Kanye West's 'Yeezus': What the Critics Are Saying

Kanye West Album Art - P 2013

Kanye West Album Art - P 2013

It’s been a big week for Kanye West. The day before the rapper’s girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, gave birth to their first child, West’s sixth studio album Yeezus leaked online to a blogging frenzy. (His label is reportedly hunting for the leaker, while the rapper has said he gives “no f---s at all” about the early drop.) Yeezus, with its eye-catching clear jewel case design, hit shelves Tuesday, its release heralded by glowing praise from reviewers.

West is nothing if not controversial, with song titles including “I Am a God” and “Black Skinhead” and infamously bizarre interviews. The rapper has become one of hip-hop’s most original and skilled voices since his 2004 debut, The College Dropout, his decade-long ascension reaching new heights with 2010’s critically revered My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Yeezus strips down to a dark, menacing sound -- branded “narcissistic” and “misogynistic” -- while the record also earned raves for its intensity and experimentalism.

Billboard calls it “West’s most adventurous album to date,” noting its blend of genres. “Those looking for vintage soul sounds or even full-on raps from start to finish will be thrown several curves here. It’s an album with numerous emotional layers as well.” Billboard pays particular attention to “New Slaves,” a cut West played on SNL after having projections of his face singing it displayed on buildings around the world. “The album version is just as viscous,” Billboard writes. “It drastically transforms into something soulful and visceral at the end, with West hopping on the voice-altering device Auto-Tune to sing.”

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Rolling Stone’s Jon Dolan agrees. “If the overall feel is jarring, the sonic palette is as typically rich as ever. There's bunker-club hipster dance music, ring-the-alarm Jamaican dance hall, forlorn Auto-Tune soul, crackling old-soul samples and downcast techno rap,” he writes. “Yeezus is the darkest, most extreme music Kanye has ever cooked up.”

Dolan also shouts out executive co-producer Rick Rubin, who “gets a beard-load of credit for helping make what could've been an assaulting overload feel contained and of a piece. He and Kanye deployed a less-is-less strategy, making sure that every contusive hit has maximum impact.”

Cautions the Los Angeles Times’s Randall Roberts, “It's pretty obvious that it will shock a lot of people. Those that already don’t like the polarizing Chicago rapper and producer will have a replenished arsenal come its Tuesday release date." Roberts writes, “The record, which overtly addresses issues of race in three song titles -- ’New Slaves,’ ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ -- is the hardest, most abrasive record, both musically and thematically, of [West's] career."

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Ryan Dombal at Pitchfork argues that Yeezus is West’s disgusted rejection of the superstardom he sought with Dark Twisted Fantasy. Dombal finds the album’s abrasiveness in its unexpected collaborators roster and its charged lyrics: “Album pinnacle ‘Blood on the Leaves’ tells a nightmarish story of divorce and betrayal, all while samples of Nina Simone's pitched-up ‘Strange Fruit’ and TNGHT's demonic ‘R U Ready’ horns play yin and yang to the protagonist's alternately sorrowful and furious headspace.”

“These unlikely choices demonstrate how cohesion and bold intent are at a premium on Yeezus, perhaps more than any other Kanye album,” Dombal concludes. "Each fluorescent strike of noise, incongruous tempo flip, and warped vocal is bolted into its right place across the record's fast 40 minutes.”

Yeezus seems to be going out of its way to unsettle the listener. The sound feels harsh and strip-lit and punishing,” writes The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis. “Perhaps [West] just understands better than most of his peers that musical stars are meant to be extraordinary, provocative, divisive, controversial figures. Noisy, gripping, maddening, potent, audibly the product of, as he put it, ‘giving no f---s at all,’ Yeezus is the sound of a man just doing his job properly.”

Spin’s Rob Harvilla delights in Yeezus’s lyrics. “I prefer Kanye angry, as he's simultaneously at his most electrifying … and his funniest,” Harvilla writes. “This is a vicious, petulant, abrasive, colossally vain, frequently hilarious record, most of the time intentionally -- he thunders, ‘HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS’ fully cognizant of how many thousands of people would be powerless to resist tweeting those words verbatim within 30 seconds of hearing them.”

But David Marchese, also of Spin, is less convinced: “I rationally understand that ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘I Am a God’ say things about race and fame that are rarely said by high-profile people with massive audiences. I just don't think that fact alone makes the stuff crazy-interesting, let alone enjoyable.”

Marchese continues, “Is that reaction proof of my debilitating racial-political naivete and/or ignorance? Hey, probably.”