By Ben Redmond '14
Everyone’s talking about Yeezus. Ok, not everyone. But it’s hard to avoid. He’s projected the visuals for New Slaves (his own face with a montage of advertising labels) on 66 major buildings worldwide, accompanied by the uncensored track. Promotional tactic? If you look at it that way. An attempt at making a Holzer-esque statement? More than likely. Like Holzer’s work in light (and on plaques, etc.), Yeezus is an aggressive album in that it’s hard to look away. It’s in your face, it’s in mine, it’s in everyone’s face. Some have even called it angry, or sinister. In the words of Tauheed Epps, better known as Two Chainz (the artist formerly known as Tity Boi), “Truuu…”
“Sounds like he discovered Nine Inch Nails,” said my father. “Sounds like he’s been listening to Death Grips,” said Carlos Torres. Regardless of what it sounds like, we should be focused on why it sounds the way it does. Yeezus’ opener, On Sight, begins with 34 seconds of abrasively crunchy synth-sounds before Kanye lets us know it’s not only his time to speak, it’s his season to be heard. We recognize instantly that this is a sound we haven’t heard from Kanye before. Those hard, glitched-up percussive hits on All Of The Lights might be the closest we’ve come. But this is new. (Hey, remember that time Bon Iver released their second album and it was totally different from that first one and it was actually called Bon Iver? Same story. Only I’d argue that this one’s better. And it still includes Justin Vernon…on a beautiful track featuring Chief Keef, singing as much as he can.) On Sight is exactly where West is. Maybe it’s not what You wanted to hear, but West is all too aware of that. After he says, “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up,” cue something classic—a soul sample. This is the sound of classic-Kanye. It’s a quick lesson in sampling from a master. It cries, “Oh, he’ll give us what we need/ It may not be what we want.” This is what we might’ve expected. A sweet sound that resonates with African American musical history, which West is now deeply a part of. It’s a soulful riff over the perfect beat. It’s something West has been good at since the start. It’s nothing new…which is exactly why it lasts an unlucky 13 seconds. We don’t really come into contact with something like this until the track’s close, Bound 2, which West seems to glide over effortlessly—that is, classically.
When he revealed Yeezus at the Art Basel in Swizerland, West spoke about the importance of sampling in his approach to music. “I wanted to make something of impact. I found that when I would drop samples, my friends would react to it more. I felt that I had a real talent in chopping and appropriating music.” Isn’t that what any one artist wants? A reaction from the people they love, the people with whom the artist shares their work with first? West treats sampling the way Warhol or Baldessari treated appropriation of images—it creates a visceral effect, a new meaning. West’s work goes beyond the label of a “mashup”, it brings together cultural contexts, creating tension and discussion. Black Skinhead prominently features Marylin Manson’s The Beautiful People. If you need the importance of the fusion of these two highly controversial artists spelled out, YouTube comments on any of their respective songs should guide you some kind of direction. (Northwest? Ha? Maybe? Ok…sorry. Very cheap shot.) Kanye's songs include more than dope samples, they’re topical references, and as much as an assholeish thing that is to say, I’ll stand by it. The numerous shoutouts to Jamaican dancehall, including artists like Popcaan (the hottest piece of Pusha T’s Blocka is chopped and screwed into the hook Guilt Trip) speak to both the rough (yet on-sight) production of the album, and also serve to legitimize the sudden appearance of Superb Eagle’s Dust a Sound Boy in Mercy
Aside from New Slaves and the clarity of its message on the current state of racism and culture-killing and the African American experience in America, arguably, the most important track on the album is Blood on The Leaves (which West previously references in New Slaves). The combination of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit, C-Murder’s Down for My Niggas, (and in the same moment, TNGHT’s R U Ready?) Here you’ve got one of the most powerful, racially charged songs of all time, meeting C-Murder’s song about riding for, not simply your “friends” but for your “niggas” specifically. Like Simone’s, it’s a classic song about violence in the African African experience, this time, black man to black man. West uses the cut from TNGHT’s sample of the song, with TNGHT (alongside the likes of Rustie and Baauer) pretty much representing the reinterpreted sound of “trap music” as a rising pop standard, associated now with the swag epidemic, culturally appropriated and reshuffled by, most notably, (bear with me…or don’t) white America. (For the most recent development in culture-theft, see Miley Cyrus’ video for “We Can’t Stop”) Kanye is also singing in the same style he did with 808’s and Heartbreaks, an album that received a fair amount of negative criticism in its use of auto-tune. Listen to pop music now and it’s rampant. Hell, Glee, a television show about singing well (or whatever) even uses auto-tune. But for West it’s not about hitting that note. It’s about the texture of the sound.
It seems like it’s no longer about the “music”, it’s the sound of the music and what these sounds mean when you hear them together. Think about it. You would not expect to see Justin Vernon, poster boy for the indie subculture, on a track with Chief Keef, who represents the struggle of the Chicago youth, with Kanye, a black American success story, disgusted with what that story has come to mean in the eyes of the media and the millions. It’s a brilliant collaboration, and these names are only a fraction of the artists West has worked with to create his newest, boldest and perhaps truest work to date. Yeezus doesn’t ask for anything but your attention. And like Yeezy next to Sweezy with a microphone, Yeezus takes it.