Breaking bread with hip-hop’s statesman
Time and time again articles are written about ‘the state of hip-hop’, seamlessly regurgitating disillusionment and spite in the face of an ever-changing genre that never seems to satisfy critics and fans. Hip-hop is a beast that apparently needs taming, or rather it always needs to stick with its roots otherwise it becomes too full of itself, too grandiose. ‘Keeping it real’ is de rigueur it seems. Fortunately some artists don’t listen to these daft expressions of protest and decide that as an artist they have the right to push boundaries, to develop and to question our preconceived thoughts. Kanye West is arguably one of the most prolific standard-bearers of development within not just hip-hop but music in general, and with his release of Yeezus once again he is pushing our aural boundaries to the limit.
Without doubt this is the most stripped-back album West has released to date, emphasised by the very non-West move of releasing it with no artwork whatsoever. His last solo album, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, caused a stir even before its release due to the apparent controversial artwork, though that is unlikely to be the reason behind the lack of artwork now. The stripping away of clutter has allowed West to deliver an album that is almost brutally barren in places whilst keeping our focus on one thing: him.
The album’s opener, ‘On Sight’, begins with a distorted electronic pulse that gives way to Daft Punk’s punchy beat, its sharp staccato stabs announcing the arrival of something other-worldly. ‘Yeezy season approaching’ announces West, forewarning us that ‘a monster about to come alive again’, an apparent nod to his single ‘Monster’ from his previous album. As ever with West his ability to source a seemingly little-known song and weave it into the fabric of a song has been his forte. ‘On Sight’ features a brief sample of the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family’s ‘He’ll Give Us What We Really Need’. The shift down in time signature and refrain sang by children of ‘he’ll give us what we need / it may not be what we want’ sits awkwardly against the driving rhythm of the track but it works. It shouldn’t, but it does.
Sometimes, however, the choice of sample if beguiling. ‘Blood On the Leaves’ features a sample from Nina Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’, a powerful protest song against the abhorrent lynching of African-Americans during the early half of the 20th century. Whilst Simone’s opening paints the bleak picture of ‘Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees / Blood on the leaves’, West speaks of the heartbreak of divorce and betrayal, ‘We could’ve been somebody / ‘stead you had to tell somebody’. It’s a strange mix of sentiments and one that has, unsurprisingly, caused a stir. On one hand it’s commendable that West chooses to give such an important anti-racism song airing, however many could argue that using such a sample alongside a tale of his own personal relationship failure is uncomfortable.
On tracks like ‘New Slaves’ (which perhaps could have used Frank Ocean’s immense talents to more use than the simple falsetto he provides at the end) and ‘Black Skinhead’ his lyrics shoot holes through the fabric of racism and corporate greed in an effective and powerful way. ‘New Slaves’ is West’s call for leadership (‘I rather be a dick than a swallower) against the corporations who seemingly exploit black artists, ‘Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse’. With it’s stark haunting synths and grizzly bass, West’s vocals build with blistering pace and accuracy as he takes aim at those that wish to exploit art and artists. ‘Black Skinhead’, with its primal scream stabs and drums not a million miles away from Marilyn Manson’s ‘Beautiful People’, speaks of West’s anger at the attitude of people towards a black man dating a white woman, ‘But watch who you bring home / They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong’. There’s no doubting West’s lyrical ability and skill here, though that is called into question on ‘I’m In It’. An overtly sexual track, featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and patios rapper Agent Sasco, its impressive-yet-sparse backing track provides West a chance to air his more sexually-dominant side albeit with some questionable lyrics. ‘Eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce‘ is clumsy and obtuse, whilst ‘Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign‘ does his previous good efforts in highlighting racism and equality no good at all.
It is not by any means an easy record to approach and listen to, that is the point. It is however, upon a few listens (if you’re willing to give it that) an excellent body of work that shows the development of an incredible talent. His production (aided by the incredible Rick Rubin and long-time partner Mike Dean) is exemplary, it truly is a masterclass in sonic landscapes that few artists these days ever get near to. Whilst his beats here are baron and stripped-back it has afforded him space and time to sharpen his lyrics to a finer point, albeit that in places they’re clunky and wide of the mark. What other artist these days has the audacity and cojones to title a track ‘I Am a God’ (featuring ‘God’ no less) and has the lyric ‘In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants’? It perfectly captures West in today’s musical world: a near-god-like status in musical accomplishments whilst at the same time possessing the ability to turn around and show the face of the devil.