The first time I heard Yeezus I was jarred. Kanye was known for taking drastic turns under intense pressure. According to Pitchfork, after his entire world was crumbling around him—he’d lost both his mother and his longtime girlfriend with whom he was engaged, Alexis Pfifer—Kanye turned his rage into a whirlwind of deep emotional distress called 808s and Heartbreak. The album wasn’t on some revolutionary shit at the time. People didn’t quite know what to make of it. Pitchfork’s review was decidedly mixed and awarded the album a 7.6 with a series of volleyed critiques. “It’s no surprise that 808s is a bit of a grower: The record’s best songs—“Paranoid”, “Street Lights”, “Coldest Winter”, and “RoboCop”—are often its most dismal, with cavernous production giving the Auto-Tune vocals more of an echoing desolation than a pop sheen,” Scott Plagenhoef stated. “By contrast, the more pop aspects of the album are where it relatively stumbles.” Kanye West had declared that he wanted to be the “number one artist in the world” by that time. And in a press conference in New Zealand he seemingly uttered these bizarrely aspirational and prophetic words, “Hip Hop is over for me now.” At least that’s how it was reported by The Observer and, thus, almost everyone else. What did that even mean? West asked reporters that same question after word got out. It means it paved the way for the most divisive album of Mr. West’s career when, faced with another maelstrom of emotional distress, he decided to change the nature of the protest album. Yeezus, then, was a protest directed toward the closing of the corporate mind.
In Ta-nehisi Coates Between The World And Me, there’s a passage in which he describes following a group of officers in Chicago go and evict a man from his home. Here those men are speaking to the man’s wife in the all the words of humiliation and domination afforded them by their place in this machine, and as her children scatter around her she wells up in tears. The man, the husband, there to watch his life’s work wilted under the curtain of a carefully built dome of oppression suddenly erupts in anger. He wails, he screams, but nothing can be done. Yeezus was Kanye West wailing under the spotlight of corporate hegemony. We all heard him scream about “leather jogging pants” and tell Sway he didn’t have the answers and we fretted at his overt arrogance. Could we then not have seen what we see now, which is that corporations and brands are themselves part of the system that Coates referred to as “the killing fields… created by the policy of Dreamers”? Could we not see that his being blocked from those halls of creative privilege were part of the reaction of a larger machinery, which works to separate people for nearly any reason. In this case, as Kanye argued, his celebrity failed to grant him the thing he needed the most: the ability to be taken seriously by the creative establishment. On “Black Skinhead” he nearly tears from the bone of his own career with “Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin / Number one question they’re askin’ / Fuck every question you askin’ / If I don’t get run out by Catholics / Here come some conservative Baptists / Claimin’ I’m overreactin’ / Like them black kids in Chiraq, bitch.”
You feel not only the anger and frustration of being denied access, but you also feel the weight of a struggle he thought he’d already conquered. On Yeezus, he punctures the separation between his world, their world, and ours. He seeks to push the boundary of his celebrity to achieve, well, autonomy. Those two ideas are often mutually exclusive. That may be why, even after superlative production by French superstars Daft Punk and perennial musical partner Mike Dean as well as co-production credits for the likes of 88 Keys, Travis Scott, Lupe Fiasco and so many more, Ye´ visited Rick Rubin to pare down even further his traditional maximalism into what he deemed “aspiration minimalism” as reported by the New York Times. In that same interview with Jon Caramanica he had this to say, “Anytime I’ve had a big thing that’s ever pierced and cut across the Internet, it was a fight for justice. Justice. And when you say justice, it doesn’t have to be war. Justice could just be clearing a path for people to dream properly. It could be clearing a path to make it fair within the arena that I play.” Kanye West thinks all these dreams are important, but he’s often disparaged for fighting for himself the most. I can only ask you if believing in humankind means you have to leave yourself out of it? Does it mean you have to put your own dreams on the backburner for the dreams of others? Ego is a strange thing in these times. And when fighting for Justice, should it be only when you are not at the table at all? Can it also be when you are working for the company, but want to be let into the executive suite? Can it be claiming access for yourself when you’ve felt you deserved it?
After “New Slaves,” it turns down considerably as West explores all the “ceilings” that exist. Past cumming on the blouse of your Hampton spouse, the album takes a turn toward the male on “I’m in It.” In fact, “I’m in It” approaches levels of appall usually reserved for Internet trolls, but then concludes with a sobering up. “Time to take it too far now,” West laments. “Uh, Michael Douglas out the car now / Uh, got the kids and the wife life / Uh, but can’t wake up from the nightlife / Uh, I’m so scared of my demons / Uh, I go to sleep with a night light / Uh, pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist..” And you realize the testosterone-fueled fantasies of the previous verses speak to the perceived effects of that, as well. Then the beautiful Nina Simone sample of “Strange Fruit.” Because of the weight of the song, the argument that it was wasted on a song about past relationships is valid. But it doesn’t change the fact that relationship also reached its ceiling. And is it any wonder that Arca had his hand in some of these stark digital creations along with Hudmo and Mike Dean? That the brilliance of this album’s exploration of classism is often ignored speaks to where we were in 2013 when things just didn’t seem as bleak. Much has changed. And the landscape created by corporate hegemony is now fixing to clasp its hands around the throat of the web, itself, where thoughts are now the currency traded as collateral. As such we’ve all entered into this matrix-of-celebrity and are facing the shadow of the closing of the corporate mind ourselves, first hand. Is it now only perfunctory to conclude that this protest album should end with a love song entitled “Bound 2?” I’ll leave that up to you.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.