During the month following his performance of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live, there was a lot of talk that Kanye West’s Yeezus would be dark, abrasive, and challenging. West described his new sound as “aspiration minimalism” in a rare and quickly legendary New York Times interview. Some speculated that the album would tilt towards industrial rock based on the (probably wrong) assumption that “Black Skinhead” sampled Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.”
Reports of the album’s stark sound ring true. It’s a good one too, although I like it and do not love it. It is a wholly separate creature from his College Trilogy albums and is a million miles away from the rich, lush sound of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The closest precedent for Yeezus is the lonely 808s & Heartbreak. However, 808s gave us a heartbroken Kanye, whereas the Kanye of Yeezus sounds hateful. “On Sight” should score the birth of villain, a merciless electro-lord fueled by rage and vengeance. Kanye cops to the fact that he looks to not be having fun 90 percent of the time in the NYT interview, but Yeezus sounds like it wants to banish fun altogether. Our rapper turned artist turned villain turned redeemed soul has taken a scorched earth approach towards critics once thought slain.
Normally I love music this raw, but I’m not sure that I like this version of Kanye. From a position of anger, his jokes have less punch and his confessions less soul. Steven Hyden had it very right when he wrote:
“Is Kanye a good person?” has been a running question on all of his records; this is the first time West hasn’t allowed for the possibility that the answer might be “yes.”
His entire body of work refutes that Kanye is a bad person, but within the context of Yeezus, this is almost entirely true. “Bound 2” comes closest to softening the album, but he doesn’t approach College Dropout era likeability.
The song that I’ve kept thinking about since Yeezus dropped is “Everything I Am.” Graduation was a considerably less harsh album, but even it required a digestive. “Everything I Am” is sincere, even sappy. There’s a little swagger, a little confession and social consciousness, all wrapped up in a charmingly vulnerable package. Kanye steps out of playing the megalomaniacal character and shows that, behind the curtain, he gets it. The chorus, poetry worthy of a high school yearbook, contains everything you need to decipher the him as an artist. I don’t think meant to do so at the time, but “Everything I Am” is the truest thing that Kanye would ever write about Kanye.