Just when it began to seem like Kanye West’s Yeezus would never leak—Yeezy has been known to take extraordinary precautions to prevent leaks, including moving mixes only in locked Pelican briefcases and on “hard drives that can only be accessed by biometric fingerprint readers“—the album made its way onto file-sharing services this afternoon, a few days ahead of its June 18 release date. Outside of previews of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live and on projections around the world (and, for a few friends and critics, at a private listening party on Monday), little had been heard or revealed about the album.
That all changed with the leak, with listeners discovering a dark and abrasive album more or less devoid of any commercial radio single. West is known for soaking up sounds from around the zeitgeist and elevating them to exciting new levels, and here he soaks up in particular the rise of electronic dance music in recent years, fusing industrial and trap music with the sounds he’s more traditionally known for. In “Blood on the Leaves” he sets “Strange Fruit,” boldly, over a trap beat, and ends with a vocoder solo familiar from 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tracks like “Runaway.” “Bound 2” is the only track that could reasonably fit in on one of his first two or three albums, with Kanye making signature use of vintage vocal samples from soul and pop, this time from ’60s singer Brenda Lee (“Sweet Nothings”) and ’70s group the Ponderosa Twins Plus One (“Bound”).
At other times Kanye’s list of collaborators from all sides of the musical zeitgeist can be heard loud and clear. “Hold My Liquor” features a guest verse from 17-year-old Chicago rapper Chief Keef—sung, taking after his elder, through a vocoder—before Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon comes in with a falsetto, and is greeted by what sound like layered guitars from Daft Punk. (Though the French house duo have only been confirmed as producers on four other songs.) Other tracks rattle as if they’d been produced by industrial hip-hop group Death Grips, with the heavy bass on “I Am a God” sounding like it’s straight out of “Come Up and Get Me.”
The Death Grips comparison also helps underline the anger and aggressiveness of the lyrics. Kanye makes reference to the Rick James Dave Chappelle skit for a reason: For those that get on his wrong side, he seems intent on invading America’s houses and putting his feet all over their couches. This aggressiveness is perhaps more appropriate when talking about the privatized prison system or the violence in Chicago—pound for pound, Yeezus might be his most overtly militant and race-conscious album yet—though when it comes to the subject of women, that aggressiveness too often turns into misogyny.
If you can set all that aside, the music is undeniably thrilling—especially on the first half of the album, where the beats sound both of the moment and like he’s once again moving the goal posts forward. When Kanye claims, “This the greatest shit in the club/ Since ‘In the Club,’ ” on “Send It Up,” it’s hard to argue with him.
For a full review from Slate’s new music critic, Carl Wilson, check back next week.
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