This is a conversation about Kanye West's new album, Yeezus.
Emma: I've been listening to Yeezus nearly nonstop since Friday, and I've enjoyed it, even though I've heard plenty of people say the album is "unpleasant" to listen to. I disagree—I think it's full of these moments (even if they're brief) where Kanye is completely in charge of the production and the sound and, accordingly, the listener. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about this a bit this week, but you can almost imagine him standing over the soundboard, pulling you along when he's ready and stopping it short when he feels it's needed. (Frere-Jones called it "fiercely edited" and praised its "lean vibrancy," which gets at the quality of the sound pretty well.) Sonically, you have to respect that amount of concision and care, even if, like me, you don't know the origins of those sounds very well.
But before I heard the album a friend asked if I was excited about it and I said something like, of course I am, because Kanye never does anything halfway. That was a throwaway comment, but I thought of it again over the weekend while listening to the album—its second half, especially. I'm not ready to call his line about undressing being "free at last" or "eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce" subversive. I'd argue it's lazy. And it's confusing to hear a man who I'd argue is usually pretty good at bringing nuance and care to his lyrics rap a lot about his own perceived slights without acknowledging what he's saying to women the entire time. Kanye made an album you have to be patient and committed to to get through, because it doesn't sound like anything we're used to (from him or from anyone else on radio), but I don't think he was patient and committed to his own writing.
Kiese: That's it, Emma. Does Kanye West really "not acknowledge what he's saying about women the entire time"? I respect the "amount of concision and care" in the production of this album so much that it might be best album of the year for me… if only Kanye's voice, in it's current iteration, wasn't on the album. You and I talked a lot over the past seven years about Kanye being our favorite artist, and really that one artist we trust to push us and culture into unexpected artistic places. But before we even get to what he's saying with his voice on Yeezus, can we talk about what he's doing with his voice?
For someone so attuned to sound and composition, why can't he do more interesting things with the sound and rhythm of his voice and the texture of his rhymes? I remember and loved how College Dropout Kanye who was super anxious and really sensitive about “every motherfucker saying that I couldn't rhyme." That sensitivity, or self-consciousness, helped propel him into phenomenal lyrical feats on Late Registration, parts of Graduation, parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and parts of Watch the Throne. Remember when he out-rhymed Lil Wayne during Weezy’s reign on “Barry Bonds”? “Top five emcees, you ain’t gotta remind me,” he rhymed. “Top five emcees, you gotta rewind me …” He got so good at rhyming that the only emcees to really out-rhyme him on tracks in the last five years were Eminem on “Forever,” Jay-Z on the “Diamonds” remix, and Nicki Minaj on “Monster.” So how does a dude so dedicated to being a formidable emcee give such a mediocre rapping performance on an album he calls Yeezus?
I'm really asking.
I emailed with Jay Smooth over the weekend about what Kanye is actually doing with his voice on the album, and he was so right. He said:
I think his ‘aspiration: minimalism’ vision for the album is also detrimental, because he's not the type of emcee or vocalist who benefits from a stripped-down spotlight. He needs those lush/bombastic Kanye arrangements to play up his strengths and hide his flaws, on the mic.
Then he just nailed it, Emma.
Mostly though I'm with you on feeling depressed by where Ye's head is at. It gets hella daunting/frustrating sometimes that as we grow older, half our best artists (who are practically our age!) still sound like 15-year-olds holding court from the he man woman-haters treehouse.
Does this album hate you?
Emma: Does this album love anyone? I don't hear it that clearly. I know it doesn't have to. There's love for Chicago, in featuring both Chief Keef and King L, and for Justin Vernon, and for Martin. It's a strange stance, isn't it, for Kanye to pitch himself like he's coming out with the most political album of the year—and those first two quasi-singles had me convinced, too—and to then come at women so aggressively. You hear two women on the entire album, I think—the Nina Simone sample on "Blood On the Leaves," and the Brenda Lee sample on "Bound 2" (though more are credited in the extensive credits). But he doesn't honor those samples in any meaningful way. "Blood On the Leaves" is specifically manipulative. How do you take maybe one of the most meaningful songs in the history of American music and make it about alimony? "Gold Digger" had comic relief; "All Falls Down" was sensitive to the psyche of its female subject to an unheard-of extent. "Blood On the Leaves" has no such tact.
The hypocrisy is worth drawing out: Kanye successfully hyped his album as an anti-corporate/ anti-industry work of art, and he did that on a tablet that blames or ignores women, much like the power structure he's halfway attempting to critique. I don't trust that story. I also don't believe that Kanye isn't really capable of sounding older than the 15-year-old, as Jay Smooth mentioned, even if he thinks he’s “always the five-year-old.” It makes me think less of songs that I used to take semi-seriously, if only because they seemed like exceptions—"Runaway" and "Blame Game," for example. Or "Hell of a Life," which has a lot in common with Yeezus both sonically and narratively, but is at least couched in his dark, twisted fantasy. "One day I'm gon' marry a porn star," he rapped back then, but: "Never in your wildest dreams, never in your wildest dreams." In "I'm In It," in which Ye talks about a woman in language that verges on assault over a beat that has a woman "oh-ing" (presumably in pleasure?), he raps, "Black girl sipping white wine/Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign." Similes deserve better. Women deserve better. Kanye, I think, is better.
"I know you're tired of loving, of loving," Charlie Wilson sings on the "Bound 2" hook, "With nobody to love, nobody, nobody." It’s a rare moment of soul on the album, and the quintessential Kanye moment where the bravado breaks down, drastically, and that insecurity comes out. As the tenth and final track, it comes as a relief because the sound—and, I think, the sentiment—is so much more familiar to us.
Kiese: All of us are both what we say and what we do, right? Kanye did a lot of the production on this album. But he also did nearly all the rhyming, and even if he got help with the writing, it proves to me again that he's so much better at showing than telling. Even if you start with provocative what-if questions, and even if you’re committed to exploration, it’s still hard to make lyrical art that’s not boring and clichéd. What if a God became a New Slave? What if a New Slave became a God? What if a God got bored? Kanye West tells us—and, I guess, shows us—that he’s a God and New Slave on this album. His lyrical approach and execution of this telling is just so cliché, and so boring.
Are Gods boring? Maybe.
So yeah, there’s a weird dissonance between the “fiercely edited production” and the super boring lyrics about sex and race and being dope, but that dissonance doesn’t really interest me. I’m not mad at Kanye West. I just know, or hope, that he’s far more lyrically interesting than he’s letting on. And the shit he’s doing with masculinity and femininity is just so, so, so tired, and so old. My problem is that in my imagination, dude is my friend. So after I stole the album, I listened to it for five days straight and I had one-sided conversations with dude.
Kanye, do you really hate the white man? Really? So you’re gonna fuck his woman to get back at him? Really? Go further than that, homie. Do you think the white men who run these corporations you're critiquing really gives a fuck about you dissing, fucking, fisting, choking white women? That’s a real question. But it’s a boring question, too because, as you already told us on “All Falls Down,” “the white man gets paid off of all of that." You might have a different answer now, but I’m more interested in why you’re still interested in that question. How does it feel to have new generations of producer-rappers like Big KRIT and J. Cole potentially creating more lyrically interesting art than you?
Emma, there are all these "why's" I wanna see him explore lyrically. And I'm only asking because he's Kanye West. Why are you talking about fucking Asian women and sweet and sour sauce? I get the porn obsession, but folks don't really watch porn; we use porn. Like you said, why is he pornographically using a “Strange Fruit” sample to tell that tired-ass story? Why would he use “apartheid” so recklessly? The why’s are what I wish he would explore. Even if he’s exploring them with tired-ass rhyme schemes, I’d prefer those wack rhymed explorations over the wack rhymed exhortations we get on this album.
After Kendrick comes out with one of the most lyrically interesting albums ever, how in the world do you put out something like this? Is this what Gods do when they're sad? Do Gods have soul?
Sitting alone with your memory and imagination is tough, which is why most Americans go out of our way to avoid that experience. It gets even harder when you’re tasked with filling blank pages and empty space with configurations of that memory and imagination, which is why most of our popular American artists are bloated hacks constantly burping up clichés. Kanye West is the greatest populous American artist in the world, partially because he routinely fills those empty spaces with odd-shaped feelings, sounds, and sound structures that make us feel, make us think, and make us go, “How in the fuck?”
But on most of this album, he’s a shiny lyrically typical American hack. And corporations, ironically, love shiny artistic American hacks. Eminem already did the fuck-the-listener song sprinkled with potent misogyny and porn. And he borrowed from Ice Cube’s “Nigga You Love to Hate” for those concoctions. Why is Kanye doing that shit again, but just adding a little more sex this time? Obviously, he doesn’t care about being lyrically irresponsible or lyrically destructive, but I just thought he cared about being lyrically boring, you know? Why isn't reducing women to conduits to get at the white man, or markers of your Godliness, or conniving pieces of pussy out to get all your money boring?
But the problem is that it’s not boring to us. It’s not boring to straight men and it appears not to be boring to straight women. So actually, maybe this boring-ass shit Kanye just dropped says more about us and sex and race and porn and growing up sad and sensitive than it does about him.
I don’t know, Emma. I’m confused.
Ever since I heard that the album might be called, I Am a God, I remembered Ceelo from 1998:
So how can you call yourself God when you let a worldly possession
Become an obsession in the way you write your rhymes and can't follow your lesson
If a seed's sown, you make sure it's known, you make sure it's grown
If you God, then save your own, don't mentally enslave your own
If you God, then save your own, don't mentally enslave your own
Emma: There’s so much there, and any time I come away with a solid thought about the album I find myself wondering, “but was it intentional?” which says a lot about my expectations for Kanye's work. Jeff Weiss wrote this week about the album, and he introduced the troll theory—he imagined Kanye emailing Tyler, the Creator after the album dropped “with the subject heading: this is how you troll" ("of course, one man’s troll is a would-be Zeus’s provocation," Weiss adds.) If that’s what Kanye is pulling off here (and it makes infinitely more sense to me than, say, calling it “a sweet fable about true love” or pinning it to a final spinout before fatherhood), then I guess I’m impressed, but that doesn’t make it honest, and that’s always been Kanye’s greatest virtue, on wax and off. We always want more from the artists we really respect and love and who have made us go, “How in the fuck?” in the past. We should have those expectations, even while we embrace our favorite artists’ personal artistic evolutions. I loved 808s and Heartbreak for the narrative shift it brought to Kanye’s music, and to hip hop. I’ll love Yeezus for the sonic shift you can predict it’ll eventually bring to hip hop, and for sounding like the longest, most challenging 10-track thesis statement in music production that we’ll probably encounter in a long time. But I’ll probably always wish that it showed some love back.
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel, Long Division and a book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He is an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College.