Trying to Be Evenhanded About the New Kanye West Album

Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam)

Has an early leak ever seemed more intentional and manufactured? Whoops, shouldn't have gone there -- I've vowed to review Yeezus without bringing into the discussion anything that isn't on the album. I don't care about how much of an ass somebody is as long as s/he makes good music. True, Mr. West plays off his public image in his lyrics, and true, I do have a strong distaste for the selfish whining of rich people, such as when they bitch about not getting their croissant fast enough (yes, that happens on Yeezus). (Hey, speaking of "bitch," I haven't counted, but I suspect that it's the most-spoken word on Yeezus.) But the fact that Elvis Costello made racist comments in 1979, though disappointing on a personal level, doesn't influence my enjoyment of his next album, Get Happy!; their membership in the Nazi party hasn't hindered my appreciation of the talents of various German conductors of the previous century; nor have I stopped grooving to Phil Spector-produced songs in the wake of his murder conviction. As much as we might wish that talent were tied to morality or personableness, often it is not.

So: Yeezus.

The first impression the album makes is awful. I really can't stand the style of the first three tracks (including "Black Skinhead," below) -- deliberately ugly sounds arranged in exaggeratedly grandiose gestures with no appeal other than the sheer gaudiness of their tasteless melodrama. A little research reveals that they were done with Daft Punk. Well, that explains my reaction. 

It gets better after that, at least in terms of the tracks, but one still has to contend with West's increasingly one-dimensional flow, reflexive misogyny, and the bitterness that overflows from him (hard to believe this is the same guy whose first three albums were full of witty hilarity). Even when he's making good points about consumerist culture on "New Slaves," it's hard to enjoy how he makes them with lines such as "I'd rather be a dick than a swallower." And "I'm in It," besides the overwhelming puerility on display, throws casual racism ("eatin' Asian pussy, y'all, I need some sweet and sour sauce") into the ugly mix. One hopes that this is all some meta-character and not his real feelings.

Worst of all, from my music-oriented perspective, is that the one thing I have always liked about all of West's albums before this, the richness of their musical textures, has been mostly hacked off this one via the last-minute intervention of Rick Rubin (at West's invitation), though a bit of the old genius remains, especially on the instrumental section of "Hold My Liquor." Here's hoping somebody leaks the original versions of the tracks so I don't have to wait for the tenth anniversary expanded edition to hear what this album could have been -- especially since some of them didn't have lyrics until after Rubin got involved. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.

Rubined

I'd been looking forward to the Rubin intervention, but I guess less is not always more. Perhaps Black Sabbath should have dropped some riffs and samples on Mr. West via Mr. Rubin.

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