Kanye West's 'Yeezus' Is All Form, No Function

[caption id="attachment_78775" align="alignnone" width="640"]Kanye West performs on Saturday Night Live, May 2013. Photo: Getty Images Kanye West performs on Saturday Night Live, May 2013. Photo: Getty Images[/caption]

Don't let the title fool you, Kanye West stopped trying to emulate Jesus a long time ago. Peace and love can only take you to the periphery of the pop-culture nucleus. Modern icons possess a special blend of ego, talent, lust for power, and gift for manipulation. How else could he have slipped the pink polo past the gates?

Given the opportunity, Kanye would gladly transform into a swan to cuckold Real Hampton Housewives at a Great Gatsby theme party. After all, it would make it that much more difficult to demand alimony. Throughout Yeezus, he refers to himself as King Kong, a wolf, a God, and a monster (again). At 36, he has achieved everything he used to dream about as a boy in Chicago. He’s even become a father. Yeezus is him “hanging on to a hangover,” a 40-minute fever delusion of fisting, imperfect racial relations, and slow pastry service.

Kanye’s sixth solo album is dedicated to his self-serving manifest destiny to cum all over the world and every Corolla driver in it. Whether you are a corporation or a critic, you can’t stop him (haah.) It’s a deconstructionist’s dream. Strip him of authorial intent and you can project whatever Marxian, Freudian, Rockist, or pornographic fantasy you want. All id everything. He quotes Martin Luther King to take a girl’s bra off.  He samples “Strange Fruit” a song about lynching to reminisce about the time a groupie popped a molly and went streaking -- while practically shouting “Free C-Murder.”

One hour ago, a G.O.O.D. music intern ferried a dossier of Yeezus reviews to Kanye and Kim’s Fendi fortress in the Hollywood Hills. He is reading them now and cackling. Fifteen minutes from now, he will e-mail Tyler, the Creator with the subject heading: this is how you troll. Of course, one man’s troll is a would-be Zeus’s provocation. And heavy comic irony is the only way to explain why the third track, “I Am A God,” features a guest appearance from “God.”

The better question is do you think this is funny? Most of the time, it’s not. He dilutes an anti-materialism rant by giggling about The Waterboy, and saying he’d rather be a “dick than a swallower.” He brags about needing sweet and sour sauce to eat Asian pussy. There are played out Parkinson’s gags and Johnnie Cochran references. He calls himself a “raplic priest.” It’s as though the only un-credited ghostwriter is your pervert uncle who maintains three active accounts on Adultfriendfinder.com.

If you look hard enough, you can find crude misogynist jokes throughout Kanye’s catalogue. He practically invented the archetype of the black douchebag. But on every prior album, there are displays of empathy, warmth, and self-awareness. No matter how much My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wanted to toast the douchebags, there was a “Blame Game” to establish a sense of consequences and gravity. This iteration of Kanye (or probably more accurately “Yeezus”) is guided only by his impulse to destroy and exploit. His idea of reparations is trickle-down.

[caption id="attachment_78776" align="alignnone" width="640"]Kanye West and his laptop at a 'Yeezus' listening party, June 2013. Photo: Getty Images Kanye West and his laptop at a 'Yeezus' listening party, June 2013. Photo: Getty Images[/caption]

So if you’re (rightfully) disgusted by the misogyny and lack of lyrical nuance, it was probably West’s intention. His avowed dismissal of the radio reads as a pose of boredom too. Cruel Summer might not have been memorable, but it spawned two of last year’s biggest hits. Radio is another disposable commodity. To paraphrase The Onion on Marilyn Manson, he’d rather go door to door trying to shock people (or maybe give them the shocker.).

If woman come off no deeper than Instagram hashtags, his male counterparts do little better. The Louis Vuitton don who destroyed a Maybach in the “Otis” video, jabs at his peer’s fascinations with luxury cars. He steals the hook to “Down 4 My N****s,” but the G.O.O.D. artists scarcely appear. The only guest rappers are Chief Keef and King L. The former is bizarrely conscripted to warble in auto-tune like a drunken robot crypt-keeper. The act of exclusion feels like the tacit instruction to bow before no false idols (even if West’s manufacturing them in his factory.)

Yeezus is so consumed with its sense of self that it lets in scarcely any light -- nor is it dark enough to preserve any real sense of menace. There’s only so terrifying you can be when you practically dress up as a furry on your first album cover.

There are multiple allusions to the violence in Chicago, but rather than use Keef and L to help deliver a statement on the biggest rap album of the year, West uses them to brag about ménage a trois’ and low alcohol tolerance. No one’s saying to let Lupe Fiasco ghostwrite it, but if you’re going to be a musician fighting for “truth and awesomeness,” it makes sense to start on your own records.

Even so, if you told me that this was a good, maybe even great album, I wouldn’t argue. Give Kanye credit, even at his most shallow and insipid, he’s capable of producing inspired moments that top almost all of his peers. He’s in the Olympian phase of his career -- inviting all the lesser gods and titans (and Cyhi the Prince) to Paris and Malibu in the service of his broad ideas. And when you get West, Daft Punk, TNGHT, Rick Rubin and God together, you’re bound to get some ambrosia.

The story goes that Rubin dehydrated the last draft of Yeezus into something leaner and less indulgent. MIMINALISM is the cap-lock catch phrase that Kanye has cited. No album with this many guest appearances, Baroque samples, multiple bridges, breakdowns, and interludes can be called truly minimal -- to say nothing of the constant vocal processing.

But the very idea of restraint is the only thing stopping Yeezus from total anarchy. Its short run time and sense of immediacy stack up with minimalist guidelines. Paint quick, attempt to soak up the whole painting at once, and don’t linger.

[caption id="attachment_78777" align="alignnone" width="640"]Kanye West in front of his a flock of followers. Photo: Getty Images Kanye West in front of his a flock of followers. Photo: Getty Images[/caption]

You don’t need me to cite every sonic influence. There are bits of industrial, acid house, dancehall, contemporary dance music, soul, drill, and Gary Glitter. There’s an entire Metacritic page filled with reviews of critics eager to connect it to an underground record that did it better, faster, stronger.

The sound clashes often produce dazzling results, particularly during the dancehall portions. Like any good rap album, many of these beats sound best played at outrageous volume in a system with subwoofers. At other times, it feels like Kanye is walking through the MOMA sloppily screaming, “I want this” at every exhibit, from Mondrian up through the guy who sprayed his semen all over old copies of the New York Post.

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to respect its fearlessness and raw power. If it ends up making hip-hop and pop music more adventurous and weird, then it’s flaws will seem trivial over time.

But it’s hard to reconcile when you hear a song like the closer “Bound 2” and remember why you liked Kanye in the first place. It’s everything the rest of the album isn’t: warm, humane, and soulful. There are jukebox rhythm and blues samples, Charlie Wilson, goofy Martin references, and small details like red cups on a lawn at a late party. It’s as tender a love song as you can get when you include the phrase, “step back...can’t get spunk on the mink.”

No number of primal wails, Bangbus threats, or disdain can match the power that West can wield when he’s sincere. For all of Yeezus’ brilliant moments, there is something hollow and numb at its core. It’s less conflicted than it is confused. All form, no function. Kanye isn’t screaming into the void as a response to emptiness, but as a way to hear his own echo.

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