When Kanye West first released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, his celebrity had reached its peak, or so we all thought. No album that year dominated as absolutely — critically, commercially, artistically, musically, culturally. Not only did it go platinum, but hip-hop intellectuals loved it. Not only was it a towering tour de force, a crazed, wacked-out, seriously hubristic display of virtuosity, but its songs conquered the radio, especially the platinum “Power” and the triple-platinum “All of the Lights.” Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, Time, The A.V. Club, Billboard, Slant, and the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll all named it album of the year. PopMatters, Rhapsody, Consequence of Sound, Paste and countless others named it a runner-up. Everybody everywhere got ridiculously, insanely excited about this album, and with good reason. Even now, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy stands as West’s clearest, most comprehensive statement on the cult of his own personality. It’s his biggest and most pretentious album, but it’s also the album where his pretensions are gloriously realized in one long bout of cathartic release.
One reason the record feels so epic is because the music is designed that way. Like most rap, it revolves around hooks and beats. But these beats swell and surge, building up to grand climaxes; they pack unprecedented amounts of rich sonic detail into the rap form. West’s fierce mock-gospel choruses, his silky interlocking pianos and strings, his droningly distorted Auto-Tune rants and genius keyboard riffs, the militant electronic cellos that rumble and echo throughout the majestic “So Appalled,” and the huge, thundering, synthy brass hook that is “All of the Lights” are all rooted in glitzy, sumptuous orchestral beds, often eschewing hip-hop groove altogether in favor of something resembling nineteenth-century symphonic structure. Capturing both his extreme emotional state and the obscene material luxury that comes with being a famous rapper, this sheer royal magnificence propels him as he maniacally but masterfully presents his subconscious for all to see. The Kanye West portrayed throughout the album is a manic-depressive, alternately self-deprecating and arrogant, exhilarated and horrified, shocked and intoxicated, hooked on the irresistible, hedonistic compulsion that infuses both hip-hop and celebrity culture even as he indicts it. Scary and exhausting, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy triumphs over his own angry depression.
The Kanye West portrayed on 2013’s Yeezus is equally vivid, but his obsessions have changed. What’s most impressive, audacious, and disturbing about the new album is how blatantly it fucks with racist lies. Where on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West played the wealthy but tortured artist, on Yeezus he’s assumed the role of the ghetto thug turned rich vulgarian. He engages in plenty of brutality; he spends way too much money on clothes and casually drops expensive brand names; he indulges in all sorts of debauchery, taking lots of drugs and having anonymous sex all the time. He associates all this with common clichés about rappers and African-Americans in general, clichés he appropriates subversively, sarcastically, in a show of racial militancy. He declares himself a “Black Skinhead” and compares himself to Martin Lawrence’s parody pimp Jerome. He quotes Martin Luther King to describe his girlfriend’s breasts, complains that alimony cuts into his cocaine fund, and equates consumerism with chattel slavery. “Middle America packed in/Came to see me and my black skin.” “Y’all throwing contracts at me/Y’all know that niggas can’t read.” “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor/They gon’ come to kill King Kong.” And the infamous “Black girl sipping white wine/Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” He’s furious at how the white media fetishizes African-American culture, at how it reduces black people to ugly stereotypes. And he’s throwing these stereotypes back in our ugly faces.
From any other commercial rapper this would be a risky career move, especially without a catchy, radio-friendly single to juice the audience’s expectations. But West is hardly your average commercial rapper. A platinum-coated corporate titan and a full-fledged media hero, he could have recorded a three-hour collection of avant-garde contemporary-classical pieces for flute and harp and no major-label executive would have dared reject it. There are introspective songs on Yeezus; “Guilt Trip” and “Hold My Liquor” are a little more relaxed if not friendlier than the norm, and the breakup elegy “Blood on the Leaves” does reveal what could be sincere vulnerability. But “Blood on the Leaves” is also a tasteless rant against child support, not to mention one of the most racially charged songs on the album, sampling Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to eerie effect. “Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” echoes nervously throughout the song, and the contrast with the self-pitying rich-and-famous lament in West’s lyric is ominous. With its plaintive Simone sample and its rough, scratchy TNGHT hook clashing violently against each other, “Blood on the Leaves” stings and explodes. Never before has a Kanye West album been so hard to listen to.
Musically, Yeezus is crude and cartoonish, like the clichés it hijacks — forty minutes of sheer, unadulterated metal machine music. From the jackhammer squelches that open “On Sight” onward, West’s new sonic palette relies primarily on the grotesque abrasions of modern electronica and the mind-numbing distortions of industrial techno. The same cold buzzsaw synthesizer rips through at least half of these songs as various other sharp, jarring keyboards whomp and shriek, banging out a fierce arsenal of machine-gun percussion tracks. Occasionally a chest-thumping dancehall sample will emerge, or the reassuring baritone of Justin Vernon, but mostly the music is all roiling electronic aggression, immersed in vinegary corrosion, pungent dissonance, and the sound of breaking glass. What’s more, West’s usually coherent orchestral arrangements here tend toward the disjointed and fragmentary, like the way “On Sight” will abruptly lurch into a slow, shuddering gospel sample before resuming its nonstop onslaught, or the way “New Slaves” will march over the same lean, stripped-down keyboard pattern for three minutes before randomly swelling into a big Frank Ocean chorus. Tempos keep shifting, beats keep starting and stopping, textures keep getting harsher.
The closest musical reference here within hip-hop itself is the sweaty, hypnotic violence of Chicago thug rap (hip-hop scholars call this particular subgenre “drill music”), and certified drillers Chief Keef and King L are awarded guest verses. With West playing the thug, this is no accident. Mockingly imitating the formulaic brute, cracking jokes about being a pimp, venting charges against rampant consumerism in African-American culture, his conceptualizing matches the anger in the music exactly, and as an attack on black stereotypes, Yeezus hits hard. However, these stereotypes are often so stupid and vile that the irony just doesn’t matter. West’s wallowing in them does bigotry no harm — especially when he counters racism with misogyny, a rhetorical device any Ice Cube fan should know well. When he snarls “Fuck you and your Hampton house/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse” you can feel his rage, but that’s no reason to subject yourself to “Black dick all in your spouse again/And I know she like chocolate men” or “That’s when David Grutman kicked her out/But I got her back in and put my dick in her MAAAAAAAAAWTTH.” I doubt West’s fiancée Kim Kardashian much appreciates the macho sex fantasies depicted in “On Sight” and “I’m In It,” in which he talks about the female body as if describing a new car.
And then there’s “Bound 2.” Yeezus is dense and prickly only for the first nine out of ten songs. Its denouement is something else entirely, a return to West’s more humane, R&B-flavored style of hip-hop. He interrupts his stream-of-consciousness verse a few times with a drawn-out chorus courtesy of guest Gap Band singer Charlie Wilson. He deepens the music with such details as a buzzing bass under the chorus, a looped voice in the background murmuring “Ooh, all right,” and especially a sassy Brenda Lee sample where she coos “Uh huh honey,” the latter punctuating his sentences and disrupting the flow of the track. Most prominently, he samples the obscure black teenage harmony group Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s 1971 B-side, “Bound,” which you should look up — I first assumed the hook on West’s song was one of his famous sped-up helium samples, but when I listened to the original I discovered that he had actually lowered the pitch. However old the singer actually is, his vocals are piercingly, babyishly high, perfectly complemented by the jangling keyboards that West had the genius to sample as well.
Just barely a child’s voice, awash in innocent wonder and a glee simultaneously sexual and presexual, this is a very different model of adolescence than the one rampaging through the rest of Yeezus — the angelic little boy before he grows up and joins a gang, the eleven-year-old Michael Jackson before he grows up and loses his innocence. Soaring away from sarcasm and irrational rage, its haunting childhood nostalgia evokes a time before hip-hop, a time when wimps who sang falsetto were marketable, a time before masculinist aggression came to dominate African-American youth culture, a time when the bluster West spews throughout Yeezus would be unimaginable if not appalling. “Bound 2” is the best song on this very enjoyable and profoundly flawed album by a mile. Like any great expressionist, Kanye West can make anger and depression sing. But in the end, they just don’t suit him — his gift for the positive is ultimately deeper and more rewarding. Let’s hope Yeezus’s platinum sales and numerous critical accolades make him a whole lot happier very fast.