Where is your Kanye limit, the temperature level at which fascination boils over into exasperation? That’s an issue with any Kanye West album, but perhaps especially with the new Yeezus, which was officially released Tuesday but leaked on Friday, flooding the Internet with comments from all sides. For people who can’t stand his public image (and, of course, for Taylor Swift fans), the limit is zero. Others stop with the singles—hooky, less ranty, they yield the most pleasure with the least strain on patience. But that safe option mutes the very Kanyeness of Kanye; for the whole light show, you have to brave the albums.
I bumped into my limit on the sixth of Yeezus’ 10 tracks, “Blood on the Leaves.” The music successfully stacks up samples from jazz and rap classics, a pretty piano line, a motif from an electronic dance track by co-producers TNGHT, and West’s auto-tuned crooning. But the content makes me wish he really were, as he puts it a track earlier, “speaking Swaghili,” or maybe Klingon—anything, as long as I couldn’t decipher it.
The song’s bitter tale of groupies, money, lawyers, and alimony hits a nadir when West describes his ex-“second-string bitch” showing up “sittin’ courtside” when he’s got “wifey on the other side”: “Gotta keep ’em separated/ I call that apartheid.” Does West think Nelson Mandela, if he weren’t in intensive care, would go willingly back to prison over that injustice?
But that’s nada compared to the trivialization West inflicts by building the track on a sample of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit,” the monumental 1939 ballad about the lynching of Southern blacks, “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Best known in Billie Holiday’s rendition, it’s one of the most disturbing tunes ever to become a standard and a sacred text of the civil rights tradition. I can only wonder what West’s late mother, the scholar Dr. Donda West, would make of her son equating groupie woes with getting lynched.
Then again, it seems to be his mother’s 2007 death that in some sense freed West to make freakier music, starting with the great 808s and Heartbreak and continuing through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and now Yeezus. I’m not hostile to that. In fact, the other bits of black-history blasphemy he perpetrates here—cheering “free at last, thank God almighty they’re free at last” when a lover’s bra comes off in “I’m In It,” and following up with “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”—strike me as witty enough to get away with.
Then of course there’s the straight-up religious blasphemy embodied by the title and by the song, “I Am a God,” coming from an artist whose first big single questioned why he couldn’t rap about Jesus on the radio. The point really isn’t that West is a god but that he catches himself acting like one with all his celebrity entitlement—barking, in the album’s most retweeted moment, “in a French-ass restaurant, ‘Hurry up with my damn croissants!’ ” (He also envisions being struck by lightning for his apostasy, continuing the thought from past songs like “Power” that his rise must lead to a fall.) But a lot of people seem compelled to take him literally, as if he really were that deluded.
Something about West provokes this kind of moral judgment, even though we should know that acting the trickster is a deep part of his game. I should just say that whatever he intended by “Blood on the Leaves” flops; instead I’m genuinely outraged. This is a testimony to the magnetism of his talent. He continually smashes thoughtful self-awareness and skill up against batshit ridiculousness, and it’s that maddening unpredictability that keeps us all listening.
Yeezus has a particular intensity because it moves forward like a drill, unlike the meandering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Instead of pausing to interrogate himself as he once did, West throws out phrases and gestures and leaves the listener to sort out which are sincere and which ironic. That’s especially true of the relentless, captivating foursome of tunes at the start. In “On Sight,” he’s all over “your spouse” who “got more niggas off than Cochran”— initiating a trope of interracial revenge sex that runs through the record, while throwing shade on the O.J. trial verdict (which of course involved not only an interracial marriage but West's own white partner’s father). “Black Skinhead” is an enigma right from the title with a driving “Rock and Roll” beat and an attitude that can be summed up in one line: “Fuck every question you askin’.” Next comes “I Am a God” and then “New Slaves,” the album’s most complex track, which indicts the luxury consumerism in which West himself so conspicuously participates (“all you blacks want all the same things”) as a new form of racial bondage, brought to you by the same class that profits from privatized prisons.