I encountered hip-hop music for the first time when I was ten years old. I remember bringing home a cassette of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle; the album’s iconography was brash in its explicit display of pugilistic eroticism (I borrow this term from a bell hooks film entitled Cultural Criticism and Transformation). Aesthetically the music was smooth, full of funk-infused hard-thumping gangster rhythms. Shortly afterwards, my parents found the cassette and took it away; this experience was also my first introduction into the world of censorship. Perhaps John Milton might have rethought his defense for the freedom of the press in his Areopagitica had he encountered gangster rap, although perhaps he would have deemed it a good starting place for a conversation. One of the things I appreciate about Kanye’s latest record, Yeezus, is the zealous discussion it started.
Kanye has always had a unique ability to spark conversation, controversy, debate, praise, and vehement responses to his persona and music—the two are often inseparably conflated. We all remember Kanye’s controversial statement that then American President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” or his interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV music awards. Few musicians today are lauded or despised with the same fervor Kanye provokes. He went from a sought after producer to a rap god of his own making. Essentially, from “Jesus Walks” to I am “Yeezus,” or “I am a God” as he repeats over and over (with some hyperbole) as the egoist’s mantra on his sixth studio offering, Yeezus. I admit the first time I heard Yeezus I didn’t quite enjoy the experience or know what to make of it. Kanye’s music has always been intensely well produced, but here the concentration reaches new heights of desperation, self-deprecation and self-praise, as he howls into the void of his own notoriety with a clanging industrial reboot of his 2008 effort, 808s & Heartbreak.
In some ways Yeezus is the antithesis to the maximalism of West’s last solo effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The beats are often sparse and what I really appreciate about Yeezus is how the record dances with silence. Traded in for the smooth soul samples are jarring electro and industrial grindings somewhat in the vein of Trent Reznor. And while Yeezus might change or influence the course of rap and pop music it does so largely on the craftsmanship of those who have come before him. The album would be much more impressive if hip-hop poet Saul Williams and Trent Reznor hadn’t already released The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! back in 2007, an ode to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. The differences and similarities between Niggy Tardust! and Yeezus are startling, although gone from Kanye’s album is much of the slick wordplay and social commentary found in Williams’s lyricism, which makes sense given Williams is a gifted poet, and while Kanye is a talented producer, he is hardly the poet laureate of hip-hop.
West’s album owes much of its sound to a long list of industrial hip-hop innovators, from the British trip-hop of Massive Attack, Dizzee Rascal, Roots Manuva, and Portishead, to modern innovators of the American industrial hardcore hip-hop sound including Death Grips, Odd Future, and the incredibly talented EL-P. This is not to say that the production on Yeezus is subpar. It’s actually quite fantastic— Kanye’s ability to make dope beats has never really been a concern. What was most alarming to Kanye fans was his choice to trade in soul samples for more electronic, synth-heavy, and abrasive dense drums, subtonic bass sounds, and trebles that clip off the meter—although there are a couple soul samples thrown in here and there, particularly on the track “Bound 2” which samples “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins Plus One. One of the first samples I noticed was on the thumping “Black Skinhead,” which samples the drums of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” The involvement of veteran producers Rick Rubin and Daft Punk—rule breakers and consummate craft makers of popular music—help the album sound incredibly tight: the whole dizzying affair is only forty minutes long. In fact, the album grows on you like a fungus until you can’t help but be taken in by its infectious ziggurat of sound.
Kanye reminds us that pop music has always been a hybrid activity, mixing styles while creating new trends in the process. Static pop music as a kind of symbolic whiteness becomes dubious under the threat of atrophic productions that marry a variety of styles and themes. As music journalist John Leland argues in Hip: the history, it was the recording industry of the twentieth century that created the arbitrary separation of music into genres in order to meet market demands. In the early twentieth century many itinerant African American as well as white performers played a mix of minstrel tunes, ballads, folk songs, blues, and rags. Leland contents that “Black performers became blues singers in the studio, dropping their other master at the door; whites became hillbilly singers. The blues singer, then, was an invention of the studio, and often white record executives” (36). Are not the blues, jazz, and hip-hop mercurial forms that welcome deviance by their very nature? Kanye’s Yeezus does an excellent job of challenging and defying genre expectation—who would have thought that Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” (most famously sung by Billie Holiday and written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem) would be remixed into a piercing electro-pop anthem about consumption, alimony, and abortion with West’s emblematic and dichotomic blending of the sacred and profane.
Most of the lyrics on the album aren’t all too deep; rather, they are sexually provocative and often misogynistic, such as: “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth” (“New Slaves”); “Careless whispers, eye fucking, biting ass / Neck, ears, hands, legs, eating ass / Your pussy’s too good, I need to crash / Your titties, let em out, free at last” (“I’m in It”); “Uh, black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign / And grabbed it with a slight grind / And held it till the right time / Then she came like AAAAAHHH!” (I’m in It”). I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Given the historical arch on songs like “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “Blood on the Leaves,” sex and miscegenation is put into a historical present where Kanye’s own relationship with Kim Kardashian is a case example of the negative attention he gets (in his opinion) in the spotlight for dating and having a child with a white girl—or for dating a Kardashian. I am reminded of the young Haitian narrator of Danny Laferrière’s How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired, who answers back with virulent force to a history “not interested in us” (30) through sexual intercourse with white women: “I’m here to fuck the daughter of these haughty diplomats who once whacked us with their sticks […] history hasn’t been good to us, but we can always use it as an aphrodisiac” (95). Miscegenation is a running thread in the album, which can be extended to the technique of Kanye’s own productions creating a mix that can only be described as an “unholy matrimony” (to borrow from Kanye’s own words in “Blood on the Leaves”).
No song is more captivating and explicitly concentrated then “Blood on the Leaves” whose title riffs on a line from “Strange Fruit,” referring to lynched black bodies. I still don’t know quite know how to feel about the use of the Nina Simone sample (particularly the chosen lines: “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”; “Blood on the leaves”; “Black bodies, swinging in the summer breeze”). The line “blood on the leaves” first appears on “New Slaves” and there is a direct connection between being a modern slave (largely to corporate superstructures) to Kanye being hung by his own guilt around his notoriety, fame, coupled with themes of divorce, betrayal, abortion, and the loss of a past love, he raps:
Before the limelight stole ya
Remember we were so young
When I would hold you
Before the blood on the leaves
I know there ain’t wrong with me
Something strange is happening
“Blood on the Leaves” uses the background of lynching to talk about infidelity and the loss of love as if the two are somehow equivocal:
Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side
Gotta keep em separated, I call that apartheid
Then she said she impregnated, that’s the night your heart died
Then you gotta go and tell your girl and report that
Main reason cause your pastor said you can’t abort that
That going to that owing money that the court got
All in on that alimony, uh, yeah-yeah, she got you homie
Til death but do your part, unholy matrimony
“Unholy Matrimony” is right. Only Kanye would think that divorce, betrayal, and the dilemma of dealing with a mistress who evidently will not abort your baby are akin to lynching. Or perhaps, in the way that “Strange Fruit” was an anti-lynching anthem, the song is as Nicholas Troester describes, an “anti-abortion anthem.” Conceivably, the inherent juxtaposition and grotesque discomfort experienced by the listener from the “Strange Fruit” sample with West’s lyrics is the point—but is it the right point and is it lost on his listeners? For me, auto-tune has never sounded more haunting than it does on “Blood on the Leaves” as Kanye’s voice flutters and breaks with a heightened dose of self-pitying clatter.
Kanye is the centerpiece of his album—as he usually is—and he inserts himself as a case study for his critiques of materialism and race within the context of his fame: “They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong / Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin” (“Black Skinhead”). The album is full of self-parody and monstrous spectacle and more than anything it gets us talking about Kanye, which might actually get us talking about the performance of race and the consumerism Kanye critiques in his own complicity. Given the mere 40 minutes running time, Yeezus packs quite the punch, which is why I think critics loved the album so much. As Griel Marcus argues, “The job of the critic would be to maintain the ability to be surprised at how the conversation goes, and to communicate that sense of surprise to other people, because a life infused with surprise is better than a life that is not” (23). As long as Kanye continues to surprise his fans and critics alike he will have a forum to make music (despite the album leaking a week early, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 327, 000 copies in its first week). Yeezus is often a great album, but it is hardly the unequivocal industrial hip-hop album of its style. Is it full of misogyny and hedonistic self-aggrandizing bravado? Of course—it wouldn’t be a Kanye West album if it weren’t. While Yeezus is not an album for everyone, nor is it an album everyone should like, it started some interesting conversations and helped to open up a level of musical critique that I felt was absent for too long in popular music criticism.
Laferrière, Dany. How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired. Toronto: Coach House, 1987. Print.
Leland, John. Hip: the history. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.
Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.