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.
Yet in the album’s weaker, more anecdotal second half, it often seems West has skipped the step of questioning himself altogether. (If co-producer Rick Rubin’s account is accurate, I’d bet these were the lyrics dashed off in the eleventh hour.) For better and for worse, this is the least insecure album Kanye’s ever made.
Perhaps it follows that Yeezus also has the least ingratiating music of West’s career, with few of the tuneful choruses and orchestral flourishes that have given him hits in the past. Many commentators have interpreted it as an anti-commercial maneuver, but that case is exaggerated: Yes, you could compare it to industrial punk, early Nine Inch Nails, Chicago house, Saul Williams, El-P, or Death Grips, according to your subcultural druthers. But the more obvious touchstone is the electronic dance music that many of his collaborators here produce—Daft Punk, of course, but also Hudson Mohawke, Arca, and others—with its wub-wub migraine-bass, mix-fronting drums, and ungainly synth squelch. Yeezus may not sound like what’s on the radio, but it does sound like what’s popular on festival circuits and club floors. It’s simply less concerned with danceability, which makes it not so blatant as most attempts to lard dubstep into a pop album.
As a producer, West serves here less as composer than collage artist, digitally gluing not only samples but whole genres to create a chimerical beast with the torso of a goat (note all the excursions into Jamaican dancehall), a diamond-skull head, crimson wings (gospel, from sampled choirs and in Bon Iver’s castrato-like cameos), and the legs of a pricey French coffee table.
That may not be the road to winning the Grammys that West seems obsessed with, but it is a potential expressway to the ears of younger listeners who could rate him as tired a decade after his debut. Likewise, some of the shift in persona away from the “emo,” self-doubting element, could be read as an update: He’s playing it more in the manner of younger cult rappers like Lil B or Tyler the Creator, who throw out extreme claims without winking, leaving boggled listeners to suss out what they mean.
That’s risky, because humor in hip-hop is often condescendingly misunderstood as “unintentionally” funny, as if rappers can’t be smart enough to know when they’re taking things too far (“Michael Douglas out the car,” as West puts it) and to put on false faces for satirical reasons, the way, say, that Randy Newman does. West’s bluster in interviews confuses the matter, but in song I’m inclined to assume most of his moves are knowing ones—he damn sure knows that “my damn croissants” is funny. Playing half-crazy always has been one of the surest ways to get radical ideas past the door, from Shakespeare’s fools through Bob Dylan and Richard Pryor. If West’s notions are half-baked, it may be because there’s no percentage in letting them get overcooked into earnestness (viz., three-quarters of “conscious” rap). It might be hyperbolic when he calls himself Dead Prez in a pink polo shirt, but this son of a Black Panther arguably has gotten more race-conscious rhymes to more mainstream-radio ears than any artist since, well, anyone. Even Public Enemy never had fame like West’s. Maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
That would mean bearing with the fact that only a few of the grosser misogynist outbursts (the “New Slaves” stanza about sexually defiling a white lady in the Hamptons) can be defended as symbolic salvos about race and power while others (the Asian-cunnilingus-with-sweet-and-sour-sauce bit in “I’m in It”) barely qualify as jokes. It means allowing that all the tedious score-settling about past relationships might just be setups for the closer, “Bound 2,” in which West returns to his style of classic R&B sampling for a down-to-earth, unexpectedly touching song about trying to be a better man and making things work with his now-baby-mama Kim Kardashian. It means, wherever your Kanye limits lie, accepting this spotty but arresting album as one of the most vital works of popular art of 2013.
If only to make my own entry to the Kanye West Sweepstakes of Inappropriate References, permit me to link the month’s second-most-important leak to the first: Kanye is the perfect pop star for a public so divided in its reaction to Edward Snowden’s news about government collection of private data. Yes, we’re unsure where to draw the line between privacy and security. But we also may feel uneasy because we’ve become so reckless with our own personal data in the age of social media and online shopping. Letting Amazon track your tastes in power tools or Foursquare declare you mayor of the ramen joint doesn’t equate to telling the government it’s cool to read your mail; for one thing, Amazon and Foursquare don’t run police forces, armies, or jails. But we may rightly feel complicit in fostering a culture that undervalues those boundaries, for fun and convenience’s sake.
Similarly it may strike a lot of people as absurd that an artist who does nothing but send mixed signals can get so lathered with rage at being misunderstood. But West is self-conscious about that, as always—he’s equally upset that he’s not sufficiently respected as a fashion designer and that he feels like part of a class of “new slaves” to designer labels and material things. He’s joined the reigning clan of reality TV but also threatens to move his “family out the country so you can’t see where I stay.” He wants to have his damn croissants and critique them too, and if that doesn’t sound discomfitingly familiar, you must have a better Internet-blocking program than I do.