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Kanye West crafts pop music masterpiece with 'Yeezus'

Def Jam

By John Lynch, Managing Arts Editor
Published June 20, 2013

In 2011, Watch The Throne presented the rap world with a high-powered portrait of opulence that was well executed but hardly groundbreaking. More importantly, it stood for the next two years as the last project that Kanye West wholeheartedly pursued to completion. According to Jay-Z, the finished version of the album was less radical than The Throne’s initial effort, a project that spawned devilishly dark and over-the-top songs like “H.A.M.” and “Illest Motherfucker Alive” before the duo opted to tone down the epic, operatic hedonism and instead make more accessible tracks in the vein of “Otis” and “Niggas In Paris.” Much of the original material was recorded in Australia and captured in a fascinating 10-minute documentary, which features (among many notable sights and sounds) a down-right-satanic, unreleased beat in the opening minute and Kanye deliberating on how he only wants to make music that “fucks people up.”

While it seems Jay-Z was able to contain Kanye’s ambition on WTT, West’s latest album, Yeezus, epitomizes those radical intentions in an unrestrained, jarring and precocious effort that many will likely find hard to swallow. Orchestrating a team of some of music’s most talented producers — Hudson Mohawke, Daft Punk, Travi$ Scott, Arca and Young Chop — Kanye has crafted an incredibly innovative pop album that both transcends and challenges the worlds of rap, trap and EDM that inspired it.

Unlike anything Kanye has attempted thus far, Yeezus stands as a powerful piece of sound art — an experimental project scientifically executed to disrupt the cerebellum and its ability to keep the mind at equilibrium. The assault commences with “On Sight,” a brusque, Daft-Punk produced opener and CAUTION: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK sign for the mayhem that follows. From the first note of fiendish synth, this introduction acts as Yeezus’s calibration, forcing its audience to adjust to its aggressive sounds and direct, “no fucks given” lyrics, or stop listening altogether.

With only two guest rap verses, Yeezus finds Kanye’s voice dominating the project in a way that it failed to do on 2010’s feature-heavy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Throughout the album, Kanye parlays a variety of energetic flows — occasionally approximating the (ignorant) rawness of rappers like Chief Keef while still managing to retain a certain level of lyricism and wit.

With “Black Skinhead,” his accurately self-proclaimed “theme song,” Kanye dons the visage of a frustrated rock star and attacks the song’s industrial beat — defending his controversial “skinhead” persona and antics by boasting about his successes and screaming that he’s “living in the moment.” On “New Slaves,” Kanye delivers a tirade about the ills of consumerism and the status of blacks in America that is powerful but decidedly hypocritical when one takes Kanye’s lavish lifestyle into account. In the last minute and a half, however, the song turns 180 degrees and enlists Frank Ocean to sing about getting blazed — perhaps contextualizing the track’s first half as nothing more than a spirited high rant.

Despite the album’s dark sonic structure, Kanye conducts most tracks with a sense of humor on par with the comic nature of College Dropout. A towering and blasphemous song like “I Am A God,” for instance, would not work without its tongue-in-cheek approach to egoism, wherein Kanye admits to being a deity that also has to wait on his croissants in a French restaurant. The electronic ambush and amusing erotic fantasies of “I’m In It” showcase perversely comedic lines (“Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce”) and prove that Kanye is more a disciple of Prince’s “Darling Nikki” than Illmatic or Ready To Die. Indeed, with Yeezus, Kanye has abandoned the constructs of rap music to forge a genre of his own.

Yeezus is an entirely singular effort that both borrows and deviates from the rapper’s entire discography of music. On “Hold My Liquor,” Justin Vernon reprises his role of demonic soul singer from MBDTF and Kanye expands on the prototype of his slow-building, EDM “Mercy” verse, but the inclusion of Chief Keef’s codeine-induced hook and the song’s guitar-led, sci-fi conclusion are new wrinkles to West’s canon. For the phenomenal “Blood On The Leaves,” Kanye takes 808s and Heartbreak’s artful approach to autotune and combines it with a Late Registration-style sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” before the revolutionary horns of Hudson Mohawke kick in to take the song to the next level.

With the help of legendary minimalist and executive producer Rick Rubin, Kanye crafted Yeezus into one powerful, concise vision. In order to open the album’s blank physical CD and get to the music, listeners must literally cut through a piece of red tape — a potent symbol of Kanye’s effort to cut through industry bureaucracy and get his work directly to the people. And what a work this is. Yeezus will undoubtedly go down as one of the most experimental albums in pop music history and a career-defining album for a man with a catalog of masterpieces.