Yeezus

The tagline might say “fishing the oceans of rock, metal and prog”, but this week I thought I’d branch out –  to none other than hip hop.

It’s hard to notice the critical acclaim that Kanye West’s latest album ‘Yeezus’ has been receiving and so I thought I’d give it a chance. Collaborating with a vast list of artists and producers, including Daft Punk and Frank Ocean, ‘Yeezus’ is an experimental hip hop album deeply in debt to the industrial genre. Released in June, the album began life on the top floor of Paris hotel, and a mere 15 days before the record was due to be released, West introduced Rick Rubin to the project to strip down the songs and change structures. The result is a powerhouse of dark textures and strange effects.

The album opens with the hard-hitting ‘On Sight’, with a grinding industrial synth riff straight from Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Year Zero’ era. The pounding rhythms are juxtaposed when the song suddenly breaks down into a re-recorded refrain from  ‘Sermon’ by the Holy Name of the Mary Choral Family. The use of Samples and other such recordings is a key theme across the record, and are generally used to good effect, appearing when you least expect it.

The first single off the album, ‘Black Skinhead’, comes next making use of another industrial rock/metal riff with energetic drums and a thumping bass line. West again makes use of a long intro (a format which is rarely used by chart-orientated artists), which cycles through three distinct phases before the vocals come in. The vocals are predominantly rapped and rely heavily on dynamics – most noticeable in the chorus where the intensity builds up from hushed to screamed matching the drums.

Unfortunately at this point the first negatives begin to crop up. After two songs the needless use of profanity has already become wearisome – f*** is on seven,  s*** is on eight and not to mention the misogynistic use of b*tch on six and the unnecessary six counts of the n-word. The aggressive use of profanity and racial remarks for the sole purpose of trying to sound edgy and somehow more relevant has the opposite effect; Kanye West’s lyrics just seem immature and unable to convincingly convey a theme without relying on a dirty vocabulary – the sort that rebellious teens will lap up.

Nevertheless I persevered with the album, trying to judge it on its musical qualities, rather than on the lyrics. The harsh industrial soundscapes, with droning bass and effect laden vocals continue across the album, none more so than with the egotistical ‘I am a God’ (apparently featuring God himself).

However, on the fourth track the lyrics become the centre of attention – but for all the right reasons. ‘New Slaves’ is a song of two halves; the first an extended powerful rap about racism, over a very minimal repeated synth phrase. The songs emotion builds until the second half where effect-driven vocals layer over a much richer musical section. ‘Hold My Liquor’ again takes the stripped back approach, mixing thin instrumentation, with harsh sounds and slow vocals, to create a very chilling, almost depressing piece, although the lyrics once again ruin the song.

One of the potentially most interesting songs from the record is ‘Blood on the Leaves’, which makes use of samples from Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Strange Fruit’ –  a haunting poem dealing with racism and lynching, which is sung in a chilling beauty over a sparse piano back drop. Unfortunately I don’t think the song does the sample justice. Kanye West’s outbursts of horrendously auto-tuned vocals in between Simone’s heart wrenching vocals is the artistic equivalent of scrawling a penis on Munch’s ‘The Scream’. It’s sad that a contemporary artist can’t recognise if he has managed to add value to preexisting piece or not. In fact it’s sad that the several samples used throughout the record probably make a better musical statement than the complete package.

Tracks like ‘I’m In It’ and ‘Guilt Trip’ continue with the more aggressive industrial style, the latter incorporating some truly weird effects both vocally and musically. However it’s the last two tracks the really stand out from the second half of the album. ‘Send It Up’ features a riff that is sonically abrasive yet still memorable and oddly catchy. The track is dark and is driven by a rumbling bass line and musically could have come from any of the major bands the nineties industrial metal scene.

The last track ‘Bound 2’ is the second single to be released from the album and is predominantly based around soul music samples, most notably ‘Bound’ from seventies soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One. The use of these particular samples could possibly be a throwback to West’s original sound, where his style closely resembled soul. ‘Bound 2’ acts a great conclusion to the album; a brighter song both musically and lyrically to the rest of the album, whilst nodding its head at Kanye West’s own roots.

Musically ‘Yeezus’ is brilliant. I honestly never thought I’d be saying this, but it is; if this was the new Nine Inch Nail’s album, albeit with Trent Reznor’s vocals not Kanye West’s, it would be a classic. However, the album doesn’t quite resonant with me vocally, resorting to too much pointless profanity and often poor lyrics. I was impressed with his delivery in openers ‘On Sight’ and ‘Black Skinhead’, it’s just a shame that the quality of what came out when his mouth opened wasn’t on par with the rest of the album. The foundations were there for truly great record that could have appealed to a wider audience than even he had imagined, but unfortunately it isn’t quite realised, which is true shame.

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