Does Yeezus Pleezus? Comparing the New West with the Rest.
By Wil Loesel
If you want to read my opinion of Yeezus, skip down a couple of pages to the bookmark that I leave you. But to put this album in proper perspective, I have to briefly re-examine his entire discography.
This album is the perfect direction to take an already-brilliant catalog. The thing that separates great in-the-moment artists from all-time greats are the ability to adapt and change. Nobody started off hotter than DMX and 50 Cent. Unfortunately for them, they kept trying to recreate the same singles and the same albums over and over again. Audiences grow. If we wanted to hear It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, we could go listen to it.
That’s what keeps Jay-Z and Kanye West ahead of everyone else. They’re constantly trying something new, never trying to recapture past glory. “Niggaz want my old shit? Buy my old albums.” Artists grow. Fan grow. Jay-Z didn’t make the Blueprint 2 sound anything like Blueprint. He could’ve had an instant hit by following the same formula. Instead, he went in an entirely new direction. That’s what great artists do.
Kanye’s discography is among the greatest in hip-hop. On College Dropout, he expanded on that whole “soul” sound that he created on Blueprint. It was evident that he was still learning how to properly rap and record. You could hear punch-ins all throughout the album. The lyrics were clever, but raw. By including songs like Family Business and Jesus Walks, he was proving early that he didn’t care what was “cool” or accepted in the genre. He was going to do whatever he pleased.
Late Registration sounded like he was trying to silence any critic that had spoken a word after CD. His verses were insanely long in an attempt to prove that he was a good rapper. The music was overproduced because he was trying to show that he could orchestrate and incorporate instrumentation into the music and he wasn’t only a soul-sample producer. It led to an incredibly grandiose sound. And don’t get me wrong – it worked. Might even be my favorite Kanye album to date. But it was blatantly overdone.
Graduation was his most polished work. He finally found the perfect balance between clever lyrics, without the need for raps on raps on raps. His production incorporated a blend of soul sampling and instrumentation without ever being too much in either direction. He showed us the beauty in simplicity. It had hits, it had depth and it had direction. It was a near flawless album. Where could he possibly go from here?
Then his mother passed away and he created 808s & Heartbreak (read my review here). And yes, the majority of the songs were directed at his ex-fiancé who had recently left him. But if you listen to Pinocchio Story – or just listen to Kanye speak during any of his interviews – you’ll quickly realize that those songs were just displaced anger and sorry. His real sadness wasn’t his breakup, but the loss of his mother. Especially knowing that she was having cosmetic surgery in part because she lived in L.A., which was a direct result of his success. He had nothing else to prove after Graduation anyway (how can you improve on perfection?), so the timing was perfect. He learned how to use auto-tune and then sang his heart out. The production was groundbreaking and the melodies and lyrics were as introspective and sincere as any urban artist had ever recorded. Though it received a lot of initial hate from short-sighted fans, it ushered in an entirely new sound that is still prevalent in hip-hop five years later. Kanye’s lack of singing talent is what made the album so believable. It was ahead of his time and helped mark the first pivot point in Kanye’s career.
In the aftermath of Donda West’s passing, Kanye encountered a lot of personal strife – much of it brought upon himself. Perhaps his mother was the one who had balanced him out all those years. Either way, he went back into the studio feeling that the only way to win the public over again was to give them a brilliant album. He created G.O.O.D. Fridays, releasing new music – much of it unfinished – to the public for free. He went in an entirely new direction with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, flooding the album with guest appearances and instilling a much darker tone than Graduation. There were a lot of elements from Late Registration in MBDTF and the collaborations were wide reaching. He began pulling a vast array of writers and producers in to work on these records, which would become the trend. No longer would Kanye sit in a studio and come up with beats for his album. He would now pull in writers from all different genres and brainstorm. He became a conductor. It was no longer about his raps. It wasn’t even about rap. It was about creating a new sound, almost a new genre. It was all about art now. His short film helped distinguish this album from any other typical release. Runaway had a hundred and thirty minute outro (seemingly) of just the same music in repetition. Lost in the World had only twelve lines recited by Kanye. What he learned on Graduation (that lyrically, less can mean more), he perfected on 808s (despite the short verses, he still expressed some incredible ideas lyrically), which he then applied to back to his raps.
He then collaborated with his mentor Jay-Z to record Watch the Throne (read my review here). According to the story, his idea was to overproduce this and make the album sound “huge”. He was then talked into a more minimalist soundscape, which is important because it lays the foundation for his latest offering.
Skipping past the collective effort Cruel Summer (which had a few really good songs but was otherwise underwhelming and not worthy of a Kanye West release), we get to the sixth studio album and fifth solo offering of Mr. West’s career: Yeezus.
I wasn’t sure where Kanye would take things post-Graduation without repeating the same formula. Then 808s came. I wondered what would he could follow MBDTF up with for the same reasons. It was a near-perfect album that had such a distinct sound. Well, as great artists often do, Kanye decided to let great be great and try something different.
Yeezus could’ve been revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great album. And it’s worthy of a prominent place in his discog. It’s the ideal progression. But it’s akin to a gorgeous girl who didn’t take the time to wash and trim her privates in a few days. This album contains songs that are amongst the most innovative of Ye’s career, as well as some that feel unfinished. I truly believe if he had taken a couple of extra months to really polish a few songs and spend more time on it lyrically, that this could’ve been an all-time great album. Yeezus is a steak that is too undercooked to be considered rare, but not prepared correctly to be steak tartare.
I know that Kanye wasn’t focusing on music, but instead, allowing the music to take center stage. And I’m on board with that. But the foundation that he laid out – the whole “anti-establishment” vibe – would’ve been better served with lyrics that actually provided credence to those claims. I love the sound of Yeezus. And the music makes me want to stand up and revolt – but the lyrics don’t. And that’s what holds the album back.
By the way, I think Kanye’s “no marketing strategy” marketing strategy is brilliant. He has people believing that it’s all about the music and he doesn’t care about sales, all while guaranteeing he’ll sell half a million first week in the process. He performed on SNL and has projected his music on buildings across the world for the past month. Not releasing a single was a calculated part of the plan. He is now the “anti-corporate” artist. His music rages against everything wrong with hip-hop. Brilliant marketing strategy.
The problem with the message and the music is the lack of substance. Black Skinhead and New Slaves touch on our pain points (as a great salesman would) and act revolutionary, but he’s not really addressing any issues. Most of it are self-absorbed problems that simply annoy him, with a few lines mixed in about broader topics. He’s not offering a way to change anything. These songs and this album are about him. He’s trying to continue the pro-black stance that he took on All Falls Down or Diamonds, but with a newer sounding backdrop and without being as wordy. Problem is, I don’t think he can ever go back to that. His issues aren’t with the poor black populace anymore – they’ve become rich people problems. He’s upset with the responsibilities that come with his celebrity status. That’s why I don’t believe he’s capable of keeping up the “New Slaves” topic for the full 4 minutes – because it’s not what he actually cares about anymore.
Moving past what could’ve been, let’s discuss what is. The production here is nothing short of amazing, for the most part. I Am A God and Black Skinhead get me all kinds of hype. I can play those songs back to back all day. Combined with On Sight, the album really starts off incredible. I was a bit disappointed once I moved past that to see that this sound is carried over throughout. The lyrics are much more polished on these songs too – as if he’s had months to get them right. They still hold the songs back from being Public Enemy-esque, but they’re great songs. Their energy can’t be matched by anything Kanye’s ever done and can rarely be matched at all in hip-hop. They’re Stronger and Power on steroids.
The next section of the album is a pretty drastic change. We spoke about New Slaves, which has a great overall sound and solid (if not spectacular) lyrics. The beat reminds me a lot of Clique. I didn’t like Hold My Liquor on first listen, but my opinion has definitely changed. I like the idea of adding Chicago artists to the project. There was nothing overly deep or any incredible message conveyed, but it was a good song.
By the way – PLEASE listen to this album on a great sound system. It makes ALL the difference. Also, Kanye made some last minute improvements to the mix to the U.S. iTunes version of the album (and I believe he remastered it, as well), which didn’t have to be turned in until after the physical CD, since it wasn’t available for pre-order.
I’m glad that Hold My Liquor was kept on the album. It’s a good fee.l. It’s very reminiscent of Cruel Summer, especially since Kanye was barely on the song. I’m In It was fairly non-descript, to me. He talks a lot about sex, but the song isn’t sexy. He brings reggae back and I’m very curious to see how many rappers start using reggae in their hooks again. It was cool, but it could either be on the album or not and it wouldn’t really make any difference to me.
Everyone on twitter was apparently going batshit over Blood On the Leaves. I just don’t see it. The sample is incredibly dope, but I don’t think that Kanye’s subject matter really matches at all. It’s a great idea that was poorly executed. It’s an example of one of the songs I think Kanye didn’t write lyrics to until the very last minute. He felt the music was so good that he could say anything. The auto-tune is excessive and sounds freestyled and with no real direction. This sample deserved better than a chorus about popping your first Molly and a bridge that talks about being down for his niggaz. This had the potential to be a top 10 Kanye song. It’s still good enough to be a good song, but it was full of possibilities. I enjoyed hearing him rap on it, finally, but it feels more like an unfinished reference track.
Guilt Trip is a slightly better version of I’m In It. It’s another one that could’ve either existed or not existed. It’s a cool track 13 on a 16 track album. Not sure I would include it on a “the ten best songs I’ve written” tracklist. Again, I think that rushing the album kept this and I’m In It on Yeezus. Having said that, it’s cool. I listen to it. We find more reggae influence, as well as an appearance by Kid Cudi. Nothing much to say about this song.
@Wale says I’m too old to go to clubs, so I can’t really tell you if Send It Up will knock. I can say that I like listening to it through my Behringer monitors while dancing in my house while drinking a Bud Light. I’ll have to ask @lowkeyuhtn if it’s cool or not. I have no thoughts on the King Louie feature except that I obviously would’ve preferred hearing Pusha or just about anybody else rap over that part of the song. But it was fine, helped build anticipation for Ye’s part. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. Love the “park their ass outside til the evening ends” line.
That’s kinda my beef with the album, by the way. There aren’t enough lyrical “moments”. But anyways…
Bound 2 was dope. Sounded like Kanye just reminding us that he knows how far left he’s gone since his beginning and that he could still do it if he wanted to, he just has no desire to. Personally, I would’ve loved to have had some dirty ass drums come in over this record, but I know that wasn’t what Kanye was going for. It’s obviously a nod to Late Registration.
Basically, the album is still incredible – especially musically. The mainstream critics will see it just like that, too. That’s because they don’t understand how much better it could’ve been, had Kanye put as much effort into the lyrics – which he obviously (and rightfully) deem much less important. In reality, lyrics are only the third most important piece of a song, behind the music and the melody. Unfortunately, Kanye takes that too literal. Unlike most artists, he actually has the talent to weave incredible lyrics — recited in a non-complex, easy to understand manner — into his music, but chose not to. Songs like Blood sound like he just went in and freestyled or wrote something quick to fit without ever going back and tweaking anything or making adjustments. A great beat and great melody can make a song great. But adding great lyrics to that can make a song legendary. Kanye had the opportunity to make legendary songs on Yeezus, but instead, settled for simply great.
In all, it’s similar to 808s in the manner that I feel it’s a 4/5 rated album that had the potential to be a perfect 5. 808s was supposedly written and recorded in three weeks and Yeezus had four or five songs that still needed vocals on the final day that Kanye was available to record before turning the album in – and in both cases, it shows. This would’ve been a perfect album if he would’ve spent another two months on it and released it in August.
Lebron is talented enough to get away with putting in 75% effort and still score 30 – and that’s what we have here. #Yeezus
Please leave your thoughts on Yeezus below in the comment section.
Written by Wil Loesel