That’s a pretty fair question to pitch at the end of Kanye’s last album, 2010’s declared-masterpiece-on-arrival My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That album was a culmination of everything he had done before it, but it didn’t exactly leave itself room to improve. It was a sprawling, meticulously orchestrated, and lyrically conscientious album; ramping these qualities up wouldn’t go anywhere. It was the kind of album that dictated its own masterpiece status since, well, it was made to be one. But, as the last second of the record came to a close, you had to ask, “Now what?” The expectations on Yeezus were high before the album was even recorded.
Yeezus meets those expectations by subverting them. Almost everything about the album: the no-fanfare prerelease, the relatively brief 40 minute length, the lack of the cover art, and the music itself, is aggressively minimalist and borderline user-unfriendly. MBDTF was apologetic at times, and spent plenty of tape with Kanye pondering Kanye. With Yeezus, he’s not explaining himself to anyone; if anything, he’s railing against you.
But, we’ll get back to what he’s saying in a moment. From a production standpoint, Yeezus is near immaculate. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t cold and robotic, though; sawing basslines, tortured synths, and twisted samples are the order of the day, but it’s compelling noise. The extended outro on “Hold My Liquor” saves an otherwise mediocre track, and minimal numbers like “New Slaves” and “I’m In It” get downright sinister. The production is high quality, but not quite perfect; some of the ideas just don’t develop (“Guilt Trip” is pretty but inconsequential, while “Send It Up” veers on annoying).
Much has been made of executive producer/hip-hop legend Rick Rubin stripping down the album’s sound and Daft Punk leading the production on four of Yeezus‘ tracks. DP’s tracks are among the strongest here: opener “On Sight” is a two and a half minute clipped synth assault with a batshit (but kind of brilliant) soul sample in the middle. The punk and industrial influence on “Black Skinhead” channels Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” with its beat, and Nine Inch Nails in brute synth strength. Between the production and one of West’s best performances on the album, it’s arguably the best song here. “I Am a God”, all deep bass and spastic synths, splits the difference between the two, whereas “Send It Up” sees how much it can stretch and bend a noise before it shatters.
The samples for Yeezus come fairly obscure and eclectic. Most are treated and processed beyond recognition, but a few lay bare, especially on “Blood on the Leaves”. The backbone of the song comes from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit”, before TNGHT’s song “R U Ready”–all gigantic horns–comes crashing into Simone’s vocal and Kanye’s AutoTuned singing. It’s a cluster of a song, but is unmatched on Yeezus for sheer insanity. After an album of industrial/acid house beats and electronics, “Bound 2” is in The College Dropout mode: a simple looped soul sample (in this case from “Bound” by Ponderosa Twins Plus One). Charlie Wilson provides the vocals for a buzz-synth bridge, but even that feels warm and cozy. It’s an out of place song, but the carefree feel of the track, it’s comfort food on an otherwise challenging album.
Then we get to Kanye himself. Complaining about Kanye’s arrogance or ego feels years late at this point, but it almost feels obfuscating at times; the guy is painfully self-aware. “I Am a God” brags plenty about bringing real rap back and being compared to Michael Jackson, but it also feels like Kanye fucking with us (no straight-laced person actually writes “I am a god/so hurry up with damn massage/In a French-ass restaurant/HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!”). “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” concern themselves with 21st century race politics; despite his status, Kanye still sees African-Americans getting treated as second class citizens (“Middle America packed in/Came to see me in my black skin”, “‘What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?/All you blacks want all the same things'”).
At the same time, it feels like he spends chunks of Yeezus coasting. Rick Rubin made mention that Kanye recorded the bulk of the lyrics at the last minute for the album, and it shows. Especially after the first four songs, the lyrical quality drops off, mostly sticking to rote subjects without any major insights, or even that much entertainment. It’d be more interesting if these songs weren’t all clumped together, but Yeezus loses focus as it goes on, only redeeming itself with “Bound 2”.
As weird as it sounds, Yeezus has a kindred spirit in another album released this year: indie band Deerhunter’s Monomania. Both albums are following career highpoints, and duck expectations by taking a noisier “Don’t think, just do” approach. Both Kanye and Deerhunter are too smart to make a bad album, but they definitely get the “good” here, and not the “great”. I don’t think Yeezus is going to hurt Kanye’s reputation going forward; “Black Skinhead” and “Bound 2” are key cuts, but I wouldn’t say it’s destined for classic status. Three and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: Yeezus arrives overthought and undercooked, 3.5/5