Yeezus: Sexist, Arrogant, Insensitive and Brilliant

Yeezus_Kanye_WestWalking into HMV, it was clear which of the new releases belonged to Kanye West.  A perfectly clear jewel case containing a silver disc with nothing but a piece of tape wrapped around the edge and a parental advisory sticker on the front.  What other artist would be audacious or creative enough to release and album cover with no artwork whatsoever?  Not even The Black Keys reached this level of minimalism with the cover for their album Brothers.  What was the purpose of this approach?  It works in several ways.  It can be seen as a statement on the shift in the industry toward downloading purchases.  Online purchases eliminate the album art work because there is no album casing.  Whether West is suggesting the compact disc is dead, or that downloading has created an environment that misses out on the art work of the album is unclear, but there is certainly some commentary there.  The minimalist approach also offers a glimpse into the material on the album itself.  One might assume that, with the layers of sound featured on his last solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West would continue to include a variety of instrumentation and layered melodies on this album.  This is not the case however.  Lastly, the lack of a cover may also be part of a dialogue with critics of the cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which pictured West fornicating with a white woman.  The response was extreme and an alternate cover was offered of a ballerina painted in a similar style to satiate record stores.  West may simply be suggesting that in order to not offend, one needs to subtract all content and even then one is guaranteed to get a response, as West has with this album cover.  The only thing on the cover is the parental advisory sticker, assuring the listening that, yes, they will be offended.  It is like a promise.  All he deemed worthy of saying about the content was that parental supervision is required.

 

The alternate cover for West's last album.

The alternate cover for West’s last album.

Perhaps more important than the cover is the actual music on the inside.  The first track, ‘On Sight’, sets the tone for the album. It is abrasive and minimalist.  A synthesized sound works almost by itself for most of the song, with a simple drum snare running in the background in parts.  It is more industrial than hip-hop, but West also employs a musical-disjunction (akin to a narrative-disjunction approach used in literature).  In between the rhymes West delivers with feverish intensity over the industrial beat, a sample of choir music is inserted abruptly.  The industrial beat meets an immediate stop and the choir sample begins.  There is no transition, just stops and starts.  Lyrically, the contrast is just as sharp.  The choir sings “He’ll give us what we need. It may not be what we want.”  Re-contextualizing this statement as being applied to Kanye West instead of God demonstrate West’s humility (also exemplified in the song title ‘I Am a God’ ), but also suggests that West sees the material as a change which audiences may not know they want, but are in need of nonetheless.  Of course juxtaposing lines like ‘put my dick in her mouth’ with the vocals appropriated from a choir is a juxtaposition which while interesting, is sure to land West in hell if such a place exists.

 

Kim Kardashian doesn't seem to have a problem with West's inherent sexism... yet.

Kim Kardashian doesn’t seem to have a problem with West’s inherent sexism… yet.

On Sight’ is not the only track that feature references to oral sex and unleashing breasts from a bra.  West delves into sexual innuendo in a number of songs, perhaps most explicitly on the track ‘I’m In It’.  Cunnilingus, fellatio and analingus are all featured on the track (the cunnilingus reference is a call for sweet and sour sauce as West claims to be performing the act on a woman of Asian descent, demonstrating West’s cultural and ethnic sensitivities and sensibilities), and also uplifts the female form without uplifting anything else about the female beloved.  A classic Petrarchan poem if I ever heard one.  I’d like to think West is lampooning or satirizing the sexist heterosexual male, but I think this is just an example of West BEING a sexiest heterosexual male.

Being sexist and ethnically insensitive isn’t the only way West can offend with this work, however.  In the song ‘New Slaves’, West really struggles to stretch the word slave.  Yes, I agree, there are elements of exploitation in the music industry; Prince suggested as much after he felt his contract with a record company was akin to slavery.  Prince didn’t convince me and neither does West.  The word slave has a very specific meaning.  If West wanted to speak to contemporary slavery, he should have spoken to actual contemporary slavery.  It exists and it is far worse than being signed to a record contract and then being convinced to spend money on Bentleys and jewelry.  That said, West does touch on some legitimate issues in the last portion of the song.  Lyrical content aside, the samples on the track are used expertly.  Again, it is a minimalist approach and the deceptively simple melodies and a sample borrowed from Gyöngyhajú lány by Omega, with modest drum beats work to great effect and make me cringe at how much I enjoy a song whose lyrics offend me with such efficiency.

Nina Simone: West had the right idea sampling Simone, but the execution left something to be desired.

Nina Simone: West had the right idea sampling Simone, but the execution left something to be desired.

Of course, six tracks into the album and West, who, mind you, I am a big fan of, was not yet done offending me.  I was excited when I got to the track ‘Blood on the Leaves’ (not to be confused with ‘Blood on the Coal’) and heard Nina Simone’s voice sampled from ‘Strange Fruit’.  Sadly, rather than using the sample to make a socially conscious song, West uses it to complain about women who dropped him before he was famous and the ‘second string bitches’ who try to get pregnant by him now that he is.  I’m not sure sampling a track about Blacks who were lynched with a song about how much ‘pussy’ you get is the most effective use of juxtaposition I’ve seen, but it is certainly one that will not easily be forgotten.  The thing is, West has done a great job in the past of this sort of thing.  On the album Late Registration, West samples the song ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ for his track ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’.  It is an expertly crafted song that speaks to the issue of complacent consumption and draws on the beautiful vocals of Shirley Bassey.  West borrows from what is essentially a capitalist anthem and re-contextualizes it in a way to make it socially relevant.  With ‘Blood on the Leaves’, though, West does the opposite.  He takes a song that is socially relevant and trivializes it by moaning about his ‘women problems’.  Later in the track, West samples from the ‘R U Ready’ performed by TNGHT.  The harsh horns employed are far more befitting the lyrical content of the song and West demonstrates that, yes, sometimes he really can hit the nail on the head.  That said, since he was employing a Simone sample already, the piano from her track ‘Sinnerman’ could have been put to good use here (as it was by Felix the House Cat), as could have the horns from ‘Feeling Good’.  I would have preferred if this track strictly used samples from TNGHT rather than Simone and that Simone samples be reserved for a song whose lyrical content was more fitting.

 

 

Kanye West: Hipster extraordinaire.

Kanye West: Hipster extraordinaire.

The album is not entirely foreign to West’s previous works.  While tracks like ‘Send It Up’ have coarse but catchy samples, ‘Guilt Trip’ is a track very reminiscent of 808s and Heartbreak.  I’m not sure if this experimentation is one that hip-hop fans will embrace, but it is one music critics will at the very least respect even if they don’t enjoy it.  The problem though is that West has a certain persona and he is strongly identified with his music.  His lyrical content is seen as a reflection of his actual personality.  Listeners accept that when folk singers tell a story that they are in character, but West’s character is his actual self, or at least is perceived to be by many fans.  With that said, West is in a very public relationship that does not work in concert with much of the lyrical content on this album.  I don’t have an issue with this, but I imagine that in hip-hop circles where the concept of ‘real’ has a very different meaning than it does in other musical circles, that West’s credibility may be questioned by some.  The album is an interesting experiment and at times an enjoyable one, even when it offends.  It is not as radio friendly as past released (Wet may be turning into the Radio Head of hip-hop), but it is an excellent execution of experimentation.  West’ lyrical content though does make enjoying the music problematic.  It is disappointing to see an artists at talented as West, and one who has made efforts in the past to be social conscious, to continue to indulge in sexist mentalities that objectify women, while at the same time demonstrating an utter lack of cultural sensitivity.  My impression is that West simply has Asperger’s syndrome, or at least that is what I am telling myself so that I can enjoy the music.  In the future I hope to see that West’s lyrics progress as much as his music.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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