Reviewing Yeezus in 2016 to Better Understand Kanye West and The Life of Pablo

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Photo: Stefan Gosatti/2014 Getty Images

A couple of nights ago, at a party, I was trying to explain to someone the very odd thing that I do for a living. “I am a pop-music critic,” I said. That title means something a little different than it did a few years, or even months ago. A lot of the time, especially in the current era of the “surprise album,” a critic is hearing the music at the exact same time as the general public. (Or, as in at least one documented case, the artist was not finished recording the album until the day it came out. You’re crazy for this one, Ye.)

If it sounds like I am complaining, I’m not; I have one of the best jobs in the world and, anyway, I’m actually kind of happy about this change. It’s liberating. It untethers us from having to spend time using clichéd adjectives to describe how the music sounds (because with streaming and YouTube, you can hear for yourself just how “ethereal” or “jangly” something sounds) and frees us up to explore bigger questions of what it all means, how pop music does or doesn’t connect with larger ideas about our world.

“So, for example,” I told this person at the party, “right now I’m on what I call Kanye Watch. Kanye West is going to release a new album any minute now, and whenever he does, I’m going to drop what I’m doing, like a doctor or an obituary writer, and go listen to the album and write something about it.” I’m pretty sure I made a lame joke about how I should start wearing a beeper. 

This person frowned, not at me or my beeper joke so much as the whole system. “But isn’t pop music created with repetition in mind?” he asked. “Pop songs are built to be played over and over again, to lodge themselves deeper in your head each time you hear them. So I’m not sure a first impression of a pop song is that meaningful.” My instinct, being a critic, was to argue with him. I tried out a couple different rebuttals — that even when I only had a day or two to write about a pop album, of course I listened to it a bunch of times before passing judgment; that “pop” was kind of a misnomer for most of the music I covered anyway, because an artist like Kanye West or even Drake or Rihanna or Beyoncé isn’t really making music with the radio in mind anymore, the latest trend is to assert your independence by doing something a little more complex and out there, blah blah blah — but I eventually stopped myself, because I had to admit he had a good point. 

The question I am asked most frequently about my job is, “How many times do you listen to an album before writing about it?” It varies greatly, depending on a lot of different circumstances, and I often feel that this is the most frustrating part of the gig: that I don’t have a concrete answer to that question. I sometimes envy film or theater or art critics for this reason — in most cases, there is a limit to how many times they can experience the thing they’re writing about. The movie critic Pauline Kael had a famous rule that she never saw a movie more than once, even after she’d reviewed it. This strikes me as both unnecessarily extreme and admirably pragmatic, especially since she was mostly working in the pre-VHS era.

And yet even now in the Netflix age, although of course we’ll rewatch our favorites over and over again until we can recite them by heart, the overwhelming majority of movies we encounter in our lives we’ll see only once. We carry around our impressions of that one time we saw it, maybe an anecdote or a feeling about the person we saw it with, and perhaps a few images or quotes that stuck with us. But music — and pop music in particular — works in more mysterious ways. It’s in the air, always ready to sneak up on you, sometimes when you least expect it. There’s no telling, especially not on first listen, how many times you’ll hear a given song or album over a lifetime, or which listen will be the one when it finally clicks with you, if it’s to click at all. Maybe it’ll be the first, or third. Maybe it’ll be the thousandth.

As our cocktail-party conversation fell into a lull, I felt an urge to look at my phone and check to see if The Life of Pablo had leaked in the last ten minutes; instead I took a long swig of beer and I told this stranger of a dream I'd had. “I have this idea where I’d like to, just once, opt out of the whole cycle and write a review of an older album,” I said. “And not one celebrating a special anniversary or something, because that’s also something we are expected to do now. Maybe when a big artist has an album coming out, I’d write a review not of their new album, but the previous one that they put out, that I’d lived with for a few years. I’m curious about what impressions remain and what impressions fall away; maybe it would even better help me understand my first response to the new album. Is this a better way to talk about pop, to evaluate it, to explore the way it actually functions in our lives?” 

Well, it wasn’t the worst idea he’d ever heard, he said. But if it was going to be about Kanye West, with all due respect, he probably wouldn’t be reading it, because he really didn’t care about Kanye West. How can I explain that this made me so much happier than if he’d been excited to read it? It reminded me that the world is not as small as it sometimes seems. There are other ways of doing things. 

***

Kanye West’s sixth album, Yeezus, released on June 18, 2013, begins with a violent, metallic crunch, like a dying robot gurgling blood. The song is called “On Sight” and the sound is a synthesizer run through a distortion pedal, a technique featured on some early songs by Daft Punk, who co-produced the song. A tinny, sputtering beat emerges from the chaos, as though it was made by a malfunctioning drum machine. You could read this as a comment on where this album fits in with West’s previous work, or maybe how it doesn’t fit in at all.

I’ve come to think of Yeezus as the photonegative — or perhaps the evil twin — of 808s & Heartbreak, West’s landmark 2008 record that built its aesthetic around Auto-Tune, synthesizers, and of course, that titular Roland drum machine. A huge departure from the warm, sample-driven sound of his first three records, West made 808s when he was grieving the end of a relationship and the sudden death of his mother; he sounds, on that record, wounded, pensive, broken, thoughtful, a little bitter but occasionally almost sweet.

To describe Yeezus, you would have to use antonyms of all these words. Not one minute into “On Sight,” he’s already dropped one of the more tasteless lines of his career so far (“Soon as I pull up and park the Benz/We get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson's”) and things will only get more antagonistic from there. “On Sight” is a warning, a transformation, a baring of fangs. 808s was Dr. Jekyll; Yeezus is Mr. Hyde. He’s made good on his promise. He’s become a motherfucking monster.

It’s quaint to think we were once scandalized (or at least amused) by its title. “Kanye’s New Album Is Called Yeezus, Apparently,” reads a May 2013 headline from Pitchfork (where I was working at the time this record came out). Yeezus is pure id, but this being Kanye West, it’s also got a hell of an ego. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sparse, haunted track “I Am a God,” (which, I’d somehow forgotten, boasts a characteristically ridiculous parenthetical: “featuring God”), a song that recounts a private and disappointingly banal conversation Kanye has had with Jesus (“He said what up, Yeezus?”).

But across Yeezus, that ego balloons into something grotesque, something so overblown that it has no choice but to implode. My favorite song on Yeezus — and this is an unpopular opinion that I’ve had to defend many times over the past few years — is “Hold My Liquor,” a dreary, dystopian dirge that features guest mumbles from both Chief Keef and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. (“New Slaves” is the closest-possible second place.) It’s an angry, uncaring song, but there’s a deep sadness about it too. I hear it as an elegy to something, perhaps the boorish hypermasculinity that Kanye embodies in the verses. Even as he’s rapping, propulsively, about sexual prowess and conquest, the track around him is in a state of decay — melting, limping, impotent. (It now feels like a more avant-garde precursor to the Weeknd’s “The Hills,” a slurry, sad-drunk booty jam that would top the charts two years later.) 

It’s weird that I can now say I love “Hold My Liquor,” because when I first heard it, it offended me more than any other song on Yeezus. I hated this line so much: “One more hit and I could own ya/One more fuck and I could own ya.” That lyric in particular crystallized my main ideological problem with Yeezus: It's an album that so fearlessly confronts America’s history of hatred towards black men, but then in the next breath it spews out its own kind of hatred at black (and white and Asian) women. How are we supposed to deal with an album that follows “New Slaves” with a song that sneers at a woman, “One more fuck and I could own ya”?

I wasn’t sure, and I also wasn’t sure why I couldn’t stop listening to it. Even years later, the best I can do by way of explanation is to look to the writing of the late music critic Ellen Willis. I’m not the first person to quote this passage of her 1977 piece about the Sex Pistols, because it’s a beacon in the dark: “And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock and roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense anti-human, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.”

(Or, as Kanye put it last week, in defense of a more recent line that has caused its share of outrage: “I miss that DMX feeling.”)

If we’re going to call Yeezus a pop album, then I would — as I would have the day it came out — call it one of the boldest-sounding pop records of the decade so far. The production is so beautifully corrosive that it feels fitting that the man who made Metal Machine Music spent some of his final days on earth writing about how much he loved this record. The great flaw of Yeezus is, still, the fact that such sophomoric and, occasionally, artistically regressive lyrics can accompany such forward-thinking production.

A haunting “Strange Fruit” sample is wasted on a song with petty lyrics about molly and “second string bitches, trying to get a baby” — but damn if I don’t still get chills when that TNGHT beat drops. A line like (ugh) “Put my fist in her like the Civil Rights sign,” from the orgiastic “I’m in It,” is lazy provocation. But in the rearview, it’s always easier to wonder, “What if that was the point?” Yeezus is a proudly, profoundly bratty record, brazenly and performatively reckless, a years-long bachelor-party bender before the record’s semi-domestic (“I wanna fuck you hard in the sink”), semi-sweet coda, “Bound 2,” itself a precursor of the hyperearnestness that was to come on a song like “Only One.” 

Yeezus was also the most polarizing record Kanye West ever made, and one of his least commercially successful. West was publicly disappointed that it was only nominated for two Grammys, and when it didn’t win either of them, he began to distance himself from the record. It is a depressing and yet essential fact of the contradictory nature of Kanye West that an artist can be creatively risky enough to make a record like Yeezus, and can then denounce it for a reason as square as its lack of Grammy wins.

Last week, I was emailing with an acquaintance about Kanye, and whether or not he thought the recent spate of tweets and general controversy spelled trouble for the music on his new album, The Life of Pablo. “Yesterday’s rant was interestingly timed,” he wrote. “It’s the fifth straight time he’s made a mess of things in an album cycle to attract attention.” I tried to recall the mess he’d made pre-Yeezus, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I put on the record, to see if that would help.

What came to me instead were a bunch of things that hadn’t yet happened that day I first heard it in June 2013: memories of driving around L.A. later that summer with one of my best friends, busting up as we tried to sing along with Justin Vernon’s gibberish; sensations of running with this record as my soundtrack, feeling physically emboldened by its arrogance (now that I think of it, Yeezus has got to be one of the greatest running albums of all time); even the story now so central to its creation myth, which I didn’t yet know that day of my first listen, that with Rick Rubin’s help, West wrote and recorded the lyrics to five of these songs within just two days of his deadline. But stories that result from cultural saturation aren’t always so poetic. What I wouldn’t give to go back to a purer time, a time when Charlie Wilson’s angelic vocals in “Bound 2” didn’t make me think of Seth Rogen’s chest hair, when a song as politically charged as “Black Skinhead” didn’t make me think of The Wolf of Wall Street and a pug wearing shutter shades

And yet, I know that this time existed because — and this is rare these days — I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Yeezus. When the stark beat of “Send It Up” first went through my body like lightning. I remember the excited conversations with friends that weekend, the beginnings of arguments I’d still be having about it almost three years later. Do I know the record better now, or have I lost something in the time between now and the electric intensity of that first impression? I’m actually not sure. I wrote something about it the week it came out, for a piece I intended to publish but never did. I tore my hard drive apart this afternoon, trying to find it. I wish I could.

Look out for Lindsay Zoladz’s review of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in the next few days.