He’s not trying to be a hero or anti-hero. He’s not even a villain. On “Yeezus,” as much as before, Kanye West has declared himself God, a rapper and artist of his own dominion without the same rules of conduct or moral compass as mortals. West, too, is a petulant child, an aspect of his deific persona that stomps to make itself heard throughout this 10-song album, the shortest of his career.
“Yeezus” isn’t dotted with singles in the same way that “My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy” was. It finds a foothold with its usual audience through “Black Skinhead,” a critical observance on race and hypocrisy, all set to a Gary Glitter beat. He lords over a blustery hook about Romans (the Rome kind) and Trojans (the rubber kind) but then warns against “Stop all that coon sh*t / early morning cartoon shit.” Like the term “Black Skinhead,” West treads his own oxymoronic line, comparing himself both to the Antichrist and Jesus Christ, screaming in one breath and chanting “God” in the next.
Speaking of caricatures, he puts Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and rapper Chief Keef together on the same track, the attention-grabber “Hold My Liquor,” as Kanye recalls the woman he craves using aching guitars from a Ratatat album and bleary EDM from 1985. It's production sounds as poured-over as its lyrics, and to a blistering, satisfying effect.
Fresh from that hungover head-holder, he goes straight into poon, literally, for “I’m In It,” which is meant more as a provocation than a bedroom banger. “Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce,” he lazes. “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” he shocks. “Neck, ears, hands, legs, eatin' ass… your titties, let 'em out, free at last,” he’s just banging on pans. It’s at this point and several others that you realize West, intrigueingly, keeps inviting you into the room, only to try to force you out, as his pathos crests and topples over detailed and radical production, burring synths, hulking beats, trap artifice with mock-pop melodies.
West samples Nina Simone’s hallowed “Strange Fruit” for his own ends for “Blood on the Leaves,” a lyric he alludes to earlier in “New Slaves” and, like many Kanye West grudges, he can’t let go. The gall it takes to borrow that song – which is about a black man lynched from a tree in the South – to humiliate and shame his subject with a “$2,000 bag with no cash in your purse.” And yet its story and his very stature challenges the notion that some musical works are untouchable, especially since it seems that all art, to some degree, can be bought, even for petty purposes for a gorgeous track.
He balances his revile for the “fairer” sex with condemnation for the fairer skinned on “New Slaves” “You see it's broke nigga racism / that's that ‘Don't touch anything in the store’ / And this rich nigga racism / that's that ‘Come in, please buy more / What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things.’” It’s commentary on the “buying” of his race with a set of Maybach keys, a response to a post-racial hypothetical where even the richest of rappers can’t overlook how poor blacks are still targeted by “white” corporations or – worse still –a “white” justice system. There’s where the lyric “blood on the leaves” comes in most handy, wedged between the immature declaration “I’d rather be a d*ck than a swallower” and the modest threat that this black man with mouth-f*ck “your” white wives. Comparing himself to King Kong, riffing on the “black men coming for your white women” trope, and mixing it all in with class warfare and self-entitlement… West doesn’t need Nicki, Jay-Z, Rozay or a gun to be a “Monster” here, or to play with what a "monster" really is.
Songs like it are a complex, vengeful, misogynistic affront that’d have no place on “Watch the Throne” nor “My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy” (even with condescending “Blame Game” skit). With a rebel yell, he rejects the rap-game rejectors on “I Am a God,” where he crowns himself a deity and ironically demands the most petty, un-Godly effects. “I am a God / so hurry up with my damn massage / in a French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants,” he rhymes, and he knows that it’s funny (particularly when he notes that God Himself guests on the track).
From the chest-thumping bombast of opener “On Sight” to the good girls and bad bitches on honeyed finale “Bound 2,” West creates and thrives in this dark punk fantasy, without flinching. He’s dressing for the job he wants – using muffled acid house, Michael Bay-sized clanks, brooding piano, bleating horns, an eclectic stable of contributors and his tattered bark, he aspires to be a God among men, not just rappers. It’s not chance that “Yeezus” also happens to be his most sexist and/but race-conscious effort yet. Aspirant and harsh, musically flighty and aggressive, West flourishes in these harsh environs risk-taking and culture-war drama-making, especially as his skills as a rapper improve. “Yeezus” isn’t pleasant, but that doesn’t bar it from being thought-provoking, substantial and very, very good.