Friday's the first day of summer, but we're already well into Yeezyseason. Kanye West released "Yeezus," his sixth studio album, on June 18, a few days after it leaked and a month and a half after he cryptically announced that something would happen on that fateful day.
And something did: West's album debuted to a tidal wave of critical support. Pitchfork slapped the disc with a 9.5, the A/V Club gave it an A-, as did Entertainment Weekly; Rolling Stone deemed the record worthy of four-and-a-half stars out of five. Consequence of Sound did Kanye one better, with a five-out-of-five review, as did the Telegraph and XXL hit it with a four-out-of-five review.
All love, right? Not exactly: In the ensuing days, a number of criticism's about West's wildly diverse, ambitious and provocative album has landed on the wrong side of some writers. Here are their chief complaints (none of which, it's worth noting, are of the "this isn't music" variety that litter internet comment sections):
1. The album doesn't treat women the best: Women get rough treatment on much of "Yeezus," but the rhetoric is sharper on "Blood on the Leaves" and "I'm in It" than anywhere else. On the former track, West pitch-bends Nina Simone's cover of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," -- a song about lynchings, with lyrics like "black bodies, swinging in the summer breeze" -- into the backdrop for ruminations on infidelity and alimony. Those who extolled the track suggest that the discomfort inherent in the juxtaposition is West's point, but others aren't buying that intention or just find it unsatisfying. " To cap it off," Dorian Lynskey writes, "he describes being forced to seat his wife and mistress on opposite sides of a basketball court and says, 'I call that apartheid.' Do you, Kanye? Do you really?"
On "I'm in It," West raps that he "put his fist in her like a civil rights sign," again perverting an iconic, emotional image (or, in the case of "Blood on the Leaves," song) into a boastful moment that positions him as an unfeeling alpha male. In a Spin roundtable on the album, Puja Patel finds the moment particularly offensive given West's personal relationships with women, or one woman in particular. "If Kanye has ever truly loved, by all accounts he has loved his mama," she writes. "And if Yeezus is the son of God, then his mama is the Virgin Mary: pure, mythical, brave. Which on Yeezus seems to be absolutely everything a woman who would allow themselves to be fucked by Kanye is not. Yet here he is, ramming his fist up our vaginas in the name of Civil Rights and shaming those who get off when the hand of God has struck them."
2. It offers a very particular, personal view of racial politics: West famously told the New York Times that he finds himself to be an "activist-type artist" in the same lane as Gil-Scott Heron and he comments frequently about America's relationship with race on "Yeezus." There's "New Slaves," a track on which he documents his own battle with materialism, which he characterizes as akin to the prison industrial complex in being defined along racial lines. On "Black Skinhead," he snarls that the fact that he's dating a white woman makes white America look at him like he's King Kong. Here's Lynskey: "New Slaves addresses black stars’ addiction to white-owned luxury brands and the lucrative racism of the prison-industrial complex but doesn’t bother to join the dots between the two, let alone his mother’s childhood in 'the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin.' Whether Kanye thinks a poor black man railroaded into prison for a minor narcotics offence more or less of a 'new slave' than a rich one talked into buying a Maybach is unclear."
3. Kanye's narcissism runs unchecked: Kanye's vanity has long irked his critics, but he's usually been pretty good about laughing at it -- or at least admitting to it (quickly, on "Barry Bonds": "My head's so big you can't sit behind me"). West's fans appreciate his ability to wink at imperfection and self-doubt while believing wholeheartedly in his ability to create art (like the "only awesomeness" he mentions in the aforementioned Times article), but critics fear that on "Yeezus," we see a rapper who not only feels he's in the right, but is retroactively asserting his authority (on "Black Skinhead": "If I knew what I knew in the past, I would have been blacked out on your ass"). Of course, that can be taken two ways: West has apparently realized that he'll never be loved and frequently points at America's problem with black celebrities who don't play nice as the rationale, but in doing so, he collapses the black struggle into his own. There are references to larger black issues all over the album ("those kids in Chiraq," a nod to the war-like state of Chicago's South Side), but they seem to always be used as metaphors for West's own experiences as a rich, super famous musician grappling with issues like materialism.
Each of these issues is, of course, connected with at least one other. Taking issue with a rapper turning a civil rights protest sign into an act of sexual aggression, for example, equally offends those considering race and gender implications of West's work, and most detractors identify his narcissism as the vehicle which delivers him to misguided ends. (There is, however, a counterargument to that as well.)
"Yeezus" is sonically complex, a melange that includes everyone from West, RZA, No ID, Mike Dean and other hip-hop mainstays to Daft Punk and fellow Frenchmen Brodinski and Gesaffelstein to upstart party anthem gurus Lunice and Hudson Mohawke. Lyrically, there are shining moments of lucidity, and West is undeniably an important artist because he starts conversations in lyrics of songs that are played on the radio (even if, as HuffPost blogger DJ Louie XIV recounts, they're sometimes lost on the drunk lips of clubgoers). These types of discussions about social issues may (or may not) have been common in the radio hits of lore, but absent Beyonce and Lady Gaga's self-affirmative anthems, we're living in the age of Drake's relationship-based rap, Katy Perry's sugar pop and Rihanna's party jams. The question, then, is the fact that West's work rises far above the drivel that the likes of Miley Cyrus are putting out enough, or should the new father be held to a higher standard (perhaps, even, the one we'd judge "Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour and David Stern" against)?
What say you? Does "Yeezus" bring issues up for discussion or bury them in the fog of West's perspective? Let us know what you think in the comments.
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly identify the song in which Kanye says the "my head's so big..." lyric.