“I got this new strategy,” said Kanye West at the playback for Yeezus. “It’s called no strategy.” Indeed, the very fact that West was in attendance at this listening event is testament to the musician’s change in modus operandi since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At the time, having been publicly ridiculed, painted as a kind of court jester, West returned to music with one of the best albums of the past decade—and no small amount of drama to match (e.g., pop-up events where West didn’t show until the wee hours). It felt like a cat-and-mouse game, with fans as wretched little mice, subject to West’s whims. So it was a surprise, to say the least, to see the musician at this playback in the Meatpacking District—not just there, but manning the decks and singing along to his own songs with a huge grin on his face.
West has every right to be happy. Yeezus is a monster of an album, finding Kanye at his most freewheeling, creatively. It’s enormously confrontational in places, but its overall tone is as ecstatic as it is menacing (as one fan tweeted: “It’s what u would listen to if u were getting ready to hunt old dopeheads on 125 n Lex w/a LV machine gun”). As usual, West is not shy about celebrating his gifts; one is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quote (to a customs officer), “I have nothing to declare but my genius”—except that here, West has a lot to get off his chest. Most of the tracks on Yeezus address the dreadful architecture of race, explicitly in “New Slaves” (try lines like “All you blacks want the same thing,” and “You know that niggas can’t read” for size), with West all red-eyed machismo (“Fuck you and your Hampton house, I fucked your Hampton spouse”). Part of what’s so captivating about songs like this, though, is that West sets his vocal to stripped-back, stark electronica.
And indeed, the first half of Yeezus is a kind of update on acid house—the beats, the bleeps and the industrial coldness of ’90s warehouse raves. At the playback, West confessed as much, saying, “I’m actually new wave. I hadn’t listened to Joy Division when I grew up, but that’s the reason that 808s [& Heartbreak] came, because it was inside of me. I feel like I know who I am [now].” But because it’s Kanye, nothing is cookie-cutter obvious. The new album’s opener, “On Site,” matches his silky flow to a rave beat, which stops midway through for a classic soul sample, and then resumes (at this point in the playback, West was dancing and clinking his glass with a fan). You’ve doubtless already heard “Black Skinhead” (if you haven’t, you should), which boasts an obscenely huge glam riff, with stomping drums and hand claps—a most white-seeming music form through a defiantly black lens.
But don’t go thinking this is a po-faced, grimly serious record. “I Am a God” has the inspired, hilarious couplet, “In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn crossaints.” Yes, West is saying he’s a god, but with the insistence of a toddler: “I am a god!”—and he knows it.
Yeezus is a sexy record, too. For cynics who suppose West’s relationship with sex-tape/reality-TV empress Kim Kardashian is a big publicity stunt, there’s an as-yet-unnamed track that plays as an ode to fucking (excuse the language, but listen for yourself if you object) that’s outrageously believable: “I need you home when I get off,” he breathes. “You know I need that wet mouth.” And for all West’s strutting, he gives the last song to Kardashian. “Bound” samples a 1971 soul charmer of the same name by Ponderosa Twins Plus One: “Maybe meet at the church steps,” says West to his famously divorced lover. “But first you gotta remember how to forget.”
Other moments of note: At the playback, Jay-Z turned up in a trench coat, in time to request that West play “Coulda Been Something”—which samples Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”—one more time. The album also has a dreamy number featuring both Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and hip-hop firebrand Chief Keef; other guests include Daft Punk and RZA, and Rick Rubin executive produces.
West’s albums have always taken a while to unfold their many, usually extraordinary layers, so of course it’s early to fully evaluate Yeezus—but on the strength of a stunning live show at the Governors Ball, and this playback party, it’s a hell of a ride. As for all the nonsense that’s sure to be talked regarding the album’s title, West closed the playback with an explanation: “West was my slave name, and Yeezus is my God name.” And then he laughed. For all its bleeps and bravado, Yeezus may be West’s most human album yet.
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