Kanye West: Yeezus

Release Date: June 18, 2013

With what I intend to write here, I feel the need to begin by asserting my credibility. I’ve been a Kanye fan since I first heard the second single off his debut record, “All Falls Down“. I wore that record (College Dropout) out. Honestly, I was a fan even before that owing to his extensive production work on Jay-Z‘s magnum opus The Blueprint. I’ve traveled with Kanye through five albums now and have watched him evolve as an artist and celebrity. While I love the freshness of his early stuff, I still think that 808s is his masterwork on all levels: from production, to lyrics, to his much-maligned performance. Dark Twisted Fantasy has its place and brings us to where we are today, but I think that it is ret-conned somewhat in light of West’s latest, Yeezus.

I’ve stuck up for ‘Ye for the last few years. I easily overlooked the Taylor Swift incident when many didn’t – and still haven’t. I’ve mostly ignored the Kardashian mess. I’ve gone to bat for the man when people around me have looked to put him down. I’ve always said “this is an artist, perhaps overwhelmed by the celebrity that his art has garnered for him. Cut him some slack.” One could draw a close parallel to the fall-from-grace story of John Mayer. The big difference is, Mayer realized his mistakes and didn’t make a big deal about convincing everyone of his new leaf. He just quietly packed up and left town, waited a while, put out a phenomenal record, and went back to being quiet.

Yeezy has been his own worst enemy by attempt to be his own most vocal proponent.

Warning: this record is not for the faint of heart, sensitive of hearing, or easily offended. But even if you pass all of those criteria, I’m not sure that this record is really for anyone, period. It is cacophonous and vulgar to such a degree that even the successful elements are tarnished. West has suggested that this is a piece of art and that he is a master artist. I never want to be one to question an artists integrity in creating their art, but I have to say that I hear something entirely different… but I’ll get to that.

Here’s the deal. As far as artistry is concerned, Kanye is among the best. His delivery (solely a matter of opinion) is one of my favorites. His marketing – while self-aggrandizing – is often brilliant. Here, however, he seems to have run out of anything insightful to say and is resorting to the lesser-value content that permeates the genre. (Rick Rubin even attests to the late-stage songwriting.) He’s one of the best in the business, but this is him simply not living up to his potential… but, again, I’ll get to that.

The album opens promisingly enough in the first 57 seconds of “On Sight” before West loses the plot and eventually lets Daft Punk solo their way out of the song. The entirety of “New Slaves” is visionary. “Blood on the Leaves” is a return to the greatness of 808s, with a hint of Late Registration. There’s something to “Guilt Trip” in that it takes that 808s mentality but allows Kanye to do what he does best, simple, straight-up rap.

Warning: Obviously, this is partially editted for TV, but the content is still strong.

Over an above all of this, I just hear a guy who is deeply hurting and unwilling to admit it.

We all know that Kanye was deeply effected by his mother’s death. This devastation was clearly evident on 808s and Heartbreak. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy re-introduced a rapping West, reborn. The themes were darker and the approach was far more aggressive. Gone were the playful days of The College Dropout. On Yeezus, he asks us to receive this latest work as a piece of minimalist art from the Steve Jobs of music. All I can hear is a guy who hasn’t fully exorcised his demons and is at a place of moral and creative bankruptcy who has to keep creating, but has nothing more to give.

He wants us to believe that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, yet he can’t survive without our validation

I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair. Anytime I’ve had a big thing that’s ever pierced and cut across the Internet, it was a fight for justice. Justice. – Kanye West,  New York Times interview 6/11/13

I think that there is room here to compare to Eminem‘s Recovery. In much the same way, Mathers came out and said, “I don’t care what you think,” delivered (arguably) the best album of his career, and then went back to doing his own thing. There was no convincing needed. The work spoke for itself.

‘Ye’s need for validation – for the sake of “Justice”, or any other reason – will always keep him from reaching his greatest heights. I still believe that he has great art in him, but he needs to  take a cue from John Mayer and really accept himself before he asks us to do so.

I always welcome feedback; on this particular piece, I’ll even come right out and ask for it. I’d love to hear what you think of this record and how far off base you think I am.

Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak

Release Date: Nov 24, 2008

Before you tune me out, hear me out. I know it’s Kanye. I know you probably hate him. Let me dissuade you of your preconceptions for but a moment. You’re probably saying, “But Ryan, I just hate that hip hop/rap nonsense!” This isn’t rap. “Well, I don’t want to hear all that foul language and misogyny.” There are ZERO curse words and if comparing a woman to the titular character of an 80’s action film about a police officer who becomes a robot is misogyny, well, you’ll have to make your own mind up on that…

These are the songs of a broken-hearted man, or if the cover image is any indication, a deflated man. A guy who rose up too quick and missed out on some of the more important things. Of course, he did go on to steal the stage from Taylor Swift and impregnate Kim Kardashian, but let’s try to focus on this album. Ok? At this point, his mother had just died and his long-time fiancee had just left him. He retreated to Hawaii and created this masterpiece.

This is absolutely one of my favorite records. It is so unlike anything else he had done up to that point. Artists in general and rappers in particular have to put on something of a characterization of themselves. Every now and then, you’ll see that get stripped away and usually only for a moment or two. Here, Yeezy gives us almost an hour of real talk.

The thumping opening of “Say You Will” is brilliant. It’s sparse, it’s tense, it’s painful. I knew that I was really in for something different when “Welcome to Heartbreak” presented an unheard-before picture of self-loathing and personal emptiness. Chased the good life all my life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / where did I go wrong. This is not rap music. You’ve heard “Heartless” and countless covers of it (William Fitzsimmons’ is the best) and you’ve probably heard “Love Lockdown” (Pentatonix killed this one on The Sing Off) so I won’t spend any more time on those tracks.

My favorite track on the record is “Robocop” mainly because it is lyrically so absurd but still relevant. Basically, his girl is watching his every move and it’s driving him crazy. The best part is the subtle robotic sounds in chorus. His vocal is mostly unprocessed and just very endearing. The whole track is fairly childish and playful which makes it fun. The “L.A. girl” tag at the end is hilariously layered over the string section.

If there’s a “miss” on this record, it’s the final track “Pinocchio Story (Freestyle Live from Singapore)”. If Kanye is going to sing, he needs the AutoTune. The track itself is rambling and dis-jointed, meanwhile the recording is just terrible. I don’t really know why it was even included.

So, there’s your 6th grade persuasive argument essay. All I’m saying is, even if you don’t like the guy, give this record a chance. If you don’t want to support him then listen to it on Spotify and he’ll only get 1/32 of a cent for each song played.