Kanye West's Yeezus: No Prisoners, No Apologies

On his defiant new album, West pulls no punches, and makes no amends, in Bigger Than the Sound.

Is there anyone other than Kanye West capable of making an album like Yeezus?

The answer, of course, is yes (Death Grips come to mind), so perhaps the better question is this: Is there another artist capable of making so many care about an album like Yeezus, an endlessly confrontational, occasionally confounding thing that's full of odes to vices and vitriol but short on actual singles? Simply put: No.

Which is why, in one regard, the best thing about Yeezus may be that it exists in the first place. It is without question the least commercial album released by a major artist in recent memory. From its relentlessly aggressive production — a collection of yowls and yammers backed (and occasionally blown away) by lurching bass, stabbing synthesizers and nightmarish, otherworldly vocal samples — to its stridently defiant lyrics, which tackle everything from corporate racism to cunnilingus (guess which one requires Sweet-n-Sour sauce?) and are delivered in breathless, machine-gun missives. It's a willfully difficult work, from an artist who, by his own admission, is willfully difficult by default. In some ways, it seems like Kanye doesn't really want you to enjoy Yeezus; instead, he's decided to make you feel his pain, see the world through his eyes. Fans (and corporate masters) be damned — this one's for Yeezy.

So appreciate this album for the fact that Kanye made it on his terms. He's certainly earned the right to do so, and though he's always been more artiste than artist — particularly on the masterful My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — he's never sounded less willing to limit his art to the constraints of contemporary music. Like Daft Punk (who he collaborates with on three of Yeezus' most thrilling tracks, "On Sight," "Black Skinhead" and "I Am A God"), West seems to view the current state of his genre with contempt, but rather than go back to the past like the robots did with Random Access Memories, 'Ye pushes forward, with occasionally brilliant results. There are, of course, the trio of Daft Punk tunes, not to mention standouts like "Blood on the Leaves," which brings Nina Simone's shattering version of "Strange Fruit" crashing into TNGHT's "R U Ready" with staggering effectiveness, and "Send It Up," a heady brew that spins King L, Beenie Man and air-tight synths together in a dizzying mix that truly sounds unlike anything.

Of course, it bears mention that not all of Yeezus works this well. There are moments where West seems so focused on venting that he lets his lyrics slide, like the part on the otherwise excellent "New Slaves" where he kills his momentum with an odd "Waterboy" reference; the odd juxtaposition of socially-conscious sonics on "Leaves" with lyrical mentions of courtside relationship dramas; or the sheer amount of time he spends recounting all of the places he's deposited bodily fluids. And the album's goal on creating nightmarishly bleak soundscapes may take its toll on the listener; Yeezus clocks in at just 40 minutes, but by the end, you might feel pummeled almost to the point of exhaustion.

Part of what makes West such a compelling artist are the contradictions inherent within his music. He has always been both the introvert and the extrovert, the conflicted celebrant and the rare rapper capable of exploring both social themes and garish excesses with equal skill (and sometimes in the same song). On Yeezus, he implores his fans to consider, "How much do I not give a f---?" yet, given everything that has led up to this album's release (the extraordinary lengths to prevent leaks, the projections and listening sessions, the lack of a true single), it's clear Kanye gives a whole lot of f---s. And for an album that spends no small amount of time extolling the virtues of sex, drugs and ego, West doesn't seem to be having a particularly good time. Instead, he seems to vacillate between anger and despondency.

And yet, as quickly as you began to ask why he bothers doing this at all, you know the answer: Kanye does this because he has to. Making Yeezus was his duty as an artist, and its judgment is his burden to bear. It is less the culmination of his entire career as it is the snapshot of a very specific time in his life, a point where he is an unwilling celebrity, a new father and a soul eternally in search of ... well, something. The thing is, West doesn't find many answers on his new album, mostly because he's not sure where to look. Yeezus' most redeeming qualities are also its most visceral, which elevates the album to something else entirely: a work of art, for better or worse. Easy listening, it most certainly isn't. Because it's not supposed to be.