“I’m a minimalist,” Kanye West told the Times in an interview published last week. Like so many of the rapper’s pronouncements, that one demands to be taken with a grain — a truckload — of salt. West’s sixth album, Yeezus, may have been, as he claimed in that same wooly interview, inspired by modernist design. (“This one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration.”) But the aesthetic is not quite less is more.
With Kanye, it’s always more is more. More sounds, more sensations. More sex, more politics, more ego, more outrage. More croissants. The new album is West’s most compact — just ten songs, clocking in at a brisk 40 minutes — but like the rapper himself, it’s got a buzzing, live-wire, gonzo energy. Kanye only does maximalism.
Sonically, Yeezus barrels right at you. The music, produced by West and more than a dozen others, is grinding and scouring, with beats that bristle and thud, and bass lines and synths that are distorted into an amplified Brillo Pad scrape. It’s harsher than previous Kanye West records, but no less eclectic. The songs cram in an awful lot: the roar of industrial rock, the 4/4 pulse of house, the rhythms of regional rap styles like trap and drill. They revive previous Kanye West staples: the pitch-shifted “chipmunk soul” of his early production milestones, the Auto-Tuned torch-singing of 808s & Heartbreak (2008). Several songs are punctuated by dance-hall reggae refrains — a dash of island exotica whose minor-key melodies match the album’s foreboding mood. The songs clatter and jolt; they lurch into key and tempo changes, pause for vocal interludes and seconds of silence, then reboot and rumble onward. “I’m in It” tosses together a bit of everything — ticking beats; a low groaning bass; the woebegone croon of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon; the strangled cries of dance-hall star Assassin, a.k.a. Agent Sasco; a sample from an 2001 song by R&B smoothie Kenny Lattimore; some orgasmic moans; and a filthy rap from Kanye — and blends it into a dense, eerie swirl.
Few musicians would think to corral so much into a single song; perhaps only West could make such a wild and abrasive mix sound like pop. He’s the most inventive record-maker going, and on Yeezus he reaches a new plateau. Of course, production isn’t what makes Kanye the star that he is. He’s a human lightning rod, a man who exploits, and embodies, all kinds of cultural confusion — about materialism, celebrity, and race, among other things. It’s a role that has been occupied by different musicians over the years (in the recent past, by Eminem), but few have kept it up for so long while maintaining juice as an artist and allure as a tabloid magnet. When Kanye West clonks his head on a street sign, it’s news. When his new album leaks, it’s an event that can bring the Internet grinding to a halt and put the phrase “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” on the lips of tens of millions.
That line became an insta-meme on Friday, when Yeezus finally popped up online. It was a reminder that, for all the talk about Kanye’s “arrogance,” no one is funnier about celebrity egotism than West himself. The croissants line is in “I Am a God,” the album’s campiest song, in which Kanye chats with Jesus about his riches and plays to the hilt the role of celebrity-monster, barking orders at underlings: “Hurry up with my damn massage/ Hurry up with my damn ménage.”
Anyone who gets riled up about “I Am a God,” or about the album’s title, is missing the joke — or rather, taking the bait. More than ever, West is aiming to provoke. Yeezus begins with the buzz-sawing “On Sight,” which feels a bit like one of Eminem’s old album-openers: a loud, lewd statement of purpose, designed to give offense and to hallow offense-giving as an end in itself. “How much do I not give a fuck?/ Let me show you right now before you give it up,” he raps. Halfway through, the beat gives way to a sample from a gospel homily, “He'll Give Us What We Really Need,” which casts Kanye as profane and prophetic, a scabrous truth-teller. “He’ll give us what we need,” goes the gospel chorus. “It may not be what we want.”
What do we need, according to Yeezus? For one thing, straight, angry talk on race. “New Slaves,” the album’s most furious screed, links the legacy of slavery and segregation to the 21st-century penal state and, of course, to malevolent record-company executives and journalists.
That sense of resentment is all over Yeezus, but often West’s rage seems misplaced. His most frequent targets are women, specifically his current, former, and prospective sexual partners. Yeezus is the most sex-addled record you’ll hear this year; it’s also the least sexy. Listeners familiar with “Niggas in Paris” (2011) — in which Kanye promises a shopping spree to a groupie in exchange for oral sex in a bathroom stall — know the deal. Here, we get more of the same: a dreary catalogue of porno-style degradation, fucks, and fistings; scheming “second-string bitches trying to get a baby”; groupies who “suck like they came to lose”; etc. Kanye raps a lot about ejaculating on women — on their faces, in their mouths, on their clothes. The latter is particularly kinky, combining two of Kanye’s obsessions: blow jobs and couture. “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink/ After that, give you something to drink/ Step back, can't get spunk on the mink,” he raps.
Criticism of misogyny in pop music tends to be unequally distributed. Rappers get raked over the coals more often than rockers, who are more coy, but no less intense, about their sexism. Meanwhile, those of us who routinely overlook hip-hop’s pro-forma woman-hatred may give Kanye a harder time — perhaps because we expect more of the erstwhile backpack rapper, perhaps because his gonzo-confessor persona makes his misogyny more startling, gives it a shocking cinema verité feel.
Shock, surely, is the point. Kanye wants to get under our skin, to rile and appall. In recent years, we’ve had a lot of dark-tinged music about sex: the brooding boudoir R&B of the Weeknd, the glum sex raps of Drake. West means to deliver the ultimate in “bummer sex” — unfiltered nastiness, set to a punishingly bleak soundtrack. The problem, ultimately, isn’t moral; it’s aesthetic. Kanye’s a wack rake. If he has a weakness as an artist, it’s his rapping, his stiff flow and sometimes awkward rhymes. When he tries to come on like a rogue, the corniness is accentuated: “Baby girl, he’s a loner/ Late-night organ donor”; “I’m a rap-lic priest/ Getting head by the nuns”; “Eatin’ Asian pussy/ All I need was sweet and sour sauce.” In the words of that rock critic Barack Obama, he sounds like a jackass.
Of course, if you took the jackass out of Kanye, he wouldn’t be Kanye. Kanye is a gestalt: The knucklehead and the genius go hand-in-hand. For every provocation that falls flat on Yeezus, there are five moments that startle and make you think. He raps repeatedly, lasciviously, about having sex with white women. He has played with this imagery before. (Cf: the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album cover.) But on Yeezus, interracial sex plays out as historically freighted revenge fantasy: Kanye as a “new slave,” on the loose in the master’s house, exacting retribution through sexual conquest. “Black Timbs all on your couch again,” he raps. “Black dick all in your spouse again.”
Kanye understands the potency of the imagery that he’s playing with there. He knows what echoes he’s calling to mind in “Blood on the Leaves,” the album’s most sonically transfixing song, which samples Nina Simone’s recording of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” — and he’s well aware how audacious to interpolate that sacred song into a monstrously self-pitying Auto-Tune-strafed melodrama about what a drag it is when your side-piece won’t abort your love child. I’ve listened to “Blood on the Leaves” twenty times; I’m sure I’ll listen another hundred before the month is out. I can’t decide: Is it brilliantly tasteless? Or just plain tasteless? A cheap stunt? A tour de force? The worst song I’ve ever heard? The best? What other musician makes you ask such questions?