With the first notes of Yeezus, Kanye West's production team makes sure you know you're not listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
A quick wikipedia search brings up this quote from The Guardian: "With this album, we ain't drop no single to radio. We ain't got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we ain't even got no cover. We just made some real music."
This is the central gesture of Yeezus. Kanye fits into a common pattern of mind-boggling success; after ascendance, divergence. When Cobain saw what he and his friends had wrought with Nevermind, he crafted In Utero in order to try and shake it off. This is a simplistic interpretation of that record, and a correspondingly fairly childish interpretation of his reaction to fame. But in its simplicity, and in its childishness, it's a proper analog to Kanye West's move on Yeezus.
After, Kanye assures us with the quote above, he's moved beyond all of the unthinking duplicity of the "mainstream". When he says "Fuck y'all corporations/ you can't control me" and "Move my family out the country so you can't see where I stay" he sounds about as rebellious as your wealthy, tax-evading uncle when he's had a few too many drinks. The idea that a record released on Def Jam that leaps up to #1 on the charts could in any way be subversive demonstrates what can only be called stupidity. On The College Dropout, Kanye's political interests sounded intimate and coarsened with a good-humored experience. What little that does sound interesting on this song comes in the first verse. This sort of could fit in right alongside the sentiments of his earlier work; for example, "That's that broke nigga racism/That's that don't touch anything in the store/That's that rich nigga racism/Come in, please buy more" could fit perfectly right next to "They take me to the back and pat me/ Askin' me about some khakis/But let some black people walk in/I bet they show off their token blackie." Compared to confrontational honesty of this personal narrative of racism, the inane rhetoric of the second verse sounds even more delirious and paranoid.
West has clearly not taken Drake's latest axiom to heart on this record; The G.O.O.D. Music clique is conspicuously absent on Yeezus, an album replete with new friends. Pusha T has no verse on this record. Nor does Big Sean. Kid Cudi's bland vocals could have been performed by anyone. And the rappers that are included are Chicago locals that have little recognition or appeal outside of the city. This is a piece in Kanye's "rebellious" puzzle; he has rejected the universalist approach of corporate radio and replaced it with a "defiant" provincialism. This move, like so many of the human gestures on Yeezus, falls flat on its face. The performances of King L and Chief Keef, while still incongruent, manage enough of a cold, estranged affect that they make Kanye's earnest vitriol sound even more out of place than it already did.
The production team on Yeezus is staffed by a caste of current indie darlings, including trap hero Hudson Mohawke, Daft Punk (who we've dealt with elsewhere), and Evian Christ from the experimental label Tri Angle. Among them is Justin Vernon, one of a few stalwarts from MBDTF. When Vernon talks about Kanye in interviews he's depressingly laudatory, sounding more like an excited frat boy than the same man who demonstrated the lyrical sensitivity of the careful and intimate Bon Iver records.
Despite all my venom for Kanye's presence on his own record, I think that the musical environment of Yeezus is truly beautiful and startlingly composed. From the simplest and least daring choices on the record to the most thunderous noise arpeggio, Yeezus is full of brilliant stylistic decisions. Alongside MBDTF, Yeezus demonstrates the profound range and depth of Kanye's aesthetic taste. Highlights include a revitalization of the spirit of 808s and Heartbreak and his work before it in the beautiful "Blood On The Leaves". The thunderous contribution of Hudson Mohawke's TNGHT "horn section" is balanced perfectly on the edge of discordant. It's one of many tracks on this record that sounds like Kanye's vocal track has been stolen from some incompetent single and put over a much more elegant standalone instrumental.
Just as on MBDTF, Kanye has crafted a landscape that outpaces him. On MBDTF, that environment was at least still on the horizon. On Yeezus, Mr. West sounds like he found himself on an alien planet and desperately tried to make music there.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on "I Am a God." This beat is as viciously hostile as it gets on this record and Kanye is as bland as he has ever been. If I had to imagine what sort of a thing God was, I'd suggest that the sounds behind Kanye on this track were a pretty good pop approximation; monolithically alien, thuddingly repetitive, and wholly impenetrable. Next to this sonic monstrosity going on behind him, Kanye's pronouncement "I am a god" sounds vitiated and weak. The lyrics and this delivery on this track make him sound a lot more like a coked-up douchebag on his cellphone in an LA parking lot than a pop god. His demands ("Hurry up with my damn croissants" etc.) sound cartoonish and whiny where I can only imagine he is attempting to sound charismatic and dominating. If this was an attempt at laughing self-parody, it would be a startling success. But Kanye's monotone "aggressive" earnestness suggests that the truth is far more tragic.
The story of Yeezus is ironically more politically telling than its overt "message." While Kanye spends a good amount of this album "raging" against corporations, the album itself is an unabashed corporate success. Kanye the artist sounds tiny next to the crushing indifference of his own music, and Kanye the man is made irrelevant by Kanye the brand. This is the operation of abstracting market forces at work; the market thrives on what is new, innovative, and "subversive". "Innovation" and "paradigm-shifts" have been at the core of corporate practice for decades and an "outlaw" spirit is at the heart of every successful boardroom. Capitalism thrives on breakdown, revolt, and iconoclasm; its strength comes from its ability to assimilate reactive "challenges" to a status quo into an even stronger and more comprehensive network.
In this spirit, Kanye's impotence to produce something "rebellious" has some instructive societal analogs. His ambiguously adversarial attitude is a mirror of the spirit of Occupy Wall Street; because modern international capitalism is a diffuse system that admits of very few obvious targets, it's often hard to know who one should be decrying. Just as Kanye's railing against corporations has to be framed by his massive corporate success, Occupy's fiery sloganeering ("people over profits") has to be framed by the infinitely complex intertwinement of international banks and modern "democratic" states with their individual freedoms (including, obviously, the right to free speech.) Mr. West has unwittingly held up a crystal clear mirror to our current situation; his personality-driven claims to power and "rebel" screed smash to pieces against the cold walls of his beats just as our "human" political agency is stifled in the swarming indifference of the modern economic situation.