“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Following intermittent album previews, rumours of being not quite finished, delayed (and consequently leaked) Yeezus has been labelled a number of things. Yeezus has often been deemed “angry”, with West’s new shouting/screaming vocal style marking a strong departure from his first trio of chart-friendly Graduation records; the long winter electronica of 808s and Heartbreaks (which Kanye has since tagged “black new wave”) and the comeback/apologia-dreamscape of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With track titles such as Black Skinhead and New Slaves, Yeezus signals that Kanye is entering a new phase in his career from which there may be no return to the pop-happy days of old.
Kanye West’s albums have always celebrated hyperbole, both in their big production beats and his continued proclamations of “awesomeness”. But except for “I Am God”, Yeezus turns the other cheek on gold and glamour and comes back lusty, hungry and gnashing teeth with a stark j’accuse against an industry famous for its shallow take on turnover before talent. Kanye West and the music he makes, is perhaps best known for three key themes: ego, consumerism and race – and Yeezus takes on all three.
In much of Kanye’s public life, and his music, a solipsistic ego often takes the driving seat leaving the feelings and talent of other artists to ride bitch (excuse the term) and more often than not, it trips him up in a very public way. Rarely before in the world of music has so talented a rapper, beatmaker and producer, done so much to convince us that he is the jackass many believe him to be. Kanye’s virulent ego can sometimes obscure the music, but it is also an essential part of what drives him and makes his albums great.
To come back to the Nietzsche quote, given a none too subtle nod in the Daft Punk “sampling”- Harder, Faster Stronger global smash, much of West’s rampant ego is the true fulfilment of Nietzsche’s own theory called the Will to Power. Much of the positive force of hip-hop is its aspirational tone and the values of self-creation, reacting to and against outside influences or controls to become the person you were meant to be.
Kanye is a prime example of this and his drive attitude slots neatly into the theory of the Will To Power and comes across strongly on Yeezus, an album of decadence and determination.Will to Power is a striving to become what one truly is, to explore your own nature, find the limits of your abilities and attempt to surpass them. In West’s eyes, critics and other “haters” are equated with Nietzsche’s life-deniers, full with “can't” they are inherently negative and exist purely to attack other people’s trying. It’s hard to say whether Yeezus is the pinnacle of this braggadocio on steroids, but in terms of wilful artistic control, it is a definitive statement of kicking against the pricks.
Kanye West has often wrestled with consumerism, the good life and the attraction and repulsion of money, fame and ultimately, possessions (It All Falls Down).But for every song where he admits a weakness for jewellery and supercars, there is another track expressing a desire to walk away from it all (Gone). On Yeezus, Kanye removes much of his artifice, gone are the day-glo shutter shades and cartoon illustrations, replaced by sheer black and white projections of violence and confrontation and a stark honesty on desire and addiction (I’m In It) and the nihilistic emptiness of a decadent life (Hold My Liquor) – it certainly creates an impact to see product break out from its packaging.
There’s another side to the get rich quick mode of Kanye’s stange world. He is often as keen as any other hip-hop entrepreneur to follow in his peers’ footsteps and make himself a commodity with a wide range of Kanye West gear available for sale, but there often comes a time in every brand’s life when it simply has to buck. The low-key, bleak vibe of 808s And Heartbreaks that Kanye came back with following the death of his English Literature academic mother from a botched plastic surgery operation, scared his record label shitless and left many chart-boppers clueless as to the suddent change in direction from the near-formulaic hit factory he had been before. The pervasive use of autotune (to manage a weak singing voice) and the album’s confessional face-to-face over break-ups and loss lead some label execs to request that Kanyne put it out under another name, so as not mess with the carefully constructed “brand” they felt they had helped to create.
In many respects, Kanye West is perhaps the worst person to comment on modern race relations in America. The USA’s first black president, Barack Obama labelled him a “jackass”, much of Kanye’s racial commentary is backwards-facing (referencing Martin Luther King Jr., sampling Gil Scott Heron and turning the most famous Malcolm X line into: “buy any jeans necessary”, a witty stab at buying shit we don’t need; or a glib aside in the popular fashion of reducing everything to pop-culture references? West’s historical focus on the civil rights movement and his own family stake in activism often finds him comparing their struggle to his own life. It’s great to have an awareness of your past, but the rest of the world has moved on from confrontational black power movements towards equality and integration (with very mixed results).
However, you can see a more politically-focused and visceral commentary on race in parts of Twisted… and the Watch The Throne album (which featured classic hip-hop posturing alongside songs about black pride and social inequality) that is carried through to Yeezus. Perhaps things have simply reached breaking point for West and he has gone for broke with Yeezus, an angle which may end up doing more harm than good. But at least a major recording artist is prepared to stand up and make a political stance (take note, skinny indie guitar boys) and acknowledge that racism is still a burning issue and demands to be addressed, no matter who is in charge at the White House.
When it comes to the music, Kanye’s key reference point has often been soul and gospel samples, where everyone else seemed to go hard with the Eighties blended rock and rapping, and Nineties dependence upon synths, West’s music made hip-hop music fun again, providing both changes of light and shade in the tone of each track.
Yeezus veers off from this good times vision (although the racial commentary of Strange Fruit pops up) and makes a definitive statement not dissimilar to punk: throbbing with ego and self-belief, lacerating honesty and attacks on common hypocrisy (New Slaves), anti-artwork and a strippeddown sound that makes for exciting and immediate music. The poppy hooks and deep orchestration are largely torn down, to be replaced by Marilyn Manson samples, jagged synths (Depeche Mode) and poly-rhythmic live drums tracks.
For me, the staying power of many artists is their ability soundtrack a period of one’s life, often a dark winter or a fantastic summer, and for the music to endure alongside the memory. The three Graduation albums have that happy, chart-friendly vibe, with intermittent mood changes to follow. After reaffirming his chart standing and giving the people (and record execs) what they want with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is an aggressive and anti-commercial record () that will still sell millions, just not as many as the label might like. For me the most thing important thing for any artist is to create what they want, without consideration of supermarket returns*, popular opinion or the weight of a back catalogue. Yeezus is probably the beginning of the end, and in terms of going out with an almighty “fuck you”, is all the better for it.
*Oh, and if you don’t like the cover of Yeezus, here’s a few alt design you can print off at home -
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