Praise Yeezus: it sounds like Kanye West is just as bored with the radio as nearly most of the rest of us. “Black Skinhead” (which debuted on Saturday Night Live last month) rides on martial drumming akin to Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” with an industrial-rock synthesizer hook recalling the alternative metal group Nine Inch Nails. Kanye screams out punk rock-style several times on “I Am a God,” and his entire new record skews dark, pissed off and misogynistic. None of Yeezus—Kanye’s sixth studio album in nine years, due out tomorrow—is urban-radio friendly, and sounds purposely designed not to be. How exciting.
Before he starts screaming, Kanye reminds us he’s “the only rapper who compared to Michael.” And while ’Ye might be referencing Michael Jordan instead of the late King of Pop, evidence suggests he maybe has more in common with the Purple One than his late rival. (“It’s so packed I might ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince,” Kanye emcees on the Yeezus highlight “Send It Up.”)
Consider that Kanye basically dropped Yeezus with no cover—his see-through CD-case artwork owes a debt to Prince’s infamous Black Album and its jet-black cover with its “just listen to the music” aesthetic. Yeezus also has no radio singles, echoing Prince’s original plans for both The Black Album and 1985’s Around the World in a Day (before he caved to record company pressure and put out “Raspberry Beret”). Then, Kanye and his Gemini brethren both have a lil’ Paris fixation. Yeezus was partially recorded at his loft in the French capital, and the Louis Vuitton don complains about being “in a French-ass restaurant, hurry up with my damn croissants!” and paparazzi (“c’est la vie… I’ll move my family out the country”). Prince’s own Paris fixation takes too long to explain; just see here.
Kanye took another page from Prince’s book in 2010 by severely limiting his media interviews. (His Royal Badness was notoriously silent in his most creative prime.) Yet Kanye’s promise to “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist” highlights the greatest similarity between the two. Kanye naysayers be damned, but the MC has the spirit of our times by the balls. Hip-hop would be emphatically less interesting without the Ali-confident roar of his big mouth and, even more Prince-like, his artistic envelope pushing.
808s & Heartbreak was a daring masterpiece for any genre. So, too, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With the artistic bar set so high, what would Yeezus do?
The SNL teaser “Black Skinhead” stands as a newly minted Kanye classic. Rick Rubin has described vintage Yo! Bum Rush the Show-era Public Enemy as a punk band (Rubin executive produced both Yo! Bum Rush the Show and Yeezus), and that rock spirit rebel-yells throughout Kanye’s latest—on the hardcore “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves” and “On Sight” in particular. ’Ye just told the New York Times that he’s new wave, and Yeezy tracks like “I Am a God” prove it. Kanye name-checked new wave pop star Gary Numan (“Cars”) as an influence on “Love Lockdown” as far back as 2008, and the influence continues.
Just yesterday Kanye celebrated his very first Father’s Day. As everyone knows by now, girlfriend Kim Kardashian gave birth to their baby girl the day before, five weeks early, on Saturday morning. None of that looming-fatherhood angst rears its head on Yeezus. If anything, the spirit of ex-gf Amber Rose (or some other anonymous ex) haunts both “Blood on the Leaves” and “Guilt Trip,” where he complains about having his heart shot down while Kid Cudi chants, “if you love me so much, then why’d you let me go?” Interracial relationship drama creeps up on “Black Skinhead” (“They see a Black man with a White woman/At the top floor they gon’ come to kill King Kong”), but otherwise, Kardashian is absent.
One could argue Kanye goes overboard with Black buck sexism to avoid the Mr. Kardashian stigma. On “I’m in It,” he gets detailed with rimming (“Neck, ears, hands, legs, eatin’ ass”), fisting (“put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”) and Asian cunnilingus (“all I need was sweet and sour sauce”) like being a committed, expectant father was the last thing on his mind. Sex could be the dominant theme of Yeezus, with all his talk of Hampton housewife blowjobs and women on molly running naked down hotel lobbies. Lest we forget, Kanye has previously come off as mama’s boy, and he lost his mom only five years ago; his Amber Rose breakup inspired most of 808s & Heartbreak; and he’s now romantically devoted to a woman even more famous and polarizing than he is. The bedroom groupie braggadocio sounds like a smoke screen for whatever’s truly going on with women and the real Kanye West.
The lyrical limitations of Yeezus prevent the album from rivaling the brilliance of the very best of Kanye. What ’Ye has to say doesn’t measure up to the musical innovations that sprang from his collabos with Daft Punk, RZA, No I.D. and the other producers here. Still, using his position at the summit of modern-day hip-hop to sonically push the music forward? We couldn’t pray for more.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.