"The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person." I remembered Abraham Lincoln's formula listening to Kanye West's eponymous new album Yeezus on the 1 train yesterday. "I am a God" may be the most arguable song title in our time, though here one has to credit Mr. West for his own devotional fervor, and also for taking public obscenity to new heights without the help of four-letter words or misogyny (next to West's diabolical octave-dropped refrain, Cee Lo Green's lovelorn caroling on "F*** YOU" finally sounds ripe for the Disney Channel).
On the track, West testifies, "I am a God / Even though I'm a man of God / My whole life in the hand of God / So y'all better quit playing with God."
Mr. West's peculiar theology reads like the Ouroborus, its paradox being neatly contained in the title, itself: Mr. West, we're told, is, "a God" - a, as in one among many, and God, the capitalization of which denotes a proper noun, as in the Supreme Being of monotheism.
From there, it only gets more confusing with the rapper toggling between categorical imperatives ("Hurry up with my damn croissants") and marking communion in his signature nanny-nanny-boo-boo cadence ("I just talked to Jesus / He said, 'What up, Yeezus?' / I said, 'Shit, I'm chilling / Try'na stack these millions'").
You can love or hate the rapper's sixth studio album, but Yeezus doesn't sound like anything else on the charts. Something this emphatically nonconformist is easily mistaken for being ahead of its time, and it's doubly tempting to confuse Mr. West's sublime self-conceit for the mark of a prophet. It's too early to tell whether Yeezus will be remembered for setting the trend or merely bucking it, but for now, it's safe to say that Mr. West is less a God - whatever that means -- than our highest avatar of guilty pleasure. It feels right to groan at the human brand image that is Kanye West, but assuming his larger-than-life persona in the privacy of our headphones is, alas, divine.
Most of Yeezus's 40 minutes are at least as aesthetically offensive as Duchamp's urinal. After hearing Mr. West list the Louvre and Le Corbusier among his influences, it's hard to ignore a mischievous streak of "art for art's sake" running through Yeezus's glitch-soaked layers of hedonism. Others have drawn comparison with Andy Warhol, whose talent for making oodles of cash and sensational misanthropy fit Mr. West long before the latter named his daughter an intercardinal direction. But unlike much of Warhol's Day-Glo schlock, this album is no senseless discharge from superstardom.
From the beginning, Yeezus so exhaustively glorifies itself that by the end, "I'm tired, you tired, Jesus wept" actually sound like reasonable parting words from a rapper who only minutes earlier gave us the image of a club "so packed I might ride around on my bodyguard's back."
Production-wise, this is the most adventurous hip hop album since OutKast's The Love Below. It's brash, funny and appalling, unrolling a musical canvas both larger and richer than 808s and Heartbreaks' baroque self-pity or the tortured synthesizers we got on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Mr. West's production instincts run riot over "Hold My Liquor," where the backing track -- a Phil Collins-esque series of swollen chords ripped apart every four beats by the sound of tires screeching -- deftly form-fits around the lead vocals. Throughout the album, the artist's twin roles of rapper/producer cut hard against each other. Which makes sense given how useless collaborative cues are to a man like Kanye West - even when he's the one supplying them.
Despite how little of it could possibly be remixed into some candied club banger, Yeezus will last for all the reasons we're inclined to dismiss it. Because it's one thing to make a hip hop album sound like a delirious ego trip. But to make listeners feel that the trip is their own - that's art.