40:01 min • Def Jam • June 18, 2013
Little Bastard reviews
Kanye West is no stranger to controversy. He is without doubt the biggest and most influential person in hip-hop, and has been for many years, but his public persona makes him look like well … a bit of a dick. So the lyric “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” in chart-worthy track ‘New Slaves’ makes perfect sense. I didn’t think I was ever his target audience. Not that I don’t like hip hop, I really do, but I’ve often found the “bitches and bling” style of hip hop that’s become so commonplace over the past 15 years leaves me relatively cold.
Kanye first came to my attention through his work with other people, noteably Janet Jackson and then Brandy, and I was a big fan of both at the time. Sampling ‘The Mystery Of Inequity’ from Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “work in progress” MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album pushed him a little further into my consciousness, as did his sample of ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ by Daft Punk, but it wasn’t until I heard the minimal ‘Love Lockdown’, from 2008’s game changing 808’s And Heartbreak, that I truly connected with his music.
808’s And Heartbreak is an album full of autotune and melancholy – taking its main inspiration from ambient and electronic music, it spoke of the isolation of fame, his desire for the family life that other people of his age have, his struggles as a person and as an artist, and it well and truly broke my heart. Follow up album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, again, exactly what it said on the tin, but saw Kanye going back to his hip hop roots; just darker than he had been before. New album Yeezus lies somewhere in between … taking the dark lyrical themes from the latter and the electronica from the former, but musically this is a much different Kanye. In fact, completely different.
Opening track ‘On Site’ begins with a level of distortion only really found on the sound systems of low lit Berlin nightspots. It then moves into distorted nu house that sounds like its been produced by the god of distortion Alec Empire (a great thing in my book) with Kanye rapping over all the noise. It’s not produced by Alec, though, it is in fact one of the many tracks co-produced by Daft Punk. Not a bad place to start, really. ‘Black Skinhead’ (possibly one of the best things he’s ever done) sounds quite familiar … and then I realise that’s because the iconic drums are from ‘The Beautiful People’ by Marilyn Manson. Another Daft Punk production, it’s made for the strut rather than the swagger, and has had repeated listening from me already (mostly while wanting to look mean and cocky whilst walking down the street).
‘I Am A God’ (apparently featuring God…!) has harsh noises and rave instruments, the occasional scream, and a slightly upsetting middle section that includes the screams of what sounds like someone being attacked over and over again. Deliberately disturbing, it creates an uneasy feeling in me … and I quite like it. Previously mentioned track ‘New Slaves’, featuring Frank Ocean, is the most commercial moment here … which means it’s not really commercial at all by West’s usual standards, but it’s the most danceable and commercial thing on display. Harsh lyrics spat with venom, rave synths and speed garage vocal samples build into a frenzy that is then immediately broken by completely changing direction into a more traditional song. All in all it’s an impeccable track that owes more than a little to ‘List Of Demands’ by alt rap Poet Saul Williams … in fact, it essentially is ‘List Of Demands’ … but it’s a great track that should be top of the single list.
Opus ‘Hold My Liquor’ begins as a drunk haze of autotune before evolving into a minimal industrial rap ballad. Yes, that’s exactly what I thought! The song winds and sprawls going in various different directions over its 5 and a half minutes, before leading us into the sex filled ‘I’m In it’, including the line,
Eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce –
before exploding into a sexy dubstep beat and a mix of dancehall, hip hop and soul vocals. It’s filth of the highest order, and not in a sexy way, in quite a dirty and almost distressing way, which is part of its genius.
‘Blood On The Leaves’ is built mostly around a vocal sample from ‘Strange Fruit’ by Nina Simone, and hits us with distorted horns and autotuned meloncholy, but there’s still something incredibly harsh about the whole thing. ‘Guilt Trip’ recalls the melancholy of 808’s And Heartbreaks, but pushed screaming into now with a two step beat and a distorted funk. Sonically, the album never really let’s up. ‘Send It Up’ hits you hard in the face with its half rave half dancehall party. In fact, only final track ‘Bound 2’ feels even anywhere near like classic Kanye, with its sampled soul vocals and plain hip hop beat, till we’re smacked with more distorted bass about half way through, and we’re brought crashing down back into the underground again.
Truthfully, its hard to single anything out, as its an impeccably produced collection of tracks that trace a dark tunnel into Kanye’s head. Now, Kanye isn’t the first person to do this, the aforementioned Saul Williams trod almost exactly the same ground back in 2007 with his collaboration album with industrial music’s lord and master Trent Reznor on The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust. The whole thing sweats Saul Williams from every pore, and its this obvious influence that stops it from being a perfect album. Regardless, it’s another brave move from an ever evolving artist, who doesn’t just push the envelope in modern hip hop, he puts a stamp on it and posts it as far away as possible. Yeezus is a brilliant example of exactly how modern music should be – it’s such a mishmash of samples and influences, it covers as many genres as it can, and will not only introduce a new audience to hip hop, but also exposes a contemporary hip hop audience to industrial, Chicago house and nu Berlin electronica.
Yes, there’s a worry that by pushing this sound into the mainstream, the rest of the hip hop community will follow suit, and it wouldn’t surprise me if future offerings from Drake and Frank Ocean, both who seem to be taking their lead from West will be ladened with distortion and strange noises. I’m not really that precious about it, but I can imagine the imminent possibility of the top 40 being flooded with digital hardcore noise smashed into rap may make some people’s blood boil.
Ok, so this album isn’t for everyone. The music is heavy and distorted, the lyrics are dark and at times heavily sexual, violent or even misogynistic, but to me it’s a brave and bold work that deserves the praise being thrown at it. I’m glad when music can excite me, and this album is right up my street, even though I’m sure it will turn “fans” away in droves.