Kanye’s fifth album, 2010’s sprawling and joyous ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, was all like: “It’s 2am, I’m pissed on the dancefloor, I’m a fuck-up, but whatever, love you!!!” ‘Yeezus’, its follow-up, sets its clock closer to 4am. “Still on the dancefloor but I’ve taken too much,” it growls. “My emotional core is warping. You can talk to me, sure. But you won’t enjoy the conversation.” More than anything else he’s done, ‘Yeezus’ puts you eyeball-to-eyeball with Kanye’s fragile superstar persona in all its slightly distasteful glory. ‘I Am A God’ is already well on its way to becoming his anthem, with the 36-year-old both piss-taking and stating a 21st century truth. “Hurry up with my damn croissants”, he demands. He’s joking. He’s not joking. No-one really knows.
Recently, Kanye has started talking down ‘…Dark Fantasy’ as “a half-assed apology”. A get-out card, as with 2011’s ‘Watch The Throne’ with Jay-Z, to make nice and re-establish himself after the sad Auto-Tune weirdness of 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ took him south of the mainstream. It seems like, in a perfect world, ‘Yeezus’ is the record he would’ve made in 2010. “I realised [on ‘808s…’],” he said, “that I am a black new wave artist.” He’s right. ‘Yeezus’ is all metal-on-metal, S&M drums, synths set to perv. Like Nine Inch Nails. Or early acid house. Or ‘Being Boiled’-era Human League, depending on which musical tribe you’re coming at it from.
Track one, the Daft Punk-helmed ‘On Sight’, has him working over one of the earliest acid house singles: Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’. The next, ‘Black Skinhead’, absorbs the glam beat of Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’, yet both are mangled into the sound of a Honda plant becoming sentient. Later, he’s prepared to relax the template. ‘Hold My Liquor’ is the missing link between the woozy-weepy electronics of ‘808s…’ and his new incarnation, while ‘Send It Up’ finds a natural pathway between new Robo-Kanye and the stark experiments, such as ‘Clique’, that he cooked up with his GOOD Music cartel last summer.
It’d be brilliantly JG Ballard in Crash mode if ‘Yeezus’ were a record about robot sex. But it’s not. It’s about Kanye sex. Oddly, given how it was trailed, the politically scalding duo of ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead’ don’t define ‘Yeezus’. It’s not so much about having chic Grace Jones cyber-sex as it is about Kanye waving a 50ft erection around and looking for something to attach it to. No guesses as to what he’s ‘in’ on ‘I’m In It’. Will there be a more sacrilegious moment in 2013 than the breathtaking line: “Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign”? Yup, one track later, when he uses Nina Simone’s version of the sacred song about lynching, ‘Strange Fruit’, as the hook in a tale of extra-marital sex. If power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, then his upgrade to God is two packs of Viagra. Thing is, he’s contradictory enough to write a razor-sharp racist takedown like ‘New Slaves’ with one breath, then spit lines like “Asian pussy/All I need is sweet’n’sour sauce” the next. West’s inconsistent, smash-and-grab psyche feels dangerous.
But ‘Yeezus’ also seems like a wasted opportunity. He may well have redefined pop radio for a couple of years, and what does he choose to spit over the top of it? Gratuitous filth, basically. It’s funny, but also a pity, because ‘Yeezus’ is so tight, so bold, that with a few tweaks Kanye could’ve made his rock for the ages. As it is, he’ll have to settle for one of the best records of the year. But then that’s Mr West for you: you get the sense he’s so smart that he’d rather keep dangling the prospect in front of us. Following through is boring. Keeping the narrative of his deranged musical goosehunt going: that’s art.