One of the many striking and often shocking metaphors within “Yeezus,” the new album from rapper Kanye West, arrives halfway into the 10-song release, during a song called “I’m in It.” It involves a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Thank God almighty, free at last,” raps West, referencing a phrase from 50 years ago that the civil-rights leader used in relation to the plight of African Americans.
The line as used by West is notable for what it’s not: a charged reference to black freedom. Rather, those that are “free at last” aren’t enslaved humans but a woman’s breasts, released from the bondage of a bra during a bathroom tryst.
The song, which could be called bawdy were it not so lyrically dark, is one of many on West’s sixth solo studio album that reference — and commingle — sex, ethnicity and/or power.
“Yeezus” is the most musically adventurous album West has ever released, a wildly experimental work that features tracks produced by Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Rick Rubin and others. It’s also West’s most narcissistic, defiant, abrasive and unforgiving.
Those who can’t stomach the polarizing Chicago artist and producer will have a replenished arsenal at their disposal. Those looking for a progressive, assured and kaleidoscopic rap album, though, should pop it on at full volume and close your eyes.
What you’ll learn is that as far as West is concerned, critics can go to hell. Within the first verse of the first song, he’s dismissed “whatever y’all been hearing.” As an exclamation point to his prowess, by the end of the song he’s being sexually serviced by a woman at a nightclub.
Though only 40 minutes long, “Yeezus” weighs a ton, heavy with gravity and mouthiness, yowls, synthetic noise, deep beats and screams. A multi-dimensional contradiction, West tosses out rhyme-schemed similes that employ racial ideas rich with symbolism but often in service of harsh lyrics that suggests he either doesn’t appreciate or care about original intent. It’s a baffling, frustrating and often confusing move. But then consider the source.
In addition to the repurposed King quote, West and producers TNGHT sample Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” without any apparent regard for it as a chronicle of Southern violence. Instead, he harnesses the devastating verses recounting the “strange fruit” hanging from a Southern tree — the dangling body of a lynching victim — in service of a song about gold-digging women, a night on the town taking MDMA and having sex.
The consequence? A narrator trapped not by bloodthirsty Klansmen but by a desperate baby-mama gunning for alimony.
Elsewhere, the raised-fist call of the Black Panther Party, one of the most potent symbols of black power, is employed as a cheap metaphor for sexual penetration.
This is the work of a man unconcerned with offending women or racial historians, the voice of a soul in pure id mode, thinking with his groin and worrying little about the ladies’ vote. Is it the last gasp of a man who’s just become a father for the first time? An early midlife crisis? An attempt at alienating the marketplace so he can live as an artist rather than a paparazzi target?
I’d wager on the last one. “Time to take it too far, yo,” he says at one point, keenly aware that he’s exploring the edges of pop-music propriety.
Musically, this exploration is fascinating. “Yeezus” is minimal but powerful, a record filled with more aural space than anything on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his excellent 2010 album. “Guilt Trip,” especially, is a wild digital experiment with space: Cosmic video-game synthetics race through the beat-thick track, warbling and weaving bursts of noise that sound time-traveled from 1982. “Send It Up” is equally stupefying, a next-level freakout that sounds as weird and progressive as anything on the experimental beat scene. Ditto the sonically beefy modular synths in “Hold My Liquor,” with beats built by Young Chop.
“Gonna start a new movement, being led by the drums,” declares West, unconcerned that there’s nothing new about minimalist beats, willfully blind that first-generation rap was also led by percussion.
What is new, though, is his increasing disregard for musical conventions. Sounds that draw on the popular “trap” movement abound, and pop kings Daft Punk produce a number of next-level beats that suggest the disco of “Random Access Memories” is merely one of their many strengths. The best of them, “New Slaves,” is a serious jam, a nuanced rhythmic breakdown as aggressively out-there as it is hardened.
Hardened? Most certainly, and the evidence is everywhere. Here’s a man so powerful that he can boss around both massage therapists and waiters, as he does in “I Am a God”: “I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage / in the French … restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants.” If it weren’t embedded within a truly frightening song featuring curdling screams and deep bass, the line would be laughable.
As presented, his intentions are unclear — other than to remind you that, you know, “I am a god!”
Duly noted. Maybe now West can start tapping into his benevolent side. After all, he’s going to need it in 15 years when self-aggrandizing young men start objectifying his daughter.
Three and a half stars (out of four)
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor).
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit