Yes, Kanye West has gone rogue again. Did you expect anything less?
Five years ago, the Chicago native — known at the time for top-shelf but ultimately traditional hip-hop — confounded scores of fans and critics with his emotional electro opus 808s & Heartbreak. At the time it was an anomaly not just within his own catalog but within the larger landscape of radio rap. Today, in the age of Drake and Frank Ocean, it’s hard to imagine that landscape without the confessional bedroom-beats style that West first brought to the mainstream.
The job of an innovator, of course, is to keep innovating. And while 2010’s superlative My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy deepened his sonic palette, and 2011’s Jay-Z collab, Watch the Throne, reveled in luxury rap, West’s sixth solo effort plunges directly into the darker crevices of his psyche. In some ways it’s a 180 on 808s: Where that album was, on the surface, his softest and most vulnerable, Yeezus comes off as his hardest — designed, as the man himself says on ”Black Skinhead,” to ”f— up your whole afternoon.” Believe it or not, that’s just ‘Ye being modest: This album has the potential to mess with your whole year.
It’s not surprising that Daft Punk, arguably 2013’s other cardinal game changers, are credited on Yeezy’s first three tracks — even though there’s nothing easy here for le discothèque. Instead, it wallops from the jump with seething rhythms and aggressive, politically charged lyrics. This dense breathless sound sets the tone for an album that reaches far outside of standard sample-based hip-hop, unrepentantly stealing and mutating key elements of acid house, clanging industrial, and hard rock; house-of-horrors screams, synths, and squelches leap from the shadows.
The self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton don — the one partial to strings and dazzling excess — has left the building, replaced by some minimalist punk with ”leather black jeans on.” As for the lyrics? Some of the best examples are unprintable here, but even the most bombastic moments — the ones seemingly invented to bait the music blogs — underscore a man struggling to come to terms with his place in the world, in his own ‘Ye way: On ”I Am a God” he raps, ”I am a god/Even though I’m a man of God/My whole life in the hands of God.”
As much as he pushes the envelope aesthetically, Yeezus isn’t quite the hardcore manifesto that early signs indicated. Consider the spare, downtempo ”Hold My Liquor,” which brings together Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the quintessentially hard Chicago rapper Chief Keef, momentarily dropping his tough-guy facade, or ”Blood on the Leaves,” which (somewhat questionably) appropriates Nina Simone’s take on Billie Holiday’s lynching ballad ”Strange Fruit” to narrate West’s own bad-woman blues. Meanwhile, shout-outs to French pastries (the already-iconic line ”Hurry up with my damn croissants!”) and Yeezy-minted languages (”I be speaking Swaghili”) bring a few welcome moments of levity.
The album ends with two tracks that showcase West’s diametric talents. ”Send It Up” is a party-starting monster, all blaring sirens and a rubbery remix-ready beat made for dystopian club kids. Then closer ”Bound 2” flips the script, delivering a sweet, soul-sampling stunner that would have felt more at home on The College Dropout than Yeezus. ”This that prom s—,” West sings, admitting that this is the song he could have easily put on the radio — if he weren’t too busy redefining it. A-
”Send It Up” — An apocalyptic dance anthem
”Black Skinhead” — A galloping punk-rap manifesto