It’s been 3 years since the last Kanye West solo album, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,’ and it’s been less than a year since the G.O.O.D Music compilation ‘Cruel Summer’ where Kanye shared the spotlight with his group of signed artists. Those two records came out very different from one another. Where Kanye has said ‘MBDTF’ was his attempt to make an album that he felt his fans wanted, ‘Cruel Summer’ seemed more whimsical. It didn’t sound like it carried the same work ethic as Kanye’s past work. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was called Kanye’s first perfect album by a fair amount of people, but it didn’t win an album of the year award like he had hoped. What followed was some very “middle of the road” work in my opinion. With ‘Yeezus,’ Kanye’s work ethic and pursuit of perfection seems to have returned, but with a very different goal.
‘Yeezus’ is being released with next to no promotion. There haven’t been any ads popping up on websites, interviews, or singles for radio. In fact, the packaging doesn’t even have a cover. Aside from a recent Saturday Night Live performance and the choice to debut a video by projecting it onto the side of buildings in 66 different parts of the world, this album has flown under the radar (relatively; videos on buildings will make people talk). The reason for this, according to Kanye West himself, is a disinterest in radio play and record sales. His best work to date didn’t get the accolades he wanted, so ‘Yeezus’ finds Kanye not placating to fans and media. This time, he’s doing what he wants to do. The results come out as an experiment in minimalism. A look at the liner notes might make you think otherwise due to the amount of people that have made some sort of contribution to ‘Yeezus,’ and it may even seem a bit crowded the first time you hear it, but production-wise, it’s very dialed-back in comparison to Kanye’s earlier albums.
One thing I always have to give Kanye credit for is that when he sets out to do something musically, he knows who to work with to get it done. For ‘Yeezus,’ Rick Rubin was brought on as the executive producer. You may remember years back in the early days of Def Jam Records when Rick Rubin would produce songs for LL Cool J and others, it would actually read: “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” Minimalism is his thing and he hasn’t lost his touch. Though this album is mixed loud and takes inspiration from many areas such as EDM, dancehall, and industrial rock, the palette of sounds is relatively small from song to song. The few sounds being used, however, are taken as far as they can go. The results may not be for everyone, and they’re not supposed to be, but you can’t help but notice the craftsmanship that has gone into ‘Yeezus.’
The 10-track album begins with 4 consecutive songs produced by Daft Punk. “On Sight” is a brief, spunky, techno-ish tune that finds Kanye in a mood I can only describe as “free.” It’s a long shot from the Kanye West you’re used to overall, however. Though Daft Punk produced this song and the three that follow it, none of them will really remind you of “Stronger.” The lyrical offerings on this entire album are very aggressive. I really can’t imagine much of it making it to radio. It’s pretty abrasive from start to finish as you would assume from song titles such as “I Am A God” and “New Slaves”. So much so, that I don’t have any lyrics to share in this review. Subject matter wise, you’ll more or less get what you expect. Kanye is in familiar emotional spaces as ‘Yeezus’ plays out.
After the first four songs, the album goes into a more tribal sounding section where it opens up a bit more. A lot of tempo changes and unique mash-ups come together to give the remainder of the songs more hip-hop characteristics, while still sounding wildly different from most rap music you may have heard. The most unique of these perhaps is “Blood on the Leaves.” It features a sample of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” and C-Murder’s “Down 4 My Ns.” It’s an odd juxtaposition considering the meanings and purposes of the original songs, but the beat is easily one of the better ones on the album. I would have liked to hear something more significant subject-wise coupled with it though. Kanye himself only produced one song for this album. The tenth and final song, “Bound” sounds like the Kanye we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, and though I appreciate experimentation in music, this track is easily my favorite.
‘Yeezus’ is far from easy listening. It’s loud, brash, and brief (clocking in at 40 minutes). In the ways that it’s seemingly obsessive-compulsive, it’s brilliant. As I said before, it’s not for everyone, but if you take a look back at some of the true greats in music, quite a few of them were allowed to go nuts at least once in their career. This is Kanye’s version of The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” if you will.