Fade in from commercial. Ben Affleck says “Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, the man you came to see. Kanye West.” Then this happens.
I wish anything else I’m about to talk about was as good as that performance.
If you know me personally, whether it be because we went to school thirty years ago together, are currently married to me, or work next to my cubicle, you are aware that I hold Kanye West in high regard. An almost impossible, nonsensical level of awe. I like when he does stupid things, and I like his music. I know that as I stagger quietly out of my 30’s that this makes me something of an anomaly, and repeated references to his Maybach should not resonate with me. So let me say that there is no logic here. There’s no reason I should like his music (or more importantly his ridiculous media persona), despite enjoying hip hop in some form for most of my life. He should be in the same pool of successful rappers that everyone just casually mentions- Jay Z, Drake, et al.
But he’s not. Because I think he is easily the best. Even when he pushes out what is an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling work.
I was listening to Yeezus within 30 minutes of it being leaked on the internet. And I hated it. And then I listened to it about 10 more times. Then I loved it. Now, with more listens than I’m comfortable admitting, I feel like I can look at it a little clearer. And why compared to Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z’s latest effort that dropped a month after this one, this album is a master work. There’s a clarity and purpose. There’s non-sequiturs that don’t feel like non-sequiturs. Yeezus gets abrasive, and then it gets soft. That first listen I didn’t know what to expect. I was flinching reflexively at the changes in direction. Once I started anticipating the shifts, I came to love it. Comparatively, there are no surprises on the latest Jay Z record other than him aping Nirvana at one point. That made me physically ill, by the way.
Here’s what I love about Yeezus. Black Skinhead’s driving beat. The sugary dessert of Bound 2. The beat drop in Blood On The Leaves (which will be my favorite 20 seconds of music I hear this year). The driving bass in New Slaves. Daft Punk going insane at the end of On Sight. The horns in Send It Up. I know many of these elements are lifted and repurposed and that almost makes it better. Who is listening to Strange Fruit and says “Hey, that beat from TNGHT would go perfect with this!”. Kanye is.
Where it goes wrong is heartbreaking. It’s the lyrics. Have a listen to Blood On The Leaves there. What a wonderful, wonderful song. He samples Strange Fruit, he has a badass beat from TNGHT, it sounds like 808s and Heartbreak. So what does he choose to rap about? A messy divorce and doing molly. Plenty of people are upset at the use of Strange Fruit, which is a stunning indictment of the Old South originally performed by Billie Holliday. So if you’re going to play with that, do something with it. Say something important.
Some songs, like Black Skinhead and New Slaves he hits closer to something meaningful. But there’s just too much filler on this album. Too many moments where the music is there but the words are plain. Chief Keef, who apparently just woke up, slurring through “I can’t hoooooold my liquor”.
It bums me out. I think my problem was that the first record by him I really loved was 808s and Heartbreak. I loved it because you could feel the sweat poured into it. There was a soul there.
I’m not sure there’s one in Yeezus. There’s a great joke about croissants, though.