I have this great memory of driving to the Sasquatch festival in 2012 with my two friends and listening to The Throne; on ‘Who’s Gon Stop Me’, Kanye equivocally states, “The black strap/you know what that’s for”, to which my friends and I, tired from waiting in the never-ending snaking line of hipsters in cars and Westfalias and RVs, looked at each other confused. No, Kanye. We really don’t know what it’s for. We also questioned why a notion? Statement? Chant? Movement? like ‘going H.A.M’ ever made the cut for The Throne.
Kanye is one of the most colourful people in popular culture, music or otherwise, because…well, aside from his obvious knack for wordplay and his incredibly smooth, quick-witted rap skills, he is just Goddamn ridiculous. For this reason, only Kanye West could pull off a rap song containing the line, “I’m in a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants!” on the incredibly over-bloated almost self-parodying ‘I Am God’; only Kanye West could reference Deepak Chopra when talking about vulgar, fiendish sex on ‘Hold My Liquor’, featuring the always-endearing, emotionally resonant Justin Vernon (yeah, that’s a thing that happens on this album); only Kanye could sing a song like ‘New Slaves’, a call to action, a lion statue awakening, the pinnacle of Kanye at his most angry, his most socially-conscious (sort of?) – when we all know he is not just privileged, but beyond rich-beyond-his-wildest-dreams – and somehow still be a completely viable voice for the voiceless. In short, the ludicrous, at-times laughable Yeezus, is only a record Kanye West could pull off. Yeezus is Kanye to a fault; profane, disgustingly clever, angry and whiny and pouty, featuring unlikely guest stars – everyone from the aforementioned Vernon, to Daft Punk – playing roles they wouldn’t normally play on their own records, and above all, pretentious as all hell.
As the NME affably pointed out a couple of years ago when they formed a list of the top 10 most pretentious albums of all time, what makes a pretentious record is “A groan-inducing concept, lots of highfalutin waffle, and a ridiculous cover”; what we have here is this: a maddening digi-pop exterior with an undercurrent of societal anger and rage from someone who personifies wealth and status (Kanye himself once pointed out on Estelle’s brilliant ‘American Boy’ that “all [his] clothes designer”); self-comparisons to God, a sample of Nina Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit over a broken relationship story featuring hashtags and references to Instagram, Beyonce and Jay-Z (which he rhymes with ‘lazy’); and cover art featuring an un-marked mix CD, sealed at its edge with a piece of red tape. Deep.
The NME named Lady Gaga’s Born This Way as their peak of Mount Pretentious. Do they have a point? Um, yes, they do. Interestingly enough, Gaga’s “Born This Way” isn’t unlike “Yeezus”. Both records personify artists who feel themselves that they are revolutionary and their music can somehow change the pop landscape for the better and do things that have thunderously never been done before and in turn, turn the top 40 on its head and make the world salivate over their incredulousness, their jaw-dropping talents. Gaga and Kanye are both cemented in the 21st century imagination as superstars on multi-faceted levels: media gaffs and publicity stunts, overblown stage extravaganzas, fashion and videos and messages pointing the finger at inequality and injustice. And, both records are an ass-load of pretentiousness.
However, sometimes – actually, more often than not, and unlike pretentious movies, pretentious records are good fun times. Listening to Yeezus all the way through the first time, I had to smile to myself; Kanye as this angry deity figure is still Kanye, and Kanye is amusing. And for unknown and illogical reasons, the man behind Yeezus, the record that broke the internet late last week when it leaked all over the place, is kinda likeable. Maybe because he sees himself as the king, but the rest of the world sees him as a really, really, really good court jester.
Content aside, the production on Yeezus sounds great; it’s fuzzy and bouncy and slick and creates drama and rage in all the right places. The record is not over-long – a surprisingly concise 10 tracks — and without the filler of some of Kanye’s previous efforts, or the quips and clips and drama that hold the ‘storyline’ of the record together. For this reason, it might be one of West’s most accessible records. It’s a rap record for people who don’t like rap music; listeners can gravitate to the dancehall, rock, blues, or techno influences behind these ten powerful tunes. And true music fans will appreciate all the influences that are called upon, and the inventive ways in which they are utilized.
Is this a modern classic that will stand the test of time? …Not likely. What it is, is a representation of an artist at his absolutely most self-aware, his most egotistical, of the artist behind the record, and it self-reflixively points out that the artist has more stock than the record itself. What can be gleaned from Yeezus is that Kanye doesn’t love Kim Kardashian; I think Kanye is only capable of truly loving Kanye. Like him or hate him, he was born this way, baby.