10:25am

Fri June 21, 2013
Music Reviews

On 'Yeezus,' Kanye West Sounds Strikingly Self-Aware

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 11:28 am

Kanye West is having some serious fun with us on his new album, Yeezus, starting with the title; it's a play on his nickname, Yeezy, and his penchant for placing himself just this side of the Son of God in terms of cultural importance. That's just the first clue as to how assiduously aggressive and transgressive West wants to be on this album. Over the course of Yeezus, he cuts across boundaries — musical genres, historical references, good taste — with slashing rhythms and precise wordplay that will strike some as lacking in hip-hop beauty. My reaction upon first hearing the whole album all the way through has remained firm throughout subsequent listens: This is a strikingly unified, eloquently ugly record that demands, boldly but also desperately, beseechingly, to be heard.

"Black Skinhead" samples Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" to bolster its rebellious lyric. It's too easy to hear a lot of the sentiments on this album as merely arrogant, a quality West has done little to downplay in a recent interview with The New York Times in which he compares himself most favorably to innovators such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, or in a song title such as "I Am a God."

But that song has already yielded a funny phrase that's been repeated all over the Internet, with the highly self-aware Kanye posing as a pampered star, snapping at the staff of a French restaurant to hurry up with his order: "I am a god so hurry up with my damn massage and a French-ass restaurant. Hurry up with my damn croissants."

Kanye West remains a good collaborator: The album's numerous producers include the French duo Daft Punk, while Rick Rubin, who's worked with everyone from Black Sabbath to Johnny Cash, says he was brought in by West near the completion of the record to help strip down the sound. One result is that this album's diverse, cacophonous music fills even his most hostile lyrics with dread. I think you have to hear it in many moments as the cry of a man who wants the world to know how vulnerable and self-conscious and shrewd he is every time he presents a resentful, tough-guy, I'm-a-genius image to the world.

Some people have been scandalized by the song "Blood on the Leaves" — scandalized that a black artist as erudite as Kayne West could take Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" and turn its devastating metaphor for lynched slaves into a whine about difficulties he's having with the women in his life. The album is shot through with sex — talk about how much the singer likes it, but also how much he uses it as yet another power strategy.

But scandal is what West uses as a come-on, before diving deeper. His tabloid romance with Kim Kardashian is, whatever their private relationship may be, practically designed to drive serious people nuts — how could, the feeling goes, one of the most gifted contemporary performers find satisfaction with a reality-TV star? Yet this is the way West likes his art: superficially messy, only to reveal itself as rigorous, something joyous or tortured, and which invariably proves more complex than it appears. Give the man some croissants, will ya?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Kanye West has been busy in both the music and the gossip worlds. He's just released a new album called "Yeezus" and last weekend he became a father when his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, gave birth do a girl. Rock critic Ken Tucker says West's constant blending of his public life and his music makes his new album all the more striking - and sometimes more problematic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KANYE WEST: (rapping) What you doing in the club on a Thursday? She said she only here for a girl birthday. They order champagne but still look thirsty. Rock forever 21 but just turned 30. I know I got a bad reputation. Walk around always mad reputation.

(rapping) Leave a pretty girl sad reputation. Start a fight club bad reputation. I turn the nightclub...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Kanye West is having some serious fun with us on his new album, "Yeezus," starting with the title. It's a play on his nickname, Yeezy, and his penchant for placing himself in cultural importance just this side of the Son of God. And that's just the first clue as to how assiduously aggressive and transgressive West wants to be on this album.

Over the course of this collection, he cuts across boundaries of musical genres, historical references and good taste, with slashing rhythms and precise wordplay that will strike some as lacking in hip-hop beauty. My reaction upon first hearing the whole album all the way through has remained firm throughout subsequent listenings. This is a strikingly unified, eloquently ugly record that demands, boldly but also desperately, beseechingly, to be heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK SKINHEAD")

WEST: (rapping) Got my theme song, my leather black jeans on, my by any means on. Pardon, I'm getting my scream on. Enter the kingdom but watch who you bring home. They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gonna come to kill King Kong. Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin. Number one question they asking (bleep) every question you asking.

(rapping) If I don't get ran out by Catholics, here come some conservative Baptists. Claiming I'm overreacting like the black kids in Chiraq, bitch.

TUCKER: That's "Black Skinhead" samples Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" to bolster its rebellious lyric. It's too easy to hear a lot of the sentiments on this album as merely arrogant, a quality West has done little to downplay in a recent interview with The New York Times, comparing himself most favorably to innovators such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, or in a song title such as "I Am a God."

But that song has already yielded the funniest phrase that's been repeated all over the Internet, with the highly self-aware Kanye posing as a pampered star, snapping in a French restaurant to hurry up with his order of croissants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM A GOD")

WEST: (rapping) I am a god so hurry up with my damn massage and a French-ass restaurant. Hurry up with my damn croissants. I am a god. I am a god. I am a god. I just talked to Jesus. He said what up, Yeezus? I said (beep) I'm chilling, trying to stack these millions. I know he the most high but I am a close high. Me casa su casa.

(rapping) That's our costa nostra. I am a god.

TUCKER: Kanye West remains a good collaborator. The numerous producers include the French duo Daft Punk, and Rick Rubin, who's worked with everyone from Black Sabbath to Johnny Cash, says he was brought in by West near the completion of the album to help strip down the sound.

One result is that this album's diverse, cacophonous music fills even his most hostile lyrics with dread. This dread, I think you have to hear it in many moments as the cry of a man who wants the world to know how vulnerable and self-conscious and shrewd he is, every time he presents a resentful, tough-guy, I'm-a-genius image to the world. I should also say that this next song, as do many here, contains a disparaging term for women.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD ON THE LEAVES")

NINA SIMONE: (singing) Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Blood on the leaves.

WEST: (rapping) I just need to clear my mind, now. It's been racing since the summertime.

SIMONE: (singing) Leaves.

WEST: (rapping) Now I'm holding down the summer now.

SIMONE: (singing) Leaves.

WEST: (rapping) And all I want is what I can't buy now.

SIMONE: (singing) Blood on the leaves.

WEST: (rapping) 'Cause I ain't got the money on me right now. And I told you to wait.

SIMONE: (singing) Leaves.

WEST: (rapping) Yeah, I told you to wait.

SIMONE: (singing) Leaves.

WEST: (rapping) So I'm a need a little more time now.

SIMONE: (singing) Blood on the leaves.

WEST: (rapping) 'Cause I ain't got the money on me right now. And I thought you could wait. Yeah, I thought you could wait.

SIMONE: (singing) Leaves.

WEST: (rapping) These bitches surrounding me.

SIMONE: (singing) Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.

WEST: (rapping) All want something of me. Then they talk about me.

SIMONE: (singing) Breeze.

WEST: (rapping) Would be lost without me. We could've been somebody.

SIMONE: (singing) Strange fruit hanging...

WEST: (rapping) Thought you'd be different about it.

SIMONE: (singing) ...on the poplar trees.

WEST: (rapping) Now I know you not it.

SIMONE: (singing) On the poplar trees.

WEST: (rapping) So let's get on with it. We could've been somebody...

TUCKER: Some people have been scandalized by the song "Blood on the Leaves" - scandalized that a black artist as erudite as Kayne West could take Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" and turn its devastating metaphor for lynched slaves into a whine about difficulties he's having with the women in his life. The album is shot through with sex - talk about how much the singer likes it, but also how much he uses it as yet another power strategy.

But scandal is what West uses as a come-on, before diving deeper. His tabloid romance with Kim Kardashian is, whatever their private relationship may be, practically designed to drive serious people nuts. How could, the feeling goes, one of the most gifted contemporary performers find satisfaction with a reality-TV star?

Yet this is the way West likes his art: superficially messy, only to reveal itself as rigorous, something joyous or tortured, and which invariably proves more complex than it appears. Give the man some croissants, will ya?

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker reviewed the new Kanye West album "Yeezus." You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.