Kanye West’s “Yeezus”

It’s been more than a week since hip hop icon Kanye West released his sixth studio album, Yeezus. Around the same time, Kanye’s daughter, aptly named “North” West, was born. Though the coincidence of his album release and his newborn’s birth have nothing to do with one another, there is some strange significance. West recorded his new album, Yeezus, sporadically between last summer and over a mere 15-day period in Paris this year, which indicates that West might’ve had some apprehension making music while caring for girlfriend Kim Kardashian. In addition, Yeezus was neither promoted commercially nor did it advertise a lead single, much like electronic duo Daft Punk for their recently acclaimed comeback record Random Access Memories. Interestingly, Daft Punk also became some of the many unconventional producers and guests on Yeezus, which included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Chief Keef, Kid Cudi, TNGHT, Travis $cott, Frank Ocean, King L, and music mogul Rick Rubin. Although some rumored musicians, such as Skrillex and Odd Future, didn’t appear on Yeezus, the aforementioned guests and producers still make up an extraordinary group of experienced virtuosos, some of whom have worked with West in the past, particularly on 2010’s universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On Yeezus, West delves deeper into the musical darkness and lyrical genius that Twisted Fantasy brought forth in 2010. Early reports suggested that Yeezus would be his “darkest disc yet.” Fans were most likely worried about the troubling news of a Kanye West album much different from his other LPs, despite West’s widespread recognition, media gravitation, and mesmerizing artistic integrity. However, because Kanye is also a mastermind at making music and a persevering collaborator, Yeezus has trascended expectations as another great Kanye West record and one of this year’s best hip hop albums.

Moody, abrasive, and unrelentingly provocative, Yeezus is not only Kanye West’s best work to date, but also a haunting, modern example of racism, materialism, sexuality, pop culture, and the perils of fame. Musically, Yeezus incorporates a much more raw sound, using acid house synthesizers, industrial music, Jamaican dancehall, and experimental post-punk. Artistically, Kanye applied a much more minimal approach to create Yeezus, its album cover being a regular CD packaging with bright red tape on the exterior. Though it was a surprise to many, the cover represents Kanye’s raw emotion, which he successfully displays throughout the album’s 40-minute length. Lyrically, West comes off angrier, more explicit, and much more sexually perverse than before. On “New Slaves,” the first unofficial single off of Yeezus, West extrapolates racial tension and misogyny in both a vivid and controversial way. Yeezus’ lyrics and music became even more startling when West performed both “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on the Saturday Night Live season finale. As Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter described when working on the album, Kanye was “rapping – even screaming primally,” especially on “Black Skinhead.” Fortunately, “Black Skinhead” is a powerful and breathtaking foot stomper,  encompassing tribal drums and those raw, primal screams Bangalter described.

The rest of Yeezus is equally as edgy and unlike anything Kanye has made before. Take the album’s third track, “I Am a God,” which, frankly, speaks for itself. It may be the most controversially titled Kanye song, but in a way, it’s a bit amusing, considering that Kanye has perhaps the biggest ego in the hip hop industry. It’s already enough that the rapper named his own album Yeezus,” comparing himself to the Biblical figure (a la John Lennon), and that the only official guest on the track listing is God. But what most mistake as shock value and blasphemy is actually Kanye’s own self-deprecation of being a celebrity, somebody who is bigger and better in modern day society, but is self-obsessed and dangerous. He even boasts his braggadocio on the classic line, “Hurry up with my damn crossants!” However, twice on the song we hear those primal screams again from “Black Skinhead,” only louder and scarier. These booming shrieks evoke Kanye’s illustration of a supreme celebrity, like himself, descending into madness. Maybe that explains his apprehension over the birth of his daughter, but it seems too odd to call it a “mid-life crisis” just yet because Kanye’s energy never wavers, both live and on Yeezus.

Throughout the album, he continues to push his vanity and musical influences over the edge. Some examples include the funky, acid house thrill ride opener “On Sight,” and the bleak, ambient “Hold My Liquor,” which features Atlanta rapper Chief Keef and Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver vocalist also stars on the overtly sexual track, “I’m in It,” alongside Jamaican musician Assassin. While both of their lyrics are incomprehensible, Kanye’s verses are wry and witty, but occasionally go into contentious territory especially on lines like “eatin’ Asian p***y, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” Several female fans and non-Kanye West fans have described “I’m In It” as misogynistic and emotionally traumatizing. But really, misogyny is just the bizarre art of being a hip hop artist. The only difference with West is that you can’t take something like “I’m In It” too seriously.

The second half of Yeezus continues to stock up on complex lyrics, ingenious production, and a sound reminiscent of his previous albums. Kanye’s Auto-Tuned vocals on the 6-minute centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves” recall the Auto-Tuned songs and dark themes from his fourth record 808s and Heartbreak. The song also features unusually paired yet exemplary samples from R&B singer Nina Simone’s soulful “Strange Fruit” and trap duo TNGHT’s ardent “R U Ready.” “Guilt Trip” is another similar 808s track, comprising of video game synthesizers, Auto-Tune, and morose vocals from rapper Kid Cudi. “Send It Up” is another noisy, sexually graphic song that features raps from King L. Yeezus closer, “Bound 2,” sounds much like the Southern hip hop from his first three records, The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, respectively. In addition to the sound, Kanye’s themes of family and unrequited love appear on “Bound 2,” as well as a repetitive Jackson 5-sounding sample and R&B singer Charlie Wilson’s exquisite vocals. It might not be a great outlier on Yeezus, but it reminds us of Kanye’s softer side and nostalgia.

Yeezus is definitely nothing anyone has listened to before, speaking on behalf of critics and Kanye’s fans. It extends the boundaries of hip hop and rap and carefully integrates various music genres, thanks to its exemplary collaborations. Despite the album’s meager amount of material (only 10 tracks), there’s a lot leftover, according to producer Rick Rubin. This could mean that nobody is really ready for what Kanye will unleash. All we know is that the new father will always keep us on our toes and that he keeps the virtue of unpredictability intact.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” “I Am A God,” “New Slaves”

                       

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel‘s director, Zack Synder, has had some critical setbacks with his earlier movies. Despite the commercial breakthroughs of 2007’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, the 47-year old filmmaker had trouble finding a way to evoke his interest in sci-fi thrillers and make it into a compelling and visceral cinematic experience. As a result, he made 2010’s underwhelming Owls of Gahoole and 2011’s vapid Sucker Punch. However, after talks of a Superman reboot in 2008, Synder found his way back in the movie industry with a sense of optimism, ethos, and stability, after he collaborated with The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan. Together, they’ve formulated what would become one of this summer’s most highly anticipated blockbusters, Man of Steel

I wish that Synder had only put more thought into Man of Steel because, to be honest, it has the potential to be much more captivating and thought-provoking than it was made to be. Looking back on the 2 and 1/2 hour movie, Man of Steel is weakened by its wooden script, underdeveloped plot points, and overlong action sequences. In addition, Man of Steel doesn’t really feel any different from any other generic superhero film. But nevertheless, it’s filled with rich visual effects and an impressive ensemble cast. In the starring role of the titular character, actor Henry Cavill looks the part of Clark Kent/Superman, but sometimes it feels as though there’s some emptiness within his character. Furthermore, Amy Adams does an adequate job of portraying love interest Lois Lane, as does Kevin Costner playing Clark’s adoptive father and Russell Crowe playing Clark’s biological father, Jor-El. The subplot between both fathers and their superhuman son is surprisingly one of the high points of Man of Steel, as it exhibits a emotionally gratifying depiction of Superman’s origin story. Though, this is slightly ironic, considering that this subplot is much more palpable than the action sequences and that Synder usually focuses more on the on-screen fighting in his films. Regardless of the occasional over-the-top action, Man of Steel maintains the emotional aspect of a great superhero film.
Still, there are a few drawbacks from Man of Steel, including the stilted portrayal of main villain General Zod by actor Michael Shannon. Although Zod is a classic character from the original Christopher Reeve Superman films, Shannon’s performance isn’t as gripping nor as authentic as one would expect. The awkward screenwriting makes Zod’s character even more unrealistic. In addition to Shannon’s underwhelming Zod, the lengthy battle between him and Superman drags on way too long during the climax of Man of Steel. Another disadvantage from the million-dollar budgeted film was the mediocre chemistry between Cavill’s Superman and Adams’ Lois Lane. Both actors are genuinely attractive people, but when paired together, they don’t really capture the essence of the titillating relationship between Kent and Lane in previous Superman films. However, that’s not to say that they could continue a very interesting relationship in Man of Steel‘s sequel. 

Man of Steel isn’t a Dark Knight, but thankfully nor is it a Green Lantern; it’s somewhere in between. Despite its five year process, Man of Steel‘s plot, writing, and acting could still use some work. However, needless to say, the visual grandeur and thematic material is undoubtedly outstanding and well-thought out. Luckily, Man of Steel has already achieved commercial triumph nationwide, but hopefully its sequel will have better critical success.
Grade: B
Recommended: Yes