With Yeezus, Kanye West has once again created something singular in the world of platinum-class hip-hop: an album built on alien, angular beats, slowly morphing drones and sirens, abrupt periods of silence, and a pulse-quickening style of delivery from Yeezy himself. The album is also, at its essence, a very alluring con job. Its politics are pure posture, and for all the effort Kanye spent on the undeniably striking music, the man hasn’t grown much as a writer. Many of the best couplets—and there are many—could appear on any of the album’s 10 tracks, and that kind of interchangeability indicates trouble in the concept department. Kanye’s provocations are more targeted than ever, his aim (understandable enough) being to scare the shit out of black-leery whites. But don’t let the beats fool you with their infectious denseness: Behind the curtain, a very rich and talented man is grasping hard for something new to say.
The album offers plenty of bumptious delights, not least of which is Kanye’s impulse to fuck with racists. (The joke is also on him; they don’t buy hip-hop records.) More than once, ’Ye dramatizes the fearful, if tired, notion that white women secretly require black men to satisfy their physical needs. Opener “On Sight” contains one of the most fun instances: “Black dick in ya spouse/And I know she like chocolate men/She got more niggas off than Cochran” (pronounced “Cock-a-rinn”). On “New Slaves,” Kanye takes his beef to Long Island: “Fuck you and your Hampton house/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse/Came on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth.” This is the stuff of 19th-century ruling-class paranoia, and Kanye’s very clever stroke is to restage it in, to borrow Dinesh D’Souza’s phrase, Obama’s America. The rapper’s delivery often matches this more polemical approach, pleasurably antic and even scary at times. He remains master of the drawl-and-bounce, but when he goes all unhinged on “Black Skinheads,” he sounds like a true rebel leader—much like his father Ray, a Black Panther heavy from back in the day.
Here Kanye often sounds like a particularly musical member of the New Black Panther party, which isn’t really a party at all, and he doesn’t really care about politics, at least not as much as he cares about himself. “New Slaves” has moments of useful chastisement (“Fuck you and your corporation”), but it’s really Kanye’s “I’d rather be in Paris” song: “Y’all niggas can’t fuck with ’Ye/I’ll move my family out the country/So you can’t see where I stay.” On “I Am a God,” he plays with his own Humvee-sized ego until he forgets he’s playing and lets that ego roam free: “I am a God/Hurry up with my damn massage/Hurry up with my damn ménage/Get the Porsche out the damn garage.” The old choice was between God and Mammon. Six albums in, Kanye has finally achieved an integration that obviates the need to choose.
Kanye’s Christ complex was always innocuous enough, especially given its galvanic effect on ’Ye from the moment he stepped to a mic. What’s more annoying is his martyr complex, which seems to bloat in pace with his bank account. In his recent New York Times interview, Kanye expressed anger that he’s never won a Grammy for Album of the Year, which, he claims, too frequently goes to white artists. But he should know that “real” artists rarely get the Grammys they deserve. “New Slaves,” in the end, is a song about the industry’s supposed neglect of Kanye’s genius. The track is offensive in its self-regard, but mesmerizing—even if it doesn’t hit nearly as hard as the blitzkrieg of “Black Skinheads” or boast the jagged, hypnotic Auto-Tune of “Guilt Trip.” In other words, Kanye works better when he tries to shrug that chip off his shoulder.
With Yeezus, Kanye has crafted a new, fully conceived notion of what kind of music (or noise) can underpin hip-hop. From a production perspective, it’s a smash. The beats remain head-spinning. But ’Ye’s lyrics feel lazy rather than merely drawled, and he’s seeking social-commentary cred that he hasn’t earned—a posture that can’t help but grate. Only a fool would deny that we can’t live without Kanye. But living with him is awfully difficult sometimes.