Kanye West is no stranger to controversy. Hailed as both a musical genius and an irresponsible egomaniac, his is arguably the most polarizing name in contemporary music and, in some ways, pop culture. Society seems to have a difficult time reconciling his childish meltdowns and Twitter rants with his masterful sampling and honest lyrics. One thing seems to be certain, though: for better or worse, West is never one to take a moderate approach to anything. This becomes an interesting point of inquiry as we examine the latest Kanye West controversy, “Yeezus.”
A bold departure from the grandiose production on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “Yeezus” represents a relatively minimalistic attempt at an experimental hip-hop album. To set the anti-establishment tone, he chose not to formally release a promotional single before the album and limited public exposure to essential information about guest producers (Mike Dean and Daft Punk) and a feature list that included the likes of Justin Vernon, Chief Keef and, yes, God. With nothing but a public showing of the rather controversial “New Slaves” video and two Saturday Night Live performances to go off of, the public first experienced “Yeezus” on June 18.
The album opens with the Daft Punk-produced “On Sight,” a high-energy, house-influenced track that drops a random choir sample for no apparent reason. In typical Kanye fashion, he hypes himself up in the first line with a “Yeezy season approaching” disclaimer before dropping the same brand of explicit, provocative lyrics for which he’s so well known. Couple this with Ye’s tight, consistent flow and you’ve got yourself a banger to open the album and set the experimental tone.
The remainder of the album, while musically consistent with the introduction, is much different in content. “On Sight” serves to introduce the experimental theme of the album, but the remaining nine songs follow a concept: a reflection of Ye’s career in the context of a midlife crisis.
“Black Skinhead,” which features a genius Marilyn Manson sample and possible Death Grips influence, is a hungry, aggressive testament to West’s pre-fame mindset. Allusions to “Chiraq” and “possession” take us into the mind of a starving artist hell-bent on breaking into the mainstream. Meanwhile, “I Am A God (feat. God)” is one of the more epic moments on the album, combining intense Indian vocal samples and absurdly braggadocios lyrics (not to mention a “God” feature) to capture the arrogance that has only inflated since Ye’s big break.
Remaining high points on the album include “Hold My Liquor,” on which West seamlessly combines the two most different names in music, Justin Vernon and Chief Keef, for a beautifully depressing ode to crippling alcoholism and hedonism. “Blood On The Leaves,” which shamelessly samples Billie Holiday’s sacred “Strange Fruit” tells the sad tale of his on-and-off relationship with Amber Rose and subsequent mistresses. While the track does work well conceptually as an ode to Kanye’s lifelong struggle with race, it stands on its own as one of the best songs in Kanye’s career. The minimalist sampling, conscious yet aggressive lyrics and no-holds-barred shots at the United States’ prison-industrial complex make for a truly incredible song.
The album’s last track, “Bound 2,” pleases Kanye’s older fans looking for soul samples and introspective lyricism. The track serves as a reminder that even after all of the breakdowns and ignorance, Kanye is still the artist who created “The College Dropout.” He’s still looking for love, stability and self-acceptance, and he believes himself to be in a better situation now, with respect to achieving these end goals, than he was in 2000.
While the album certainly has caused polarized opinions among fans and critics, it’s clear that West has ushered in a new era of experimentalism in mainstream hip-hop that will continue to prompt discussion and artistic growth. “Yeezus” is, above all, a different kind of concept album and, because of that, it may not be accessible to hip-hop traditionalists. In 20 years, however, when music has evolved and dramatically changed, fans should be able to look back at “Yeezus” as a bold, game-changing masterpiece.