Sunday 23 June 2013

Yeezus: Reviewing an Ego

Out of all quotes our civilization has yet come up with my favorite remains one by Mr. Led Zeppelin himself Robert Plant who said that "Led Zeppelin's mediocre was better than anyone else's best." I'm guessing you hate that quote, as most do, but I love it; and not even ironically. The celebrity is a song and dance made for our enjoyment. Even in awards shows where these puppets are hoisted up by their strings onto stages and given gold that they can't even sell the cameras still role, why? It's all for us. So it brings me a smile when someone doesn't play along. Kanye West might have taken that mic out of Taylor Swift's hands and started rambling on about Beyonce's music video; but put a warm fire next to Taylor Swift for too long and once she's a melted sludge on the floor we'll know she was plastic all along. Even if you think Kanye West is an arsehole; by acting like he's a god among mere mortals the man has made himself seem very human for a celebrity; or at the least a very unapproachable human. 

Or maybe it's just an act; a guy who's in on the big joke and has decided to swindle the whole system. Although if he's as good a showman as he thinks he is we'll never know if it's one way or the other. Surely it doesn't matter anyway, it's the music that counts isn't it? Sometimes, although definitely not for West, who's went a lot further than self-referential lyrics to blur the persona he's created for himself and the music he makes. What is Kanye West's beautiful dark twisted fantasy? Probably a world where he gets to be rich and famous without anyone actually liking him; a glaring contradiction of a world where people all over hand over cash for music from a man they publicly despise. Maybe West is a distorted symbol of the fast-food culture the music industry has ground itself into; everyone comes and goes so easily, most people don't care who or what is behind their music as long as it gives them that instant buzz. West might not have a game plan but even subconsciously he's seeing how far he can push the boat of public ridicule out without drowning himself; and he's doing a pretty good job so far. 

There is of course a reason why people let him push that boat out; he's good at what he does. It's nothing new, it's the same strand of thought as "if we accept Elvis is a raging drug addict, and an all around bit of a dick, then I guess we won't be getting any more music from the king?" and the man must be good because he's got me, an ardent cynic of new music and rock fan, listening. I managed to Spotify the remainder of his cataloge a few days before Yeezus his new album released. His cataloge has large drops in quality here and there, but the man can sleep easy knowing he's got one of the most organic music careers ever. Doing an album like 808s & Heartbreak, a quieter album with personal lyrics all sang on auto-tune wasn't exactly the best option financially, yet neither was it one-for-the-fans, it was an album he probably had to make to progress personally. After Dark Twisted Fantasy, West could have made another lush sounding album, and like it's predecessor it could have featured the full spectrum of emotions, but instead he's made a raw sounding album that strips away all emotions and colours conjured up with MBDTF and has made what he needed to make. From the second you hit play you should be able to tell that this won't be as major a seller as most of his albums, and is harder to embrace than anything else he's done yet, but it's also the only thing I could think of that West could do after Dark Fantasy that wouldn't be repeating or cheapening past success. 
It's even visible on that front cover; at first seeming horrifically uncreative, yet fitting perfectly with the albums sound. Dark Fantasy had a style all to itself, so much that even the singles from that album featured drawings in the same art style; it's front cover was a blunt statement that helped paint the tracks on the album. What could have went onto the Yeezus box but a blank CD case? A picture of West maybe, although he would have to be alone, and in black and white, to really give the sense of how stripped back this album is. For a rapper, and one that frequently deals in the bombast of his samples, my only point of reference was the primal anger of Joy Division's Closer. 

My first listen of the album was a strange experience. It had already been uploaded to Spotify the day before, but it was late at night and I felt drowsy, and I think it's even more showing of my excitement for the album that I waited until the next day to listen; my head telling me that the album would somehow be spoiled if I didn't feel built up for it. But when I got to the end of the album for the first time I felt a strange disappointment; disappointed because it was a well made album yet I had only really enjoyed one track. A bit like being in the worlds best nightclub and not enjoying yourself. Even from that listen I could tell people would be lapping this album up, and I was just standing on the outside feeling left out. 

That one song I did like was Black Skinhead. It's the most raw thing on here; the song starts up with an opening drum beat (which my mother so kindly pointed out sounds like the opening of a Gary Glitter song) before Kanye starts to rap. The music in the background almost fades out of your mind, West's voice takes over the song. Like his voice overpowers everything around it. It's energetic stuff for sure, and each chorus builds up faster and faster, eventually being released by West's screaming of "and you know it, and you know it!", it shouldn't really work that well; the musical parts of the songs aren't even memorable and lyrically West is still doing his "I'm a monster" shtick. But I was playing this song on endless repeat; something about the anger of the song, about the way the beat in the background seemed to organically arrange itself in line with West's lyrics; I was drawn in. 

But that's only one song right? It wasn't until after I finished my first listen, and my endless repeats of Black Skinhead, that I noticed how much I liked this album. I went back to my playlist of musical comfort food and found I couldn't listen to any of it. It was all so manufactured and tampered with, no matter what I listened to there was a wall between me and the music. It had been put there by studio sound equipment and hot shot composers. I couldn't listen to anything else for the rest of night, I had to stick with Yeezus because everything else felt so dulled out. I say JD's Closer shared that same primal coldness throughout, yet that's a slow moody album, Yeezus is fast and angry. The lyrics here aren't the same poetic reflections that made up Ian Curtis' songs, here they're so blunt and personal that if some of them weren't so memorable I'd accuse West of making them up on the spot. 
I did manage to get back into other music (panic over) and I got around to listening to Yeezus again. In the end I still don't like all the songs here, at times it struck me as more of a mood piece with the whole nihilistic tone and minimalistic samples; for the first time in a Kanye West album the end message is the most important thing. It's an album you have to stay with for awhile; and not just because I went in expecting another Dark Fantasy, I'm saying that because there is a heart to this album; West is letting out an internal rage and with it letting out more secrets of that unlikeable persona, you just have to give it time to sink in. Album opener In Sight has West announce his return with a boast that "a monster about to come alive again" as if the man isn't even trying to hide that his whole persona is a lie, that he's really such an in-control guy deep down, and like many other lines in this album West doesn't even make you want to hate him anymore, he just straight-up asks for such hate instead. And for the first time West actually opens up on the contradictions of his persona with lines like "soon as they like you make 'em unlike you"; this is a man who understands the game, and knows it's a lot of smoother ride if everyone already has you pegged. 

The rest of the album is actually full on experimental. It's telling the most listenable thing on the album is Blood On The Leaves, which shows West is still getting better at this whole sampling thing; using Strange Fruits, a song from 1939 that's main subject matter is the lynching of black folk. It fits the slower pace of the song nicely, but like all songs on here the disorientating production almost makes this song scary, and I mean Alice In Chains style scary; when the ego-trip of I Am God completely cuts off into the sounds of West screaming and panting the album hits a claustrophobic high point; I'm guessing West wanted this album scary, and that he didn't want it dance-y, because even with the support of Daft Punk there's no real rhythm to be found here; as I say there are beats and spikes of emotion on here; it just takes a while for your brain to scan them out. Take a song like New Slaves, which for the first two thirds supplants itself as West's most direct attack on racism yet, but then the whole song morphs, suddenly the background musics has changed and it's Frank Ocean on vocal duties. At first I would have said that something like that was messy, not necessarily bad just unneeded and random, but looking back at the album nothing that well put together could really be messy. These strange tonal shifts start to make sense after a bit, and the weird aspects of this albums production start to make sense in most places. Not an easy album, but certainly an example of what a "rewarding album" is. 
The level of quality isn't sustained though; by the time I got to the last few tracks the experimental aspects had started to turn into a drag and the solid lyrics on the rest of the album flew right past my head here. The tone is kept up, I guess Kanye just ran out of ideas of what to do with it. Not that I cared that much anyway, there's great stuff on this album and if your into this raw style then you'll be spending a long time with this album despite it's flaws. 

All of this experimentation and even the odd line in reference to his family and (at the time) upcoming child doesn't mean he's done with blatant controversy though, or what would a line like "Eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce" be doing here. I don't condemn a line like that, because while this album's protesters will never admit it, the fact that that line is their purely for the controversy is exactly the point. 9/10 

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