In Paul Edwards’s comprehensive tome How to Rap, the author surveyed a plethora of rap emcees—104, to be exact—in order to demystify the rap process. The second chapter of the book, titled “Content Forms,” explores the role of braggadocio in rap; or more specifically, why boasting and dick-measuring is so prevalent in the genre.
“When you’re a young black male in America, you feel powerless—you feel like you don’t have a voice, you’re disenfranchised—so when you get the microphone, you wanna just pump yourself up,” claims the rapper Murs. “I think that’s where all the bravado comes from, where all the braggadocio comes from.”
Now, Kanye West is far from powerless. In a much-ballyhooed recent interview with The New York Times’s Jon Caramanica, West opined that he emanated “complete awesomeness at all times,” is “so credible and so influential and so relevant” that he can inspire change, and is the cultural heir apparent to Steve Jobs (an odd comparison, given West’s history of abusing Apple products). But West still feels powerless. He’s never satisfied. And the celebrity-industrial complex is completely anathema to him. It’s this queasily symbiotic relationship between celebrities and corporations that fuels much of West’s ire on his sixth solo album, Yeezus, which will be released on June 18. It’s a sonically audacious, fascinating work of art. And if you think his interviews are unfettered, well, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
There’s a line on the Yeezus track “I Am a God” that will be quoted ad nauseam in the coming months. The track opens with glitchy lo-fi distortion and reggae crooning. Scratchy synths follow, accompanied by a resounding CLANG! and pulsing bass line. He raps about massages, Porsches, ménages à trois, and “pink-ass Polos with a fuckin’ backpack,” and then it comes: “HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!” It’s the “Let them eat cake” of rap lyrics—fitting, since West may be the Marie Antoinette of hip-hop. The line captures the intriguing paradox that is West, a mélange of petulance, bombast, unintentional—or intentional?—hilarity, and relentless ambition. Later in the record, there are ear-shattering synth shrieks accompanied by moments of deafening silence, as well as exasperated screaming. It is—to borrow a West line—the album’s nucleus, and has the cumulative effect of aural stigmata.
West has described Yeezus’s musical style as “trap and drill and house,” but it sounds more like a mixture of ’90s industrial rock—think Nine Inch Nails—and ambient-electronica, e.g. Aphex Twin. The French electronic duo Daft Punk produced four tracks on the album and if their latest LP, Random Access Memories—a breezy ode to the funky ’70s—goes down like a smooth daiquiri, Yeezus is like jungle juice.
Opening track “On Sight” kicks things off with a bang. Over thrashing sonic beats that sound eerily similar to LFO’s “Freak,” which played during the opening credits of Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void (West had previously copied that film’s title sequence in his music video for “All of the Lights”), West raps, “Real nigga back in the house again / Black Tim’s all on your couch again / Black dick all in your spouse again.” A hazy choral interlude follows, followed by more nasty beats and acerbic lyrics. “On Sight” is the only potential club banger on an otherwise avant garde album.
Unlike his previous solo effort, 2011’s My Beautiful Dark Twisty Fantasy, this LP is devoid of radio-friendly anthems like “All of the Lights”; there are no coquettish hooks sung by Rihanna or any other chanteuses. They’ve been supplanted by, say, samples of Nina Simone crooning about lynching, as on the mesmerizing six-minute track “Blood on the Leaves,” which transforms the politically charged ballad “Strange Fruit” from an anti-lynching tune into a vitriolic ode to a star-fucking mistress.
Yeezus sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. West started out as a producer, crafting songs like Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Talib Kweli’s “Get By” before, by his own admission, becoming an overnight celebrity with Twista’s “Slow Jamz,” which he raps very slowly—and hesitantly—on. The production on Yeezus blows Random Access Memories out of the water. By assembling several mega-producers, including Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Skrillex, RZA, Rick Rubin—who did some last-minute tinkering, West’s mentor No I.D., and, of course, himself, each track is imbued with its own thrillingly unique sonic identity, yet all 10 tracks still flow together to form a cohesive whole. In an era of singles, this is an album, and must be listened to all the way through.
“Black Skinhead” contains a galloping beat layered with heavy breathing, tribal drums, CAW! sounds, and lyrics tackling racism in Middle America. Its last 20 seconds feature West grunting “God!” The influence of Rubin is most evident on “New Slaves.” It’s a lo-fi, minimalist track that sees West going “Bobby Boucher” on the corporate goons that have sought to exploit him, offering “Maybach keys” in exchange for a piece of his soul. “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth,” he shouts. The song closes with an outro sung by West and R&B crooner Frank Ocean. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who sang on much of MBDTF, croons in Auto-Tune on “Hold My Liquor,” which also features a muffled chorus by Chief Keef, and ends in a bizarre maelstrom of crescendoing guitars, thumping bass, and more nifty synth work. “Guilt Trip,” like the majority of the album’s second half, sees West sing-rapping in Auto-Tune, and contains the album’s other most quotable line: “Star Wars fur, yeah / I’m rockin’ Chewbacca.”
The only song that doesn’t quite work on the album is “I’m in It.” With its mix of reggae, West raps, harsh, strident synths, and Vernon singing about “star-fucking,” it’s too busy and doesn’t quite gel.
After nine dark, nightmarish tracks, Yeezus closes on a more positive note with the R&B/soul ballad “Bound 2,” which must be an ode to his love, Kim Kardashian. The song contains a sample from the Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound”—“Bound to fall in loooove”—tethered to an “Uh-huh, honey” sample from Brenda Lee’s 1960 hit “Sweet Nothin’s,” along with an occasional injection of Charlie Wilson. “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” West raps. After spending the majority of the album in misogynistic purgatory, it sounds like West has finally seen the light.
That being said, don’t expect West to queue up for Cronuts anytime soon.