Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
Kanye West’s sixth studio album ‘Yeezus’ is both less and more surprising than you might think. An anomaly in a series of progressively opulent releases, the album is startlingly harsh and angry, but it’s also very consistent in terms of both method and message. You can place it somewhere in between his past two solo works – an aesthetic and emotional about turn like ’808s & Heartbreak’, albeit charged by anger rather than emptiness, and a statement release like ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ – though unlike that record, it’s determined to show how little he’s willing to pander to traditional structures rather than interested in developing them.
The album runs at 40 minutes exactly, no singles were released to promote it and the cover is a clear case with only a strip of red tape marking it out. However, any talk of this being a minimalist album is clearly misguided. The production credits still read like an all-star line-up of contemporary talent – with an added emphasis on electronic dance acts like Daft Punk, TNGHT, Evian Christ and Arca – but ‘Yeezus’ incorporates different sounds for a jarring effect, with crashing horn sections, vocal interludes, spiked synths and drum tracks working like juts in a linear block rather than the richly embellished layer he’s best known for. Brutalist is probably a more accurate term for this musical style, as tracks are still made up of numerous parts but the sutures are exposed and often stretched.
Similarly, the verbal content of ‘Yeezus’ is strident but not exactly revolutionary. More to his credit than discredit, West keeps the scope of his attacks local and personal, culminating in a visceral take on social issues blended with his own personal obsessions that may lack an academic or moral clarity but is full of force. Black Skinhead, one of his most vicious swipes at middle America, opens with a re-worked line about the fly Malcolm X – “buy any jeans necessary” – and likens his controversial public image to the media coverage of Chicago’s gang violence in a message that works as both as a critique (of both wider society and himself) and exposition of power. West isn’t afraid of positioning himself in another tradition, and plays off the contrast, highlighting his strengths and weaknesses. He repeatedly uses Civil Rights speech to talk about lust in I’m in It – “Damn your lips are very soft/as I turn my BlackBerry off”, “Your titties, let them out, free at last”, “put my fist in her in like the Civil Rights sign”. On Blood on the Leaves, a sampling of Nina Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit redirects the context of the original into a tirade about exploitative sexual relationships and groupie culture. It’s an abasement of a very important song – turning the vocal to a percussive element like he’s done on Otis and Gold Digger previously – but a knowing one, highlighting its vulnerability by showing how far the original cause has been wrecked.
The clunkiest part, as is often the case with West, is the rapping. His passion is never wanting – he’s developed a range of yelps and screams alongside Auto-Tuned warbling and his normal rapping style – but, bar the impressive New Slaves, his polemics often suggest scornful pity or awkward, dark humour more than real menace. He lacks the sheer force to convey his message alone so he brings in other voices for support, whether live (fellow Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King L both deliver astoundingly bleak and well-measured features) or sampled (the piercing dancehall vocals frequently used as linking passages). These show up the relative lack of urgency in his delivery but, again, are testament to his other skills – the connectivity and the holistic belief in the power of awesomeness he referenced in his New York Times interview.
“Complete awesomeness at all times” is the manifesto for this music. Purposefully abrasive and (anti-)artistic, ‘Yeezus’ is the middle finger Kanye West was dying to flip and, despite the bristling anger, it’s rarely joyless or unenthusiastic. This album is really an exercise and a demonstration of a great creativity rather than a great worldview: West is too aware of his own faults to make the kind of broad political statement some might have expected, and yet too conscious of his superior ability and position in the zeitgeist to be totally apologetic or self-effacing. The result is complicated and difficult, with some slips and overstretches, but it’s a cohesive, cathartic album that finds him in an open and experimental mood. The first and last track stand out in particular and rank among some of the best in his career: a pulsating electro swagger announcing his modernist zeal (On Sight) and a deconstructed throwback number showing a tarnished but still-receptive soul (Bound 2). He’s frenetic and energized here: slightly aimless, but with the noblest intent.