truth to come across really well. Plus, it sets up his realizing conclusion that 'I'd rather be a dick than a swallower' as truly being that of choosing (unfortunately) the lesser of two evils in a society still split by racial and ethnic difference. In that regard, West's uncensoring of the harsh truth pays off and the music's murky painting of such themes feels complete and well-tested.

But these moments of fortifying development and focus, are few in number as we move onto the second half of the album, and the collaborations become greater and their relevancy even lesser. Hold My Liquor is one of the more daunting but confusing of the longer-spanned attempts; Justin Vernon's pitch-shifted offering individually not at fault, but end up feeling uncomfortably unadjusted and out-of-place. So too the music's low-key murmur of expression doesn't quite make use of the minimal-but-bold approach West so stagily attempts to replicate. And worse, because of said chosen atmospheric limiting and this low-key placement, the more sumptuous and extroverted electronics feel equally unjustified - the air horn-esque electronics adding little energy and fluster - proof to this track's under-developed stature. I'm In It is even more the perfect example that West's established base of quite unrequested subjects on love, sex and relationships in a celebrity-cult environment, is even more one-dimensional and predictable. 'Had to stop at seven-eleven like I needed gas/I'm lying I needed condoms, don't look through the glass.' And that's before we get to the cringe-worthy, ego-confident noting that what's needed with 'asian pussy' is some 'sweet & sour sauce'. True, this isn't the first time West has tried to add poetic slur to visages panning on sex or female genitalia (pussy in a sarcophagus anyone?), but West was excused from past embarrassment in how focused on rhythm and production he was. Here, the music's bare minimal approach is more intolerant and conflicting, leaving his lyrical offerings hollow and without justifiable delivery.

And it's this problem with such looser, unmatched expression, that paints West's vocal deliveries in a negative, but rightly-critical, light. Blood On The Leaves, sees West turning to singing rather than rapping about the more emotional alignment to his given topic. But aside from the pitch-shifted sample of Nina Simone - which do match Kanye's emotional range quite well - the majority of the other sounds here feel forced and too independently loose. The TNGHT sample especially tries to add dramatic rise where it's not even needed. Further to that, composition-wise, the track hardly picks itself up and worse, it gives the added impression it's never really getting going. So to find the music fizzle out and never really develop in its six minute wider parameter, is disappointing to say the least. Guilt Trip equally seems to stay in a similarly low-gear chutter, but fortunately the synth play and beats conjured are far livelier and even colourful to an extent. West's delivery too feels a lot more textural and well-placed amid the lavish layers of electronics. It's a shame then that Kid Cudi's vocal attempts come off, at the most crucial points, as strained and almost desperately seeking to match West's own delivery. And the stripping back of synths don't help thereafter in showing the younger rapper's sub-par, and quite straining, ability to project.

Send It Up's emphasis on vocals over beats does show more promise. Kanye's presence here shows more considerate restraint and awareness of space; King L's guest presence proclaiming that 'you can send this bitch up/It won't go down' interestingly carving a nice flow with the main percussion and synths that seem to sit perfectly underneath his vocal layer. But again, the track ends up leaving us as a mere promising opportunity gone amiss; the music's erroneous restraint to specific sounds (in this case, the fairly lude siring of electronics) leaving the overall progression feeling non-existent. Bound 2, the final attempt to prove West's objection is finely treated, does conjure a very remitted summer vibe in its looping use of a sample and through vocals, the Chicago man seems to avoid tackling taboo issues or running wide-mouthed into attitudinal sex lives, in favor of a more optimistic looking-forward to the future. And the contrast in level and presence between vocals and background samples generates this fond, floating quality I wouldn't have expected to find on an album such as this. In doing so, West's clearly happy and content messaging creates an even greater punch and liveliness about the sounds; the song seeming to evolve from such a simple sample build to something potentially more greater and blissful. Quite the opposite context and intended themes to how his last album ended, but just as captivating and thus, welcoming for an album closer.
 

But in a vast majority of its moments, Yeezus never looks to be the convincing argument for  such extruded barages of sound that end deceiving the listener in such bare minimal progressions. What Kanye West has attempted, is to fuse his two previous albums' opposing aesthetics and musical landscapes, in order to provide a delivery that's both lyrical shock-value and productive sleekness. Unfortunately, where 808s succeeded because of its refusal to hold back the emotion and personal affliction any longer, and MBDTF showed favour in wanting to create the perfect high-end production of self-aware confidence-turn-cockiness/rise-and-fall personality, Yeezus unfortunately drags only the most basic of these formulas and never bothers showing remorse for the better, humane catalysts that help define it. In result, the deliveries end up frustratingly rehashing a pretentiousness we're already aware, and sick, of hearing so directly upfront. Where the underpinning of simplicity works on an emotional crave for presence, in others it underachieves because of its litigation of sound choice and choppy production values. West's idea-borrowing ultimately - ranging from the industrial hip-hop of Death Grips-esque intensity, to recent surges of 2-step and trap electronic music - ends up coming across more copy and paste, then necessarily his own musical language and aesthetic; it all ends up feeling foreign and never truly integrated into the perfect, nurtured whole. So despite this stylistically darker and antagonistic change - at times succeeding in drawing conflict when delving into socio-political purveyance - it leaves the album clutching at straws in a meagerly vain attempt to sound more anti-contemporary and artistically complex than what is, more factually and realistically, let off.
~Jordan

5.5

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