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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Kid Cudi’s “Indicud”

Around the release of Ohio rapper Kid Cudi’s sophomore effort Man on the Moon II, a friend asked me, “What does Kid Cudi have left to rap about?” Although I was (and still am) a fan of Cudi at that time, the question was seriously racking my brain. Even though both of Cudi’s first two albums were commercial successes (and critical, to a lesser extent), I wondered whether or not Cudi would be able to venture onto a third follow-up that would be just as lucrative and crowd-pleasing. Unfortunately, that’s when Cudi took a huge left turn. His third record, Indicud, is a lazy, inept, and disorienting album, weighed down by his lackluster rapping and monotonus rhythms. It’s more disappointing that the title of Cudi’s third record isn’t Man on the Moon III, marking a cutoff from what seemed like the end of a trilogy. Though his music is intentionally isolated and emotionally distant, this seems like a pretty deceptive and angsty move to do. Even with the huge successes of psychedelic rap songs like “Day ‘n’ Nite” and “Pursuit of Happiness,” as well as electro-rock jams, “Erase Me” and “Revofev,” Cudi’s lack of drive to continue developing new ideas has unfortunately led to the result of Indicud.

Unlike his first two albums, Indicud is solely produced by Cudi, though with some help from WZRD collaborator Dot da Genius on drums. Fellow producer Hit-Boy, who supplied the enticing beats of prior Cudi songs, only co-produced one song off Indicud. Despite the lack of collaborative production, this album is filled with great artists, but some not seeming like they belong on a hip hop album. Although the list of recognizable rappers, such as ASAP Rocky, King Chip, Too $hort, Kendrick Lamar, and RZA, are credible, their appearances don’t create a lasting impression. The artists that don’t fit in on the album are unfortunately featured on the worst songs: “Red Eye” features Haim, an indie-pop trio with great composition but zero chemistry with Cudi whatsoever; “Young Lady” features the alt-rock newcomer Father John Misty, whose sampled “Hollywood Cemetery Forever Sings” would be better left in its original version; the preposterously 9-minute “Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends)” features singer Michael Bolton. Michael. Bolton. Let that sink in. No matter the amount of effort that was put into this album, Cudi fails on almost every level on Indicud.

Understanding that Cudi is considered a self-described “lonely stoner,” it makes sense that he tends to explore and philosophize the concepts of life, loneliness, bitterness, and dreams in his music. However outside his own little world, he’s gained a popular cult following of high school and college kids, several collaborations with Kanye West and other Roc-A-Fella artists, and a charming role in the recently-cancelled HBO show How to Make it In America. Unfortunately, barely any of these aspects are seen in Indicud. Grittier, gloomier, and overly nonchalant, Cudi instead fluffs Indicud with 70 minutes of basic crap. Even from listening to snippets of the album on iTunes is disappointing. The only song that, thankfully, is worth hearing on Indicud is its first lead single “Just What I Am.” Given its decent vocals from Cudi and rapper King Chip and its airy electronic sound, “Just What I Am” is Indicud‘s sole standout. Basically everything else though is a faceplant. Going back to the aforementioned question, I once again asked myself, “What does Kid Cudi have left to rap about?” After listening to Indicud, I’d have to say that he has stuff to rap about, but the question is whether or not he’s willing to share it with the world or if he’s just tired of rapping.

Grade: D-
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Just What I Am”

Tyler, The Creator’s “Wolf”

Let’s just forget for a moment that LA hip hop collective Odd Future are labeled as nihilistic, skateboarding, donut-eating hipsters. Sure, they may rap about drugs, violence, and sex, but they define modern rap music at its most lurid and enhanced. Odd Future surfaced virally around the Internet in 2009, when leader Tyler, The Creator released his unconventionally genius mixtape Bastard. Later, more and more Odd Future artists, such as Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, Earl Sweatshirt, and mainstream R&B crooner Frank Ocean, rose from the unprecedented underground into explosive stardom. Though the hip hop group keeps a low-key reputation with the media, they contain defining attributes, with their trendy clothing and local fanbase, that has determined several famous LA hip hop groups like NWA. However, the most credited member out of the entire Odd Future collective is the aforementioned Tyler, The Creator, who just released his third record, entitled Wolf.

After 2010’s eccentric Goblin, Tyler, the Creator became an iconic zeitgeist in both music and pop culture, though he’s not necessarily considered mainstream yet. Don’t let his irreverent and pervasive lyrics deceive you, Tyler has talent. Whether or not it’s a half-baked talent, Tyler attains an engaging personality that brings you into his outlandish stories about women, family, depression, and utter alienation. On Wolf, Tyler has improved on both his lyrical and musical styling. The thing about Tyler is that he’s not like any other rapper; he creates his own genre of rap music, an odd assortment of devilishly vulgar rhymes mixed with buzzy synths and old-school beats. Plus no rapper would make a hysterically ingenious album cover (make that three, although not all are hysterical).

Tyler hits a few home runs on Wolf: On the piano-driven title track opener, Tyler doesn’t let us into his world just yet, a delayed gratification that keeps the interest of listening to the rest of the album. The 2-minute song leaves us with a symphony of electronic and orchestral instruments, a few mumbled lines, and Tyler talking to himself in two different personas, much like in his previous album openers for Bastard and Goblin. On “Colossus,” Tyler describes his annoyance and his sympathy for his fans, who obsess and attempt to relate to his childhood story. He reiterates the general consensus of his fans’ messages (“Went to Six Flags, six fags came up to me and said “Ayo, can we get a pic?”) while contemplating his reaction (“Now, I’m like ‘Fuck, I don’t want to be an asshole'”). Tyler demonstrates one of the many complexities of being a celebrity and a voice for kids who aspire to be like him. He not only expresses this distress, but anxiety as well, which authentically shows his emotional side. Tyler takes a few twists and turns in Wolf, with the 7-minute, 3-parter “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” which maintains a consistent tone while containing some eccentricity and idiosyncrasy. Tyler’s most lyrically inviting track is the organ-filled, Pharrell-featured ballad “IFHY.” It’s the 22-year-old rapper at his most emotionally challenged. Tyler’s infatuation over a girl embodies the love/hate dynamic of a relationship: (“I fucking hate you/But I love you/I’m keeping my emotions bubbled/You’re good at being perfect/We’re good at being troubled”). It’s usually a rare thing to see Tyler in this state, given his bold, uncaring, and brutally straightforward attitude in real life. That’s why Wolf is great with moments like these.

Occasionally, Tyler sings and raps on a few mediocre and uninspiring tracks (“Domo23,” “Parking Lot,” “Pigs,” “Trashwang,” “Tamale”) that are either intentionally obscene, lacking in spark, or describing the ruckus and sociopathic actions of his Odd Future posse. Other Wolf tunes are indifferent but worth listening to, due to their lyrical and thematic significance (“Cowboy,” “Answer,” “Awkward,” “48”). It’s surprising to see that the acclaimed Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s feature on the tedious “Slater” doesn’t seem fitting, unlike on the effervescent Goblin track “She.”  However, Tyler manages to boldly blend different elements of his music, especially by adding R&B singers Coco O and Erykah Badu on the contemporary jazz jingle “Treehome95.” Although there’s little rapping, “Treehome95” is enough to be deduced as a fun addition to the intensely themed Wolf. The album closer is “Lone,” a bluesy anthem that puts Tyler again in a state of introspection and isolation.

While Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard and Goblin were much more thematically violent, Wolf encompasses an unpredictable collection of both jazz-type hip hop tunes that prevails through vivid rapping and intense storytelling. Wolf discusses Tyler’s emotional well-being, his repressed childhood, and the nightmare of fame. Even though Wolf was delayed for a year, we can still expect a lot more from Tyler, other than from his Jackass-styled Adult Swim show Loiter Squad. Though the 22-year old rapper squanders through life with his friends, fans, and the media with an antagonistic behavior, he still is able to juxtapose different sides of himself in an incredibly poetic albeit pervasive way. Maybe this is why he stands out from the Odd Future crowd, because not only is he the most famous or eccentric out of all of them, but he is the most honest and endearing, even if it involves rhyming about obscene things.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Wolf,” “Colossus,” “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer,” “IFHY,” “Treehome95,” “Lone”

 

    

Crew Cuts – Hoodie Allen

24-year-old Steven Markowitz used to work at Google, which seems like one of the best jobs someone could have in America in this day and age. But today he has taken a new direction and moniker as the charismatic rapper Hoodie Allen. His rise to recognition and fame started gradually with the release of his 2009 debut Bagels and Beats, as well as his Making Waves mixtape. It wasn’t until his pop-song sampled albums Pep Rally and Leap Year did music listeners start to listen to this up-and-coming rap artist. In fact, Hoodie’s underground success has led him to mainstream stardom, performing in front of sold-out concerts, posting on his Facebook page, having the decency to take pictures with fans, and even getting his first official studio EP reach #1 on iTunes. What’s surprising is how his new mixtape, Crew Cuts, doesn’t necessarily bring the same excitement or charm as his previous records. In fact, his most prevalent tune off of Crew Cuts, “Fame is for Assholes” almost disappoints devoted Hoodie fans (but some may beg to differ). Although the relatively appealing song maintains the catchiness of most popular Hoodie songs, the lyrics feel somewhat derivative to most of Hoodie’s vulgar one-liners. You could cringe or sing along, whether you’re a committed Hoodie fan or not, but Crew Cuts is too thematically irregular and artistically dull to be a great Hoodie Allen mixtape. Despite Hoodie’s consistent rhyming fluidity and quick flashes of genius, Crew Cuts doesn’t offer any noteworthy or stand-out tracks — unlike Leap Year‘s “The Chase is On,” All American‘s “No Interruption,” and Pep Rally‘s “Swimming with Sharks.” Another commercially popular song off the mediocre Crew Cuts is the indifferent “Cake Boy,” which lyrically sounds similar to “Clique” and melodically to Kendrick Lamar’s outlandish “Backstreet Freestyle.” Sometimes, it’s hard to differentiate Hoodie’s pop star half from his hip hop artist half, especially on the reminescent opener “Let Me Be Me” and the unoriginal “Two Lips.” It seems like Hoodie’s raps have become trite and uninventive, especially in his worst Crew Cuts track, “Reunion,” when he borrows Drake’s “Over” line of “drop the mixtape, shit sounded like an album.” Hoodie only comes to his full circle of brilliance when he raps on the funky, electro-induced “Long Night,” and the Sky Ferreira-sampled “Heart 2 Heart.” Although Hoodie’s rhymes generally about romance, girls, alcohol, partying, and being a ladies man, he fails to manage any appeal on the rushed “Good Intentions” and the hazy “Casanova,” which features an indifferent G-Eazy and Skizzy Mars. However, Hoodie Allen does retain some catchiness and glimmer, especially on the Shwayze-featured “Wave Goodbye.”

It’s pretty amazing how far Hoodie Allen has come along in the rap game, especially with his last three mixtapes and iTunes-charting EP.  Even though Crew Cuts isn’t Hoodie at his best,  he’s not done with rapping just yet. The mixtape fluctates from corny pop songs to intriguing hip-hop jams, which is definitely detrimental to Hoodie as both a pop and hip hop artist. Hopefully he won’t get lost in the fame and will instead utilize creative sampling with amazing rhyming, which Crew Cuts unfortunately hasn’t proven.   

Grade: C-
Recommended: No, unless you’re a die-hard Hoodie Allen fan
Suggested Tracks: “Long Night,” “Heart 2 Heart,” “Wave Goodbye”    

Long.Live.A$AP – A$AP Rocky

Listening to New York rapper A$AP Rocky’s sophomore album Long.Live.A$AP from start to finish, I instantly came to one conclusion: A$AP has a lot of potential and he’s using to his advantage. Through the use of his symbolic lyrics, artistic and deft creativity, and effective collaboration, A$AP has enough ethos and energy to power the rap industry this year. Of course, this isn’t Rocky’s first attempt at achieving commercial success and mainstream recognition. In 2011, his excellent debut mixtape Live.Love.A$AP. got attention from both hip hop listeners and critics. Known primarily for his enigmatic material, chill personality, dark themes, and epic free-styling, A$AP Rocky transcends his comfort zone with Long.Live.A$AP, an edgy hip hop album with the right amount of spark and spunk. The title track opener immediately sets the tone of Rocky’s second album: Following a roaring thunder, A$AP Rocky rhymes about money, women, and drugs, which can be categorized as A$AP’s main motifs in his music. Afterwards comes one of A$AP’s strongest tracks, “Goldie,” which was released last year. “Goldie” begins with A$AP’s deep-voiced persona, then transitions into A$AP’s infectious normal-voiced rapping, layered over a electro-drum beat. Another great thing about A$AP’s new album is that it offers a lot of great, new material, such as the fantastic hazy tune, “PMW (All I Need),” the surprising Skrillex-produced electronic jam, “Wild for the Night,” and the posse-filled, “1 Train,” with acclaimed guests Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T. However, some of A$AP’s new material might not please fans, especially lazy and dull songs, such as “Lvl,” “Hell” with a disappointing feature of Santigold, “Pain,” and “Suddenly.” But Long.Live.A$AP needs that juxtaposition of mesmerizing and forgettable songs in order to demonstrate how A$AP isn’t a near-perfect rapper, but that he attains the potential to be one. Compared to his previous album Live.Love.A$AP, this new album is much more complex in lyrics and diverse in beats, and A$AP’s character has evolved much more.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Long.Live.A$AP,” “Goldie,” “PMW (All I Need), “1 Train”