Over the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a roundtable on Yeezus. Jonah Bromwich is up first.
One of the biggest issues separating music critics from fans is the critics’ constant demand for reinvention. For the most part, a fan of any given artist would be happy to hear their favorite album remade again and again, with minor differences.
A lot of older Kanye fans—read: fans of his first three albums– are going to hear Yeezus once and dismiss it immediately. And they’re not wrong. That Kanye West was funny, self-conscious, able to make fun of himself without three or four layers of irony disguising the joke. The self-loathing was still on the surface. He was an improving rapper, who talked about his family, who admired others. He had a lot of soul, and his musical template was based in warmth of sound.
808’s & Heartbreaks changed everything (not just for Kanye, but for rap radio) and Yeezus is the natural culmination of that shift. This album might as well not be by that guy that many of us were still thinking of as Kanye West, the “Family Business,” “Late,” “Everything I Am,” Kanye. That guy is gone, at least as far as the music is concerned. Yeezus is the Kanye West album from the darkest timeline. All his worst lyrical impulses are present, which is unsurprising, as he wrote a good chunk of the lyrics in fewer than two hours.
The thing that I do reject and will continue to reject is that Kanye is stupid, which is what makes these lyrics all the more disappointing. For the most part the problem is pure laziness. Take the idea behind “New Slaves, expressed in the last line of the first verse: Used to be only niggas now everybody playin’/spending everything on Alexander Wang/ new slaves.” Kanye’s taking a stab here at condemning consumerism, and it’s effective. But then the idea veers off course swallowed in faux-bluster, in dumb jokes, in cruelty taking precedence over creativity, at least when it comes to lyrics.
The critique rears its head a couple more times, particularly on “Blood on the Leaves,” which is the darkest timeline version of “Golddigger” (similar story, no humor, and a whole lot more guilt). But the idea never really comes to fruition; and ends up being the same kind of half-baked concept that kept Watch the Throne from being a great album rather than merely a great-sounding one. The best song here “Bound 2” epitomizes Yeezus: its one of the best beats ever to appear on a Kanye album and he couldn’t come up with anything meaningful to say on it.
If the rapping is risible, the music is anything but, particularly on the strong back-half of the record. Though it might have been his intention to do so, Kanye hasn’t exactly betrayed his pop instincts on Yeezus; instead, he’s used them to construct soundscapes that are jagged and yet, in many cases, still impossible to keep out of your head. There’s a separation here between the music and the lyrics, where the former was clearly prioritized to an almost absurd extent, and resultantly, carries the entirety of the album’s appeal. The breakdown of “I’m In It,” the Nina Simone interpolation on the “Blood on the Leaves,” (which might actually find its way to radio) and the distorted soul of “Send it Up”—all examples of music being bent into shape against its will. Kanye is a master of musical reinvention in the way that few other artists are. And this album is going to move rap’s goalposts forward, which from a big-picture standpoint, is an ambitious and admirable goal. No matter how hard Kanye tries to repel the masses, his instincts seem like they won’t allow him to make music that doesn’t work.
Which, perhaps, helps explains the lack of effort that was put into the lyrics here: “As soon as people like you, make them unlike you.” That’s something that he’s succeeded at. At this point I couldn’t tell you if I’ll listen to this album for years on end, as I have with every other solo album that Kanye has ever released. I certainly don’t have the kind of affection for him that I did a couple of years ago, when I wrote: “I’ll probably like him for a long time, as long he stays so wonderfully, relatably, human.“ Dude isn’t particularly relatable anymore, and sometimes he doesn’t seem human.
I’ll cop to admiring Yeezus, particularly the second half. I might even listen to it, maybe even a lot. But it doesn’t inspire my affection, or my fanhood. I’m sympathetic to anyone who’s completely turned off by this album; this simply isn’t the Kanye many of us fell in love with. And regardless of the care that was put into the music, it will ultimately fail to inspire the love of anyone who cares about what rap music—Kanye’s music–used to be.