Well, if you are living in a cave – or just emotionally balanced – you probably have not heard that Kanye West is endeavoring to change the world with a life changing record. Of course, West’s last solo record is probably the best rap album in years. It was an album which took all of the tools that hiphop has collected over time – the complex samples, the beats, the complex beats and turn them into a master opus. Really it was a celebration of West’s massive (but not without humor) ego – rap’s Led Zeppelin IV (and yes I know it’s not the real name of the album), a sound on such a large canvas that it invited parody without quite getting there. You do this right, you get Sgt Pepper the album; you do it wrong, you get Sgt Pepper the movie.
There is no doubt that West’s long awaited Yeesus is a weightier work. We hear a man rapping about slavery (“New Slaves”) and loss (“Blood on the Leaves”) – and the textures of the beats are as complex as ever. Indeed, many critics have written about the intersection of this album with his own life and fame – the sort of thing which music critics love to do as ersatz “Academic” criticism. All of these things to me certainly ring true, and West has thrown all of his effort and production expertise into creating some very very sophisticated pieces. There might be a profound statement on fame or fatherhood here, but what he forgot were the songs.
Really this was the most startling thing. For the artist who has been arguably the best rapper alive, and certainly the best combination of critical and commercial validation – Yeesus is a surprising misfire at simply chruning out songs which you’d want to listen to. Twisted Fantasy by contrast has all sorts of choices – “Dark Fantasy”, “Monster”, “Power”. (and some of these songs were 6 minutes long!). By comparison, from the opening track – Yeesus is work. For instance, the samples in “New Slaves” and the lyrics are wasted on a staccato, melody-less sort of rhyme. It’s a put together track that doesn’t go anywhere. “Blood on the Leaves” does the same as NQ deftly notes, just much too much production without any idea of what is being produced.
When Rick Rubin was brought it to produce the record, Rubin, West – some easy life experience to put some paint by numbers symbolism and heft, this album yearns to be called great. It is easy to WANT to call it great, and I suspect a lot of the album’s raves are related to this halo effect. (and the last track, “Bound 2” is sort of the exception in this album that validates my criticism). But buying an album requires an investment of some dollar amount and time, and I need more than just intent or symbolism. A great album has layers, but without the basic top layer the deeper stuff just becomes homework. On Daft Punk’s recent towering Random Access Memories for instance, the track “Doin it right” is just an autotuned refrain over a fairly simple beat – almost nothing of significance, certainly not compared to anything on Yeesus. All it is is completely compulsively re-listenable, a standard which Kanye falls well short of far too often here.