I am not a professional culture critic. I did not need to have an opinion on Kanye West's new album, Yeezus. And so I approached the album slowly. I put it on in my car one day, halfway listening as I wound through the streets of Oakland, skipping around the tracks a bit. The first lines I really heard-heard were these: "You see, there's leaders and there's followers / But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower." Ugh. I just turned it off. Come on, Kanye. If you are a god, you can do better than that.
Over the weeks since the album came out, though, a few things conspired to make me take it back up. Now, I still don't love the album, but I've wrestled with it. Here was my personal path; your mileage may vary.
1) Lou Reed's essay on the album on The Talkhouse.
Over and over, he sets you up so well -- something's just got to happen -- and he gives it to you, he hits you with these melodies. (He claims he doesn't have those melodic choruses anymore -- that's not true. That melody the strings play at the end of "Guilt Trip," it's so beautiful, it makes me so emotional, it brings tears to my eyes.) But it's real fast cutting -- boom, you're in it. Like at the end of "I Am a God," anybody else would have been out, but then pow, there's that coda with Justin Vernon, "Ain't no way I'm giving up." Un-fucking-believable. It's fantastic. Or that very repetitive part in "Send It Up" that goes on five times as long as it should and then it turns into this amazing thing, a sample of Beenie Man's "Stop Live in a De Pass." And it works.
It works because it's beautiful -- you either like it or you don't -- there's no reason why it's beautiful. I don't know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn't, and that's that. You can analyze it all you want.
Many lyrics seem like the same old b.s. Maybe because he made up so much of it at the last minute.
Lou Reed is crying over Yeezus? OK. Maybe there is something there.
2) I listened to the album with good headphones. You need to hear the bass on this album, and float around in the sonic space. That's much harder to do when it's playing over crappy car or computer speakers. Take the beautiful ending of "New Slaves," after Kanye has dropped off. We hear a scratchy, autotuned sample from a 1969 rock song by the Hungarian rock band Omega (no, really). It seems we're headed for an outro, the sample as a coda on an otherwise unrelated song. And then, Frank Ocean's voice comes in totally unexpectedly to ad lib first inside the strings, then on top of them. It's so, so good. Gorgeous. Haunting. Go listen to the original. The kind of imagination it takes to hear that and think: Oh, I'll just drop Frank Ocean in here. Jaw dropping. And to make it seem effortless? Insane. Really: Chuck the rest of the album, and I'd take this 50 seconds on repeat for 50 minutes over most other whole albums of music.
By this time, I was in for the music, but Kanye's lame lyrics kept getting in the way. They really are that bad. I've come to see the whole album (as I said on Twitter) as an argument against words. The music is so interesting and the lyrics are so appalling, boring, and silly that it seems Kanye has given up on the very idea of imbuing the words in his songs with meaning. And I actually think that's what has happened.
Three different pieces of media really helped here.
3) The Daily Beast interview with Rick Rubin. Kanye took nearly no time with the lyrics, sometimes making stuff up on the spot because he had to do something else. "It probably ended up taking two hours. Five vocals," Rubin says. "He wrote two lyrics on the spot." These are truly ill-considered lyrics. Basically, he wasn't even trying.
4) So, then I started thinking, "Why, Kanye, Why?!" This is supposed to be your masterpiece. Why cop out on the words? I have two explanations (that work together for me). The first comes from the Kanye/Jay-Z song, "Niggas in Paris," which has one of the all-time great beats. There's a little sample about halfway through, a dialogue in which two guys go back and forth:
Guy 1: I don't even know what that means. Guy 2: No one knows what it means, but it's provocative.
Guy 1: No, it's not, it's gross. Guy 2: It gets the people going!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but these lyrics aren't *supposed* to mean anything. They're just placeholders, noises, phonemes. You want Kanye's music? Fine, he'll give it to you. You want Kanye's mind, his personal meanings? Nope, you can't have that. Instead we get the BS on the album. Look at how closely Jay Z guards his family life. His raps now, too, seem filtered through mask after mask; I imagine him up on stage feeling like a beekeeper or a scuba diver. All the hip hop stars need protection.
5) Some superstars seem to go through this radical PoMo phase. Recall Eminem's lines from his ascent to global fame: "And I am, whatever you say I am / If I wasn't, then why would I say I am? / In the paper, the news everyday I am." As Em points out, it's the millions of people listening who determine what *he* means. (Em's response was to pile horror story after horror story about himself into the public consciousness. You couldn't demonize Em because he was always going to outdemon you. In "I'm Back" he raps: "You better get rid of that 9 / it ain't gonna help / what good is it gonna do / against the man that strangles himself." Only the crazy survive! That was a strategy for the streets, but faced with a level of notoriety he felt as violence, he returned to the idea of self-harm as a way to assert and protect the self, not deny it.)
6) Which, free associating, brought me to the "Death of the Author," in which Roland Barthes argued against trying to divine an author's intent. Critics no longer *needed* the people who made the work; the art, once public, was all that was necessary. How freeing! The receivers of words determine their meaning. Perhaps this is a fine method of literary criticism, but what happens to the author if he begins to internalize that what he wants his words to mean no longer matters? Yeezus.