Albums like Yeezus do not come along often, but when they do, reviewing them is a blessing and a curse. In a way, writing reviews for hype-monster records is what critics live for — we wade through more albums each day than you can imagine, and most of them are standard, average, ultimately inconsequential efforts (sorry, but it’s true). The chance to write something possibly consequential about a record of — for better or worse — importance is a validating change of pace. From a nitty-gritty standpoint, though, it’s really a lose-lose-lose proposition. To the ever-present contingent of people who seem to think that every music critic bullshits their reviews (though they continue to read reviews, go figure) based on what they think is the “trendiest” or “coolest” judgment at the moment, a positive review that verifies the hype is typical groupthink; a negative review is some kind of deliberate, iconoclastic posturing; and a mixed review isn’t sensational enough to register.
Now take that formula and apply it to Yeezus, the follow-up record for one of the most acclaimed albums in recent memory and the culmination of a many-month-long marathon of calculated, “anti-commercial” self-promotion by one of the most “controversial” artists making music today. I’m writing this three days before the album is released, having not seen or read a single other review, and I already know how this will play out: a legion of people will inevitably accept Yeezus, lying down, as a work of “experimental” (more on this later), dark and bold genius, while another group will be turned off by its abrasiveness and reject it out of hand, thus creating the “polarizing” designation that fuels even more hype. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it’s a fairly common narrative in popular music. So it goes.
Iconic lyrics linger through the protean decades by virtue of a combination of contemporary poignancy and universal, timeless resonance. For example, “the times they are a-changin,” is brilliant because it evokes and connotes a specific thing (the Civil Rights movement) in a specific time period (1964, to be exact), but is also identifiable for anybody at any time (because when is there not societal change to project that onto?). I bring this up because, listening to Yeezus now, I am reminded of Public Enemy’s immortal exhortation, uttered around 15 years ago, to not “believe the hype.” I repeat the same exhortation for you: though Kanye West has three (arguably two) great albums to his name, Yeezus is not one of them.
If that statement places me as some kind of troglodyte who just doesn’t understand Kanye’s vision, man, within your schema, then you probably won’t be relieved to see me say that I do consider myself a Kanye fan, albeit a pretty clear-eyed one. Here’s the deal: he is, fundamentally, a maddening mixture of genius and charlatan. And Yeezus, more than anything he has ever done before, is exemplary of this. On one hand, it demonstrates the artistic reinvention that we all rightfully laud Kanye for, as he is ostensibly taking a risk by moving into dark, confrontational territory. Think a little bit more, though, and this move doesn’t appear nearly as bold as Kanye would have you believe. Even if you disregard the fact that dark, confrontational, and nihilistic rap broke through in the early ’90s, recent artists (Odd Future and The Weeknd come to mind) have done just fine for themselves in the commercial sector with dark music. The waters that Kanye is stepping into here are well tested, and he knows it.
As for the album itself, the rumors of its supposed intensity have been seriously exaggerated. This is a dark record, without a doubt, but it’s not really dark in any way that would limit it from being popularly acceptable. Talking about fisting and abortion isn’t exactly conventional, sure, but for fans of rap — which generally promises to inundate you with sex and violence whenever you plug in — it’s not really shocking. Kanye’s timing couldn’t have been worse, either, because just last year Death Grips broke through with The Money Store, the actual intensity of which puts Yeezus to absolute shame. West’s attempts at sounding angry and unhinged hit spectacularly a few times, like on choice cuts “New Slaves” and “I’m In It,” but just as often they come off as ineffectual (at best) or unintentionally funny (at worst). The absolute nadir may be “Black Skinhead,” with Kanye weakly yelping over a flimsy, faux-industrial stomp. In those moments, it becomes hard to take the album seriously, yet the album seems to demand a reverent level of seriousness.
My least favorite kind of record is one that purports to be experimental as a defense mechanism, when it’s actually just lazy or flippantly bizarre. Well, as Rick Rubin enlightens us, Kanye recorded the vocals for half of the songs and wrote the lyrics to “two or three” in the 48 hours before the album was due — not exactly Kevin Shields-level studio perfectionism. The rushed nature of Yeezus’s recording comes through pretty obviously in the final product, which occasionally demonstrates shockingly careless songcraft (on some of the tracks Kanye couldn’t even be bothered to write basic transitions) and some questionable vocal takes. These weaknesses are made even more dumbfounding by the fact that they were huge strengths on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And, to add to the confusion, there are a handful of truly great songs (“New Slaves,” which is the only song here that fully lives up to the legacy of ’90s industrial rock, “Blood on the Leaves,” “I’m In It,” “Guilt Trip”) on Yeezus that make the questionable and sloppy ones (“On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” “I Am A God”) look even worse by comparison.
The disappointing part about Yeezus is that the missteps, like the Suicide-echoing “I Am A God,” aren’t really bad; they have good ideas, they just aren’t always well executed. When Suicide throws piercing screams into “Frankie Teardrop,” they work because they make sense; they work in conjunction with the narrative to shock the listener; and they are deliberately placed to take advantage of the song’s atmosphere. When Kanye adds similar screams in “I Am A God,” all it does is derail an already jagged and barely functional song. Maybe this kind of music just isn’t Kanye’s forte, but the sporadic greatness in this album makes me doubt that. My guess is that Kanye, unfortunately, really is “learning to give…no fucks.” The fatally uneven but half-brilliant Yeezus certainly seems that way.