“I am a god,” Kanye West declares on his new album. As if naming his sixth studio effort “Yeezus” wasn’t enough to make us think he’s immaculate.
But if there’s one person who’s come close to controlling the world in recent years, it’s Yeezy. Whether he likes it or not, the music world gives him more attention than just about anybody. He’s one of very few artists who seems to have widespread appeal over mainstream and alternative music crowds.
“Yeezus” had no promotional singles or videos. The general public hadn’t heard any studio cuts from the album until it leaked to the internet on Saturday afternoon, at which point the cybersphere effectively shut down and started listening. And yet with its minimal amount of promotion and its lack of cover art, the album is expected to move an astounding 500,000 copies in its first week.
The music of “Yeezus” takes a left turn similar to the one Ye took with 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak.” He must have known that 2010’s masterful “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” would be impossible to follow up, because “Yeezus” is radically, shockingly different from that album. Daft Punk-produced opener “On Sight” is grimy, industrial, electronic dance-hop. “Black Skinhead” features a chest-rattling bass hook and frantic, jaunting drums. The beat of “I Am A God” is massive, with low, god-like vocals in the chorus. The album shows heavy influence from electronic music, as well as modern R&B and Jamaican dancehall.
But although the album is very different upon first listen, “Yeezus” still has shades of what made West famous. Standout “New Slaves” has a throwback R&B outro that features Frank Ocean. Closer “Bound” features a sped-up soul sample and could have fit right in on “The College Dropout.”
Yeezy’s rapping on “Yeezus” presents some of the most memorable lines of his career. “They be ballin’ in the D-league / I be speakin’ Swag-hili,” he says on the closing line of “I’m In It.” “In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants,” from “I Am A God” is the “What we order? Fish fillet” of 2013. West’s flow on the intro verse of “New Slaves” is as strong as it’s ever been, and “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” combines West’s egotistical shrewdness with his quotable humor to make it one of his most quotable lines ever.
The album’s most captivating track is “Blood On The Leaves.” It features a sample of Nina Simone singing the jazz standard “Strange Fruit,” which tells the story of racist lynchings in America in the early 20th century. But Yeezy uses this sample of a civil rights statement song to tell the story of a girl experiencing ecstasy for the first time at a part in an auto-tuned R&B slow jam. The track also features an interpolation of the TNGHT track “R U Ready.” It’s an unlikely mix that succeeds and makes it one of the catchiest songs on the album.
The music of “Yeezus” may not be as strong as the pop of “MBDTF,” but where the album really succeeds is in its format and production choices. At just 40 minutes, “Yeezus” is the shortest Kanye album. But its brevity makes the album very listenable, even though the music is dark and hard to swallow at times. The Jamaican-style vocals and industrial, electronic beat of “Send It Up” leads right into the throwback soul of “Bound.” The album’s spontaneity helps keep it interesting and refreshing.
Even though the beat of “On Sight” is heavily distorted, West makes the choice to leave the vocals clear as day. Conversely, he puts a filter on the vocals on “Black Skinhead,” which gives the track some extra depth. “Hold My Liquor” features Chief Keef, who can be very annoying at times. But Yeezy made the choice to have him auto-tune the understated hook, which ends up working out. Production legend Rick Rubin has the executive producer credit on “Yeezus,” and he helped shape it into a concise exercise in minimalism.
“Yeezus” won’t have the same monumental impact on the world of music that “MBDTF” did three years ago. Its first half is definitely stronger than its second. But it’s a satisfying entry in Kanye West’s discography and one of the best albums of the year so far. “Yeezus” is dark, hilarious, unpredictable, challenging, brilliant, and insane. It’s become stupid to expect anything less from Yeezy.