Three Dudes and a Yeezus: Contemplating Kanye West's Latest

Welcome to our track-by-track analysis of Kanye West’s sixth studio album “Yeezus” by Thought Pollution staff Liam Green, Pete Rizzo and Jacob Roeschley (with a shout out to Brittney Hemela for the tip on the leak.) Let’s go.

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1. “On Sight” (prod. by Daft Punk)

Liam: There’s literally no way Kanye could have alienated casual fans more effectively than with the torrent of abrasive, atonal noise that opens this song. It passes soon enough, and the footprint of Daft Punk becomes obvious once the beat kicks in and the synths organize themselves into something resembling notes. But got damn, you crazy for this one, ‘Ye. This song does not fucking like you, and I love it for that precise reason. I almost think its relative danceability is a concession to the thorough un-danceability of at least half this record. A few solid punchlines on this, nothing too notable other than the first instance of him threatening to steal white dudes’ wives. There will be more later.

Pete:  The first collaboration between Daft Punk and Kanye on the album had me wondering if they would just surprise everyone and release “Stronger,” Kanye’s 2007 single, under the name “On Sight.” That would have really thrown everyone. But, alas, we get a new track, one that showcases Kanye’s best lyricism at points and weakest singing/whining at others. It’s the classic “I’m back and still good at rapping and fuck everyone” track that you get at the top of big releases. It’s a puzzling addition to the album. For one, it’s a jarring, sonic-anomaly of an opener, one that fits in the album surprisingly well given that “Black Skinhead” would’ve arguably been a better, more immediate opener. The fact that that song doesn’t lead and “On Sight” does begs for more analysis – perhaps more so than the track itself on its own.

Jake: I’m not alone as a person who really wants to dislike Kanye West and see him falter, even if it’s just a little bit. I want something that lets me go “See? See! He ain’t all that.” And we get that for the first 80 seconds of this song. Cheesy space noises, a fairly blah dubstep-esque beat, Kanye’s never-been-superb rapping. But then the children’s chorus interrupts everything, and I’m thinking, OK, that was clever. In those 13 seconds, my mood is starting to change, and by the line “Don’t judge them, Joe Brown” (probably my favorite line of the album), I’ve bought in. It’s not a kick-in-the-pants start the way “Dark Fantasy” was, and it doesn’t really set the stage for what to expect from the rest of the album. But it does manage to pull you in and give up any hope that this album will be the ultimate let down. And by “you,” I of course mean me, because we don’t share a hive mind.

2. “Black Skinhead” (prod. by Daft Punk)

Liam: Some say these drums are patterned after Marilyn Manson, others Gary Glitter. I don’t really care, because holy fuck, they are smashing my head into pulp and I love it. They’re the only music on the song aside from some Trent Reznor-esque distorted synth and a low bass pulse. This is riot music. This is fuck-your-couch music (the sentiment, not the act of doing so). This song likes you even less than “On Sight.” The title aptly describes how Kanye, in his current iteration, wants to be seen – as someone who will break the structures of pop music the way Nazis broke windows on Kristallnacht. (Necessary side note: Fuck Nazis.) Another thing – was super surprised to learn that this is one of the four Daft Punk-produced Yeezus tracks.

Pete: It’s hard to view “Black Skinhead” as anything less than a stunning artistic achievement, one that can’t be uncoupled from the way it stoked anticipation for this album or cloaked the entire unveiling process in an ominous, almost sacrilegious tone. All that stripped away, “Black Skinhead” is still a iconoclastic song, one you can’t imagine any other artist doing at any point in history. Its basic elements are stirring and primal, and its call to action is politically motivated in a way that’s driving conversation. This is an artist in control of his craft, using his exposure responsibly, for the ambitious attack purposes that art so rarely achieves.

Jake: Kanye has certainly mastered the skill of being accessibly controversial, and I think this song embodies that more than any on the album. The lyrical content and the title of the song itself have to be off-putting to the general masses. I don’t think I’d want to listen to this song with my grandma (but then, grandma gave up on rap after ODB died), but I guarantee you this is the song we’re going to be hearing playing over the PA at NBA games in five months. Much like “Niggas in Paris,” this is one of those songs where it seems Kanye’s saying, “Just try to ignore me.” It’s not going to happen.

3. “I Am a God” (feat. God, prod. by Daft Punk)

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Liam: Irritated that what seems like an inordinate amount of people are focusing on the “hurry up with my damn croissants” line. It’s funny, but for fuck’s sake, this is one of the most interesting tracks on Yeezus and that’s what grabs people? Not the harpy-in-hell screaming? Not the industrial/vintage house synths? Not the way the song false-ends only to come roaring back to life? Not the way Kanye sums up his career in a single song without utterly self-indulgent or ridiculous? People are weird.

Pete: It would be best if there was no music on this track at all, just silence or Kanye coughing and occasionally whispering something. That said, this track is one of the highlights for me. If you really think about it, the last half is just kanye screaming and running and it’s still a great thought-provoking song, and hell, it’s still a song.

Jake: See, I think the music is the strongest part of this one. It’s the vocals/lyrics that fall flat for me. The simple synths and fuzzy beat are a nice disconnect from what we’ve heard lately from Kanye. And they capture the sound that is both raw and polished at the same time, which I think this whole album is going for. The vocals, though, are boring. Lyric-wise, I can’t tell if he’s trying to be provocative or funny (probably both), but he’s not terribly success in either. You can’t proclaim that you’re a god but then check your ego by making the caveat that you’re a man of God. For a song called “I am a God,” I think this one plays it too safe.

Liam: Jake, keep in mind the only credited feature on this song, which in all fairness wasn’t well-known when you wrote that.

4. “New Slaves” (feat. Frank Ocean, prod. by Daft Punk)

Liam: Every ‘Ye album has its sociopolitical moments, but this is by far the most pointed he’s ever been, and it’s great. I’m searching for quotes to put here to exemplify this but for real, I’d have to type out the whole song. He’s calling out the Corrections Corporation of America, which only dudes like Killer Mike are talking about, and way less people are listening to Killer Mike. The mention of the difference between “broke nigga racism” and “rich nigga racism” is equally incendiary, as is the intimation (obvious but important) that we’re all slaves to something. Kanye is including himself in that “we.” A friend of mine told me she wasn’t necessarily inclined to pay attention to Kanye’s political beliefs (or those of any other celebrity), which is fair. The reason why I’m glad he’s expressing them is because so many people currently fueled by apathy are listening, and I hope they might grow to care.

Pete: Agree with Liam on this one. One downside is that the album reveals that “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” are the album’s high-water marks, a perfect distillation of what Yeezus wants to achieve. Since Liam talked messaging, I’d like to focus on how well this simple beat works for this song, both as a pop melody and a foil for Kanye’s aggression. It’s as bare as a burnt field, but it keeps together, revealing sonic flourishes and textural differences that actual beg discovery on repeat listens.

Jake: And since Liam talked messaging and Rizzo talked beat, I’m going to talk about dinner. BRB, guys. Also, this is my favorite song on the album upon early listens.

5. “Can’t Hold My Liquor” (feat. Bon Iver & Chief Keef)

Liam: Bon Iver reprises his “Monster” role here – sadly lamenting unhappy nights of drug/booze/fuck-fueled excess. What’s crazy surprising is the way that Chief Keef serves a similar function – none of his “I Don’t Like” sociopathic gun-talk goonery. He’s singing through AutoTune and sounding sadder than Bon fucking Iver! That’s hard.

Pete: One thing I think that needs to be mentioned is how this tracks evolves the album’s themes. You can almost view “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” as the sonic transformation Kanye wanted to achieve on this album, while this song, and the latter half of the album, tackle the personal ramifications of his need to avoid being defined, to be confrontational, to be hungover and stay human in the process. The hook directly speaks to this, moving the narrative or lens to show how this ambition affects his friendships. It’s also the first song that shifts its tone repeatedly, giving the second half the velocity that the first four entries lack.

Jake: I appreciate the appropriate emotional transition between “New Slaves” and this track. Whereas as “New Slaves” is the track where Kanye blows his lid, “Hold My Liquor” is the emotional comedown after you’ve gotten out your frustration and are pretty sure it didn’t do a damn bit of good. So rather than emerging from the ashes a changed person, you pick yourself up, decide “fuck it” and write the “scariest sex jam of all time,” as my esteemed colleague calls the next song.

6. “I’m In It” (feat. Travis Scott and Bon Iver)

Liam: This gotta be the scariest sex jam of all time aside from something by Skinny Puppy or Throbbing Gristle. This song is about fucking and it STILL LIKES YOU EVEN LESS THAN EVERYTHING ON THE ALBUM SO FAR. The scream here (like those on “I Am a God”) is something you’d expect on “Frankie Teadrop” by Suicide. God, this is filthy. “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign?” I love it. And still he sounds pretty miserable. The way the dancehall vocals are used only compounds the terrifying effect of this track, and Bon Iver in full falsetto effect is sexy and mournful all at once. Basically, this song invalidates the existence of The Weeknd. (Also, not sure where the fuck Travis Scott is on this song despite his official credit. The reggae/dancehall sample is Kenny Lattimore.)

Pete: My prediction was that on this track, Kanye would remind everyone that “He’s In It,” meaning the album Yeezus. As at this point, with so many other sounds on the album, as with any album, it was possible we may have forgotten that Kanye was making the album. While it’s not a song about a song, this is definitely the jam on the album for me. I love how he takes the reggae hook – a genre long associated with one-note positivity and religion – and turns it into a dark, demonic track. Even here, Kanye plays with the duality of screaming, with the orgasmic becoming blurred with the terrifying.

Jake: I wonder if Kanye’s a cuddler.

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7. “Blood on the Leaves”

Liam: Favorite on album. 100 percent. Nina Simone sample. TNGHT sample. I’m fucking dead.

Zombie Liam: Seriously though, this song literally fuses together ‘Ye’s entire stylistic range, from his whole career, into one stomping-ass Voltron of a track. I also think that the literal lynching of innocent black men and women in the South that “Strange Fruit” is about is an appropriate sonic and aesthetic reference for this song even though it’s about a failed dysfunctional relationship. Here, the blood that drips onto the leaves is in the form of empty bottles, empty baggies of coke and molly and weed, trashed hotel rooms, ripped condoms, maxed out credit cards, screaming matches and the last bits of conscience Kanye’s narrator/Kanye (one is never sure with him) and this “second-string bitch” of a woman clutched to desperately in the face of vice, sex, temptation and the endless pursuit of fulfillment through materialism. They lynched themselves on a tree called excess. ‘Ye may not have meant to say exactly that, but he’s too smart and too musically perceptive for the titling of this song to have been anything other than a very deliberate choice.

Pete: Probably over-reading here but presumably this song takes place at a basketball game since he mentions sitting courtside, so I find the hanging on the trees analogy especially funny/poignant, if he’s referring to basketball players. That would mean the “black bodies swinging in the summer breeze” would be doing so for millions of dollars, but would be no less the victims of a system. Maybe this is a bit of stretch, but this is definitely about Kim’s failed marriage pre-Kanye and the intensity of his anguish thereafter.

Jake: If the whole album were like this song, I think it’d be disappointing. I think it’d be too reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was nearly all over-the-top energetic. But “Blood on the Leaves” arrives at the perfect time and hits the perfect level for this album. Most of the songs we’ve had so far have been fairly minimal from a musical standpoint, very stripped down. And even though this one starts out kind of relaxed, you know it’s about to donkey-punch something. And that it does. You can’t listen to this song loud enough. As an aside, the first time I listened to this album, I told Liam (back before he was a zombie) that I loved how a lot of the music on Yeezus sounds like it was made on a cheap keyboard. This song is the best example of that, and I love the cheesy horn sounds from the TNGHT sample. Really smart stuff.

8. “Guilt Trip” (feat. Kid Cudi, prod. by S1)

Liam: Finally, the album actually gives you a bit of a break with an 808s-style chillout after the emotional flaying/head explosion of “I’m In It” and “Leaves.” This is more sorrowful and less abrasive than the previous track but essentially tells about the same relationship or a very similar one. The moments of crassness and vocal aggression are just pieces of armor here – this song is where the hurt underneath the rage shines through.

Pete: Glad to see Cudi pop up here. His latest Indicud isn’t too far off sonically from Yeezus, and I credit Cudi a lot with Kanye’s post-Graduation evolution. This album is a bit of a slowdown, a mix of templates from his last few albums, smoother, more ice in a glass than the glass smashing. That said, the reggae chant on here is a pretty innovative sonic accompaniment to the autotune crooning, and necessary to pull it together with the album.

Jake: Though I do like the hook, this is where the album starts to lose my interest. I realize AutoTune has its place and that Kanye is a very big part of the reason for that (but let’s be real, Cher was doing that shit back on “Believe”), but I’m over it. I think Adventure Time took AutoTune to its logical conclusion.

9. “Set It Up” (feat. King L)

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Liam: AND BACK ONCE AGAIN TO THE ALBUM NOT LIKING YOU. King L, a less-inhuman veteran of the Chicago drill-rap scene, makes the most of his laconic-gangsta opening verse. Another song largely unfit for the club but just right for breaking shit. (Thank fuck for that, by the way. Kanye does not need to compete with the braindead Tygas and French Montanas and Lil Waynes [in his current iteration at least] making twerk/turn-up music.)

Pete: Like the last track, this one is propelled by a really interesting sonic hook that’s allowed to dominate the frame. I like the construction, but don’t know if this track stands on its own for me. Still, Kanye’s line about his Benz is pretty great.

Jake: Weakest track on the album. Really, it just feels like filler. It sounds like it belongs with the other songs on the album, but it doesn’t stand out among them. Think of it this way: If all the songs on Yeezus were partying on a boat in international waters and were suddenly commandeered by pirates, which song would be taken prisoner? “On Sight” would probably volunteer, but you know all the other songs are wishing it had been “Set It Up.” Would you pay “Set It Up”’s ransom?

Liam: Only because I like the King L verse.

10. “Bound 2” (feat. Charlie Wilson)

Liam: Like “Devil in a New Dress” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or “The Glory” on Graduation, this is a well-placed “old Kanye” throwback. It’s a comforting salve to our wounded ears, and also an oddly tender (in its fashion) love song to Kim. (If I try, maybe I can forget that her last name is Karda- hold up, I threw up a little in my mouth, brb. Ok. Back to normal.) Also the bridge with Charlie Wilson’s soul awesomeness just straight up kills.)

Pete: This is probably my favorite song on the album, though I’m always a sucker for a good album closer. There’s another duality going on here with Kanye’s use of the word “bound,” with its hopeful optimism – it’s bound to happen – and restrictive uses – physically being bound – both airing out. The imagery here I think is among the strongest on the album and the stratospheric hook by Charlie Wilson almost threatens to bring the album to a poignant end. Still, it ends with a conflicted, uncertain tone, which is transferred to the themes of love and the future. Kanye’s not sure what to make of what’s going to happen, but his ability to be honest about it while thinking through his art, rather than always reaching conclusions, is what sets him apart.

Jake: I know I’m going to be in the minority here, but I can’t bring myself to love this track. I mean, it’s good. It’s certainly better than the two previous tracks, but after listening to such a charged album, I’m too tired for a Kanye throwback when I get to this one. (OK, Rizzo, it’s not a total throwback, but it’s certainly a nod to his vintage stuff.) I’d probably like it more as a standalone, but I’m on deadline and can’t be bothered with that nonsense. I’m out.

1 Comment

  • Long-overdue correction: Travi$ Scott is not featured on “I’m In It” – he was instead a co-producer on “New Slaves” and “Guilt Trip.”

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