Kanye West’s Yeezus is the most confronting album recorded by any mainstream pop star since Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. It packs enough bile and acid into forty minutes to turn you off any form of hip-hop for years, as it attempts to make a virtue out of brutal, joyless, obscene rants powered by bitterness and aggression. With Yeezus, West is being quite consciously provocative and contrary – the whole thing is a gesture designed to shred expectations and confound sensibilities – but it would be reductive to say that he’s simply being deliberately shocking. Instead, he seems to be doing nothing more or less than being his uninhibited self – except that he’s very aware that this in itself is a shocking thing to do, because being himself means being offensive and unattractive in the extreme. Kanye West has long since ceased to be likeable. But on Yeezus, he is becoming outright repulsive.
Sonically, this is the harshest, most unappealing thing West has ever recorded. Gone is the opulent maximalism he pioneered on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; instead, Yeezus is built on cheap-sounding techno beats that will sound better in a dingy nightclub than in a stadium. It’s a storm of glitzy, punishing electro that sometimes sounds closer to Nine Inch Nails than to Daft Punk – as on the nasty industrial assault of “On Sight,” which opens the album. The whole thing feels tortured and disjointed, pausing and starting unpredictably, with choruses sliced into pieces and samples twisted into unintelligible wails. It’s a sound that suits the lyrics: West has gone dark and twisted, and the beats sound every bit as degraded as the raps.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was indeed pretty dark, and it was indeed pretty twisted; but it was also beautiful and fantastic. It was an operatic record, a glamourous, sensationalised portrait of one man’s megalomania and confusion. Yeezus makes a stark contrast, for it operates on a deeper and grimmer stratum of the dark and twisted; and this time, all the glamour and drama have been stripped away. This is an album fuelled by a poisonous cocktail of self-disgust alternating schizophrenically with egoism and entitlement, all of it on a scale that verges on the deranged. “One more hit and I can own ya / One more fuck and I can own ya,” he snarls on “Hold My Liquor” – and the misogyny that scars this record gets a lot worse than that. Album centrepiece “Blood on the Leaves,” an awful tale of “unholy matrimony” that samples Nina Simone’s cover of the (already chilling) lynching song “Strange Fruit,” is only the most obvious exhibition of a newly disturbing contempt for women – and, less blatantly, for humanity in general – that runs through this album.
To ask whether Yeezus is enjoyable would be redundant. It’s not meant to be enjoyable. Like most shock art, it’s the kind of thing you either embrace as a demented and ugly tour de force, or reject as a purposeless and juvenile exercise in provocation. The level of skill that has gone into the album is undeniable: West’s rapping on the mighty “Black Skinheads” is arguably the tightest, fastest, most acrobatic it has ever been. But technical skill should not justify the ends to which it is directed. If you find Kanye West’s personal obsessions meaningful or interesting, then you will be compelled by Yeezus. If not, you’ll find it a tiresome and slightly disgusting piece of pop trash. Don’t waste your money – he has enough already.