When Kanye West showed up on Saturday Night Live and performed "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves," the punk community was in either of two camps. The first shouted that it sounded just like Saul Williams or the latest POS release, 2012's We Don't Even Live Here. The second camp didn't care what the first had to say because those performances were cool and punk as hell. I've been to a lot of concerts, punk and rap alike, and my favorite rap concerts are always the ones that feel like punk shows at the core. Kanye's SNL performances felt like I was watching Fear on NBC all over again, but in 2013. A month later, and we've got an album that Def Jam tried to sneak out without any sort of hype.
Yeezus is a lot of things. It's house, it's industrial, it's trap, it's dancehall. It's crass, it's ponderous, it's important, and it's a hell of a listen. It's a pretty interesting progression for the Louis Vuitton Don to go all minimalist on us, but it doesn't feel out of place. Angry Kanye wouldn't sound right with his trademark soul samples and the primal yelling/gasping vocal style that he's going for on a few of the first five tracks. The help from electronica/house producers is noted; left to amateurs, it could have become a mess, but it's well-composed. Tracks 6-10 are where Kanye hits his stride, taking out everything in his path. While "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" are great appetizers, they're the only tracks at the beginning that can really bring in the listener. The other three are low-level cuts from a guy whose career has been made off of building albums that can be listened to from beginning to end. "I'm In It," with its insensitive quotables about Asian women and sweet and sour sauce still has maybe the best moment of the record when Agent Sasco and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver step in on vocals. Nina Simone is sampled for "Blood On The Leaves," which also incorporates a C-Murder tune. That's the kind of stuff we love Kanye for. Speaking of great blends, "Guilt Trip" weaves dancehall/reggae samples (cribbed from "Blocka" by Pusha T) and smart electronica zaps without any sort of awkward early dubstep comparisons. Finally, the album closes on "Bound 2," which sounds like it would have fit on any of his previous albums (save for 808s and Hearbreak).
On the negative side, this is a rushed album. You can feel it's something that Kanye felt he had to get out quickly, much like 808s and Heartbreak. That doesn't excuse some of the filler verses and corny punchlines, though. The content bounces off the wall, from socially conscious and responsible to tabloid fodder that he doesn't like to call attention to in real life but seems more than comfortable sharing with the microphone. Tracks like "Blood On The Leaves" and "I Am A God" are great, but feel like Kanye's fishing for the listener to dig deeper into his personal life when he should just say what he's got. That's what got him where he is now, being honest and leaving nothing to the imagination. Songs about your wife doing MDMA/asking her for a threesome should probably be left to the E! channel where they're already tracking her every move. It feels like when Kanye tried to cosign Scott Disick in Cruel Summer last year. It's a desperate way to inject a totally uncool pop culture symbol into hip-hop and make them mildly acceptable, especially when your new wife is the antithesis of everything you rap about on this record. The other major issue is the use of Chicago rap stars in completely uninspiring ways. Nothing about listening to the Chief Keef or King Louie features is going to make me listen to them outside of this if I'm a new listener. They're both great rappers worth checking out, but they're squandered on this record. It's a shame, because Kanye could have put them on other tracks or on his label but instead they're in Yeezus, which isn't about anyone else rapping. It's about Yeezus and Yeezus alone.
Like I said, Yeezus is a lot of things. It's rushed, it's smart, it's flawed, but ultimately it's what Kanye wanted to get out there right now and you can't blame him for that. You also can't blame him for putting out an album this quickly that is also as carefully composed as this. It's not every day that we get solid sample work out of a Kanye West album anymore. What you can blame him for is desperation in injecting pop culture into anti-culture rap and for doing a terrible wrong in the careers of two Chi-town rappers who deserve a lot better. Yeezus is the shortest Kanye album to date and I struggle with saying that he needed more songs to make this idea more fleshed out. Right now, as it stands, it's the weakest Kanye album and while it deserves several listens, I find it hard to defend on a couple levels. It's going to garner a lot of praise from people who haven't heard a rap album like it before, but experimentation with sounds aside, it's not worthy of the amount of praise it's going to get. At the very best, Yeezus is a good album with strong concepts that just needed a little more time to reach potential. At its worst, it's self-indulgent and crass, just like Kanye's detractors see him. And maybe that divisiveness is exactly what he wants on this album.