Pet Grief : Yeezus, The National and underachieving

Jeff Terich
Treble's editor airs his grievances

Kanye West closed an epic rant at the Governors Ball music festival last month by sneering, “I don’t really give a fuck about outside opinions.”

In context, all he’s really saying is all any frustrated artist has said after enduring the trivialities of the industry machine. Or having to jump through the hoops of a needlessly complicated promo cycle. Or having to kiss up to corporate sponsorship in the interest of opening another channel to an otherwise dwindling pool of industry profits.

But after listening to his new album Yeezus with a critical ear, I can only reach the conclusion that when Kanye West says he doesn’t “give a fuck about outside opinions,” he just doesn’t want anyone to tell him that his ideas are bad. And while I might be in the minority, if not the first to say so, there are a lot of bad ideas on Yeezus.

Let me clarify: Yeezus is not a bad album. On the contrary, it’s actually a pretty good album. Production-wise, it’s a monster, all booming and terrifying industrial beats and basslines. Certain touches of dancehall reggae enter the picture and somehow Yeezus becomes even more sinister. Daft Punk, Rick Rubin and TNGHT are all over it, and for sheer sonic quality, it’s one of the most striking 40 minutes of music Kanye’s ever released.

But, see, the lyrics are fucking terrible. I’m not even going to hem and haw about this. They’re awful. Rubin said that West wrote a lot of the lyrics about an hour or two before recording them, and it sounds like it. The album is full of the self-aggrandizement, male rage and outright hostility that populates a lot of hip-hop records, but here, it seems more half assed than usual. He somehow equates objectifying women with civil rights (“Your titties, let ‘em out/ free at last”), demands a croissant after declaring himself a God (which is kinda funny, I guess), and — this is particularly rich, given the weird appropriations of black power imagery — apparently prefers cunnilingus with Asian girls accompanied by… cough… sweet and sour sauce. There’s more where that came from, but on quite a bit of his worst lines, he vomits Auto-tune all over them, or just lets Justin Vernon do the heavy lifting because, apparently, he’s a permanent part of the Kanye posse. #holocene

To be fair, Kanye has never been a great rapper, but at least in the past, he hedged his shortcomings with a level of humanity that made him endearing because of them, rather than in spite of them. He was obnoxious then, but likably so, and part of that is because it was easy to see how much work he put into his music, and how much he actually seemed to give a shit. Now he petulantly barks that he’s a God without giving his listeners sufficient justification for why he thinks that is. Perhaps it’s tongue-in-cheek, but Kanye has always been a bit too self-important for me to fully buy that. It’s hard not to be reminded of Pete Campbell of Mad Men, who in Season 5 hires a prostitute to fulfill the fantasy of being told he’s her “master.”

Just recently I gave a spin to Graduation, an album generally not considered his best, but I found it much more satisfying on the whole than Yeezus, and while it certainly has a handful of bum tracks (“Barry Bonds,” “Drunk and Hot Girls”), it never comes off as antagonistic to the listener. Sure, Yeezus is noisy, and it’s loud, and it’s intense, but it’s not like this is a Death Grips album; Kanye has a long way to go before he can freak the shit out of an audience like Stefan Burnett can (though being ripped and screaming a lot will help with that). And exploring his not-so-beautiful dark twisted fantasies isn’t really making his music any edgier — I nearly flipped over a table when someone compared it to a Swans album. An angry male with little perspective beyond his own dick is not edgy — it’s pretty much the history of Western Civilization, and it’s an extremely tiresome stereotype at this point. As with any hip-hop album that pushes buttons, it’s perhaps best to look deeper than what’s on the surface, and not to take everything at face value. But the problem is that the surface is so shallow, it’s hard to find any depth. There’s nothing particularly shocking about it, and that’s essentially what makes it so offensive.

Kanye West has proven himself one of the most gifted hip-hop artists of our generation — he can do better than the status quo, and he would have made an even stronger statement by exploring something much darker and more compelling, rather than just the rants of an everyday, run-of-the-mill dick. He could have taken some notes from Trent Reznor, who imbued a line like “I wanna fuck you like an animal” with a bloodthirsty menace — and yet, didn’t come off nearly as unlikable. Frankly, the production here seems wasted on a personality who apparently can’t be bothered to push his own lyrics into more compelling territory.

This might not necessarily bother anyone who doesn’t listen to Yeezus for the lyrics. You almost have to listen to Yeezus for reasons other than the lyrics. But Yeezy’s outsized personality is much harder to ignore than a subtler vocalist like, for instance, Matt Berninger of The National. The National, however, is exactly the kind of band that people listen to precisely for the lyrics, even if they’re delivered in more muted palettes and softened tones. And when I first listened to Trouble Will Find Me, I didn’t necessarily see any problem with Berninger’s lyrics for, on the whole, every element of the album sounded exactly as I expected it to. Not that it bothers me — it’s an excellent album, but it sounds exactly as a National album typically sounds.

Still, when it was released I was surprised to stumble upon a fair amount of complaints, mostly on social media or message boards, about how little spark there was to the lyrical content. Treble alum Anthony Strain was mystified that Berninger couldn’t have come up with something more poetic than “I need my girl.” And there are plenty of other examples of lines that don’t land with the grace they should (e.g. “It’s not a fever/It’s a freezer”; “I was teething on roses/ I was in guns and noses”). Full disclosure: I initially laughed at the “guns and noses” line, but I also think that a band like The National, whose music is subtle almost to a fault, benefits from the occasional moment of directness or silliness. It cuts through what can, with the wrong move, turn to background music very quickly. For what it’s worth, some of my favorite moments are those in which Berninger scraps the muted, inward-looking verses and comes unhinged, like on “Abel” or “Mr. November.” Maybe that makes me a luddite or something. I’m okay with that.

I think The National have a particular comfort zone, but I don’t, however, think that The National are lazy. At this point, they might be a little risk averse, but they’re also very good at what they do, so much that they don’t even really need to take too many risks. As long as their songs continue to be as airtight and affecting as they are, then there’s not a great need to shake things up. It just might be more fun that way.

Kanye West is almost exactly the opposite; taking risks is what he does best. But I almost feel as if he didn’t take the right kind of risks with Yeezus. If he says that he’s a God, and projects himself onto buildings, that God should be eating planets and growing extra heads instead of dropping pedestrian blow-job jokes. It’s a little like getting a Kevin Smith film after being promised Stanley Kubrick. Kanye West also isn’t lazy, and on a musical level, particularly in the mainstream, he remains almost untouchable. So it’s a shame that, lyrically, he released a rough draft as a finished product. Kanye is reportedly releasing a sequel to Yeezus later this year, and chances are it will be cut from a similar cloth, but if there’s any hope for it being better, then maybe he should start working on the lyrics a little earlier this time.

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