Airspace writers Blake J. Graham, Josh Terry, and Tony Russo gathered around the (virtual) table to talk about Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus. Lyrics, music, and history are deconstructed then analyzed as the trio determines if Yeezus is an album worth remembering.
Blake J. Graham: Hey guys, before we really break down Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus, it seems apt to talk about how we came to Yeezus, as it were. For the last three weeks, I’ve listened to the album maybe six or seven times total during my daily commute. This is how I’ve consumed most new music recently: with two hands on the wheel and my mind mostly elsewhere. Originally I was simply curious about the album. But after each listen, the album demanded I return to it again. It wasn’t until five times through that I started to appreciate it. I’m not your regular hip-hop fan. There are outliers that have attracted me to the genre and Kanye is one of them, but I am no rap/hip-hop expert. Let that be a warning.
Josh Terry: Let me preface this by saying I am a Kanye West fan and a hip-hop fan. Though it’s not my absolute favorite genre, hip-hop albums have topped my “best of” lists for the past few years. Kanye has also established himself as one of the best, if not the best artist in mainstream hip-hop with a string of albums, from The College Dropout to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that rivals the innovation and consistency of critically acclaimed artists like Radiohead. When Yeezus leaked, I downloaded it knowing I’d buy it. From the harsh noises assaulting the listener as soon as “On Sight” starts, I knew I’d be in for a marked departure from his previous efforts. Also, knowing he listened to a lot of Joy Division sure as hell helped me process Yeezus.
Tony Russo: I’ve been a significant Kanye fan for some time—Late Registration was more or less my introduction to hip-hop music. Ever since I count myself as a Kanye superfan. My particular interest has been in the post-Graduation era sound. With 808s & Heartbreaks, West clearly embarked on a new era of music and lyricism. It’s been provoking and refreshing; I’ve loved it.
His last, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of, it not my single, favorite hip-hop album, so I caught Yeezus soon after it leaked. Since then I’ve racked up 265 album plays, according to last.fm—at a 10-song length, that’s just over 26 full listens. By now I’m overly familiar with the ins and outs.
Josh: Tony, as a Kanye West superfan, where would you rank Yeezus compared to Kanye’s previous efforts? I’m guessing that we’re probably going to have some disagreement here, as I still find myself trying to connect with the album as a whole. To me, it’s almost as if talking about Yeezus is more fun than actually listening to the album—especially considering the uber-celebrity of West, his outlandish behavior and how it all fits into 2013’s pop landscape. Did we really expect an album as dark as Yeezus to be introduced into popular music?
Tony: I have a deep love for Kanye’s early soul-influenced work. That’s no doubt still present in something like “Blood on the Leaves”—that is, until the booming TNGHT sample drops in.
I would say it’s just below MBDTF (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and Late Registration as Kanye’s best. Now if you look at Late Registration—numerous radio hits, but a lot of filler—you’ll see it was loosely constructed. MBDTF was the opposite: a work of intense professionalism met with critical acclaim, but no top-10 hits.
Yeezus, like MBDTF, is not a product of its era, but a trailblazer—Nixon going to China. They won’t be seen influencing hip-hop because Kanye is essentially the only one in a critical and commercial position willing to be this avant-garde. As he says in “I Am a God,” he’s the “only rapper compared to Michael.”
Blake: Putting Yeezus in the number three slot of West’s six proper albums is no small thing. Even to an amateur listener, though MBDTF and Late Registration may not be masterpieces, they are deliberately masterful. That was always something I found valuable in his music. The entire piece, from the granular musical phrase to the album as a whole, is purposeful and deliberate.
The other Kanye attractor is that he’s like a genre particle collider: Kanye accelerates opposites to extremes and smashes them together. Usually art comes out.
Josh: In an interview with the WSJ, Executive Producer Rick Rubin highlights when Kanye busted out tracks from the album in just a few hours. In the past, Kanye has been known for his perfectionism when making a record. Did Yeezus seem sloppy?
Before I start getting into what I didn’t like, I’ll talk about what I did. For one, the epic, “Blood On The Leaves” uses a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” that’s bizarre thematically but spot on musically. “Black Skinhead,” the closest Kanye’s gotten to a “rock” song is another great track—parallels between this and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” should be evident, not just from that mash-up. And “Bound 2,” is vintage Kanye. It closes out the album and, to some, acts as an apology for his demons.
Tony: Also in that interview, Rubin mentioned that, in songs like “Bound 2″ he got Kanye to tone down some of the production work. For whatever reason, people associate orchestral maximalism with perfectionism. I would posit that, if anything, Yeezus is just as precise.
Each time Kanye breaks up his song in a strange way, he’s taking a huge risk. And on Yeezus, 9 times out of 10, it pays off. It operates with a precision that I think few can achieve. Unlike his early soul-influenced production or 808s, this album isn’t going to change hip-hop. It will be an aberration of what hip-hop can achieve.
Where the issues arise are in the lyrics. I know how I feel, but I’m wondering what you all thought on the lyrical work on Yeezus?
Blake: I have a theory: if I didn’t speak the English language, I would appreciate Yeezus 1,000 times more. The lyrics are that problematic.
Many complain about his unadulterated sexism and misogyny, which we can later discuss, but from an aesthetic framework, most of the lyrics on Yeezus are just garbage.
No where is this more true than on “I’m In It.” The track is a rhythmic and sonic spectacle. The sound of Assassin’s machine-fire reggae against Justin Vernon’s mellifluous calls make my heart swoon. But the lyrics are a puerile mess. For someone so talented, it seems West just doesn’t care. And maybe that’s intentional. The words seem fungible, so long as the musical effect is the same. Pure rhythm and intonation supersede literal meaning.
Josh: Maybe “I’m In It” was one of the songs that Kanye allegedly wrote lyrics for on the spot. I’d also imagine that line about speaking “Swag-hili” or keeping it “300 like the Romans” would amount to that too. It’s like he wasn’t even trying. In a NYTimes interview, he says “I am in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron, great activist-type artists” but then on “I’m In It” raps, “Black girl sipping white wine / Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign.” That line is embarrassing on a lot of levels, and Yeezus as a whole lacks some of the introspection and honesty from his previous efforts. Despite this, the shitty lyrics are probably intentionally shitty, and Kanye thrives on the controversy. Kanye wants to shock us and is aware of how he can do it.
Tony: Criticism of lyrics strikes me, more often than not, as a pretentious way to look down on hip-hop. Nevertheless, at a lot of points I was unimpressed—lines like ““Star Wars fur, yeah I’m rockin’ Chewbacca” show Graduation-level simplicity. That’s not shocking or clever; it’s just dumb.
For the Airspace I wrote about my favorite lines. Unlike Josh, I think that line from “I’m In It” was fantastic, vivid imagery, and it fits in with the album thematically. Throughout, he forgoes materialism and fakery for raw sexuality—beautifully matching the tone of his music. Or take for instance in “New Slaves” when he says “You know that niggas can’t read.” He’s bluntly addressing this stereotype that all rappers are stupid, and diverts criticism of his own juvenility.
Blake: It’s fair to say that a lot of hip-hop is dismissed for its lyrics, but Kanye has established a precedent of lyrical artistry. Like in great poetry, each line is acutely aware of the other lines.
Kanye can take seemingly mundane references carefully placed throughout a verse, and explode them into multi-dimensionality with a single key phrase. To back this high-praise up, I’ll pull in a line from “Gorgeous” on MBDTF: “They rewrite history, I don’t believe in yesterday/ And what’s a black Beatle anyway? A fucking roach?/ I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach.”
This is just to say it’s a worthy endeavor to interrogate Kanye’s lyrics and compare Yeezus Kanye to historical Kanye.
Josh: My aversions to that “civil rights” line and the “sweet and sour” line come from the the lyrics’ clunky musical effect and inconsistency with the “Kanye as Gil Scott-Heron” image he was playing up. Sure, Kanye’s overacting here, playing a cartoon version of himself, but lines like “We get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s” aren’t funny or that clever, and as a fan I know he can do better—and as Blake pointed out, he can. Though it’s interesting to hear about such an expensive record being made in a matter of days, I think Yeezus could’ve been stronger if it didn’t feel so rushed.
But let’s shift from the lyrics to the actual music. What do you guys think of the production? Did anything seem out of place?
Blake: It’s hard to verbalize what West is doing with the music on Yeezus. The best I’ve been able to do is to say Kanye is composing with textures. At times the sound is smooth and creamy. At others it’s completely abrasive. And sometimes there’s nothing there at all. In most music, the instrumentation is intended to blend together and create a unifying effect, but for the most part, each textural layer of sound on Yeezus is distinct.
Kanye adds and subtracts layers at will to completely control the experience. It can be really beautiful, but it can also be terrifying. West seems totally in command of how listeners feel.
Tony: To answer Josh, I thought a lot seemed “out of place,” but never without effect. On a first listen, I found a lot of pieces of the songs didn’t seem to fit together. Then I realized that throughout the album he’s working to subvert the typical musical experience, and in arresting enjoyment, he somehow increases it—opening up these awesome new musical possibilities.
Just take what he does on “Hold My Liquor.” He turns Chief Keef into a soulful sweetheart. Or when he combines TNGHT with Nina Simone. It’s like the “Runaway” ballet dancers but with machetes, and I think that’s incredible.
There won’t be any hits here, though, because it mostly works as a total album. As he says, “Y’all ’bout to turn shit up / I’m ’bout to tear shit down”
Josh: Looking at the Yeezus credits, it’s incredible to see how many people worked on this. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like a bunch of competing voices vying for attention-it’s a very cohesive album. Daft Punk lend production credits on the first three tracks, and combine distorted acid and Aphex Twin-esque beats that are dark and in your face. Also, producer Hudson Mohawke works magic on “Blood On The Leaves” especially with his TNGHT sample Tony noted.
It’s also interesting to read that “Blood On The Leaves” was the original opener for the record, though that would have been cool, I think the first notes of “On Sight” act as a good thesis statement for the album. Can you guys think of an album more important coming out this year?
Tony: In hip-hop, only a few names stick out. Jay-Z’s album that just came out, Magna Carta…Holy Grail was a critical disappointment, and was not nearly as innovative as Yeezus. But otherwise there’s a batch of people I’m looking forward to seeing put out efforts: Danny Brown, Pusha T, ScHoolboy Q, and Drake.
Of those, I can only expect Drake to seriously challenge the total strength of Yeezus from a production standpoint. Drake’s verses this year have thus far been spot on, and he’s almost always got a team of all-stars to back him up. But Pusha might surprise—he’s on the GOOD label with Kanye. And ScHoolboy has the enormous chip on his shoulder: the first TDE record released after good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I have no idea how he’ll stand up.
Blake: Regardless of what comes next, Yeezus is a fixed point in hip-hop history. Whether or not musicians embrace Yeezus into their own style, or simply mark it as a key turn in West’s adventurous career, it is an album that deserves the attention it has received.