The Shocking Poignance of Kanye West's Yeezus

Could his most abrasive release yet actually be a sweet fable about true love?
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Kanye West's new album Yeezus leaked just a day before his girlfriend Kim Kardashian gave birth to their daughter, making for a seeming coincidence that gives credibility to West's claims of divinity. But there's speculation that Kanye himself unleashed the song set online, speculation that's kind of fun to believe. For a man on record as giving "no fucks" about the commercial viability of his latest release, with a history of fastidious control over every part of his artistic output, it's conceivable he wanted these 10 tracks to be in the world before his child was. That's if, like me, you buy the idea that Yeezus is an exorcism of sorts before a new, possibly more peaceful phase of life.

West's extraordinary rap career has seen the Chicagoan go from subversive but smiling upstart to ever-more-impressive, ever-more-discontented musical powerhouse. Earlier this year, Global Grind published "13 Photos of Kanye West Actually Smiling"--most of which were of his earlier years in the business. "You look at Jay or Diddy, and I'd say like, 90 percent of the time, you think they're having a good time," The New York Times' Jon Caraminca said to West during the rapper's only prerelease interview for his sixth solo record, out today. "With you, I would say, I don't know, 50-50 maybe? Or 30-70?"

West's reply: "Maybe 90 percent of the time it looks like I'm not having a good time."

Yeezus, a terse scowl of an album, at first seems like a straightforward, albeit musically insane, new manifestation of West's famous surliness. Swapping out the lushness of his earlier songs for abrasive minimalism, the first few listens dazzle for sounding new, stark, and pissed off. But the important things haven't changed: As with past albums, West ditches the overdone tropes of recent hip hop (some of which he helped helped popularize) while raiding both the past (in this case, '90s industrial, Chicago house) and underground present (trap, drill) to suggest a way forward for the genre.

But after a few days of listening, the most surprising thing to me about Yeezus is no longer how it sounds, but what it actually might be: a twistedly touching kiss-off to a vast, seemingly unhappy part of West's life. As he faces fatherhood and the prospect of a longterm relationship, he appears to be looking at his hedonistic past in a darker light than ever, resulting in an album of super-sexual angst vindicated by a single, sweet verse at the end.

The record opens with its four best songs, turning the dial up on West's strengths so they sound distorted, scary, and pretty damn catchy. There's a dance-floor electronic blast that short-circuits during the requisite call-and-response bridge ("On Site"), a militant statement of purpose punched up as a Wizard of Oz witches' guard march ("Black Skinheads"), an ego trip turned horror-film incantation ("I Am a God"), and an incendiary political sermon framed by frigid beats ("New Slaves"). All the lyrics build convincingly on West's big, important theme: that he's a living, breathing god, and yet America's so screwed-up and racist that even he can't get his due.

The emphasis here is on West as too huge for this world--commanding a harem of "300 bitches," demanding breakfast pastries at a rate the garçon can't keep up with, etc. "New Slaves" immolates itself 75 percent of the way through with a swelling, celebratory sample from Hungarian rock band Omega as West and Frank Ocean cry, "let's get too high, get too high again." Then, a fade out--which, one Kanye-obsessed friend of mine claimed to me, is his first fade-out since 2004's "Through the Wire." (Any fact-checking fans care to verify?)

Next comes reality, in the form of a hangover. "Hold My Liquor" drifts in, with Chief Keef's and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon's drowsily autotuned voices riffing on sloppy substance use. There's a screech, and West returns to detail (hilariously) the damage he's caused: "Bitch I'm back out my coma / Waking up on your sofa / When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla." Turns out, he's addressing an ex-lover he'd been trying to get with, after her aunt badmouthed him as "a loner."

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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