The Book of Yeezus: A Song-by-Song Analysis of Kanye West’s New AlbumCourtesy of Def Jam Recordings
On Friday, Kanye West’s seventh album, Yeezus, was revealed to the world. In celebration of this holy event, members of the Grantland staff seized one song each and reflected upon its beauty, truth, and awesomeness. Or made jokes about it.
1. “On Sight”
Chris Ryan: If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold. Yeezus begins with a Daft Punk beat. Or a Daft Punk something. It’s everything but the beat. Music writer Piotr Orlov compared the track’s major lasers to the French duo’s classic “Rollin’ & Scratchin'”, and I hear that, but there’s very little rolling going on here. The prerelease campfire talk is that Kanye brought the basic tracks of this album to Rick Rubin’s Malibu musical monastery and put Yeezus on a cleanse, shedding all the excess fat from the Paris-recorded songs. I have no reason to doubt that version of things, until Kanye West jumps up in my face and raps, “How much do I not give a fuck?” At that point it becomes apparent who is withholding from whom here.
The thing about first songs — and I mean songs, not intros — on Kanye West albums is (1) they are awesome (“We Don’t Care,” “Good Morning,” and “Dark Fantasy” are among his best), and (2) they are often about dreams. Two albums begin with the command “Wake up, Mr. West,” while “Dark Fantasy” is the realization of something West fantasized about back in Chicago. (It also introduces us to Kanye as Ichabod Brain [cue Cat Stark moan].) “Say You Will,” which kicks off 808s & Heartbreak, has a midsong admission that Kanye still fantasizes about the track’s subject. For as real and relatable as Kanye seems, his music is often the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of.
Not Yeezus. Not “On Sight.” Fantasy opened with Bon Iver, Teyana Taylor, and a choir rhetorically asking us if we could get much higher, as if they were parked outside Heaven’s gate. Yeezus finds Hell on Earth. Or, more specifically, in Miami. This is the distant sound of acid house, as heard out in the Chateau Drive entrance of the Fontainebleau Hotel. That’s where the fountain is; that’s when she got kicked out of the hotel. That’s when Kanye got her back in. That’s when [LAAAAAASEERSSSSSS].
There is nothing dreamy going on here. This is a dance-floor anthem made to clear out the dance floor. Its creator compares it to a central nervous system disorder. There is no warmth. The guy we thought we knew is gone. The dream is over. Kanye West is dead. Yeezus has risen.
2. “Black Skinhead”
Alex Pappademas: First thought: Since the beat samples Gary Glitter’s ballpark-standard stomp “Rock ’n’ Roll Pt. 2,” who’ll be the first major league baseball player to bump this fulminating slab of new–General Zod–flow fuck-all-y’allery as at-bat music?
Second thought: I’m writing this on Friday night. Yeezus leaked this morning, so of course I spent all day driving around listening to it at mirror-rattling volume instead of doing what I was actually supposed to be doing today, which was writing about Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, also set to drop on Tuesday the 18th. I was on deadline, but that fuck-up-your-whole-afternoon shit has a way of fucking up your whole afternoon. Much like Yeezus, Questlove’s book is fantastic; also like Yeezus, it’s written by a guy who’s more than a little bit obsessed with Kanye. The two best extended music-critical riffs in the book are the part about J Dilla and the part about Kanye; Questlove describes watching young black kids watching West doing “Jesus Walks” at the Dave Chappelle’s Block Party taping and reacting in a way he’d never seen kids respond to the Roots. He says that in that moment he experienced a premonition of his own “artistic death,” the impending end of his tenure as a cultural leader.
“In some ways we were in awe of Kanye’s pose,” Thompson admits a few pages earlier. “We had spent a decade seeing hip-hop as a division between the haves and have-nots, between artists who didn’t play games with cars and fashion and acts that plays games with cars and fashion but didn’t aspire to making art. Kanye was an artist who took the audacious stance that he could do both, that there was no conflict between them, and audiences just went right along with him.” (As Ye himself put it beautifully to Jon Caramanica in the New York Times last week, “I was able to slip past everything with a pink polo, but I am Dead Prez.”) That near-death experience in Clinton Hill is one of the most honest moments in the book — up there with the part where Ahmir gets friend-zoned by Alicia Keys — and I kept thinking about it as I processed Yeezus in stop-and-go traffic. Both Mo’ Meta Blues and Yeezus (and “Black Skinhead” in particular) are attempts to narrate what it feels like to be just famous enough that the limits of your fame become frustrating. They’re about what it’s like to get inside the VIP room (of your industry, or your country) only to find out that there’s a room behind that room that remains off-limits to people like you. And that there’s always a room like that. And that first-plateau celebrity exists in part to corral you and keep you away from the real levers of power.
The difference is that Questlove is nerdy and humble and aware of the cosmic unlikeliness of his being admitted to that first room at all, whereas Kanye is Kanye. He’s way more famous, which means he sees that much more clearly that there are freedoms his fame can’t buy him, and it pisses him off. On “Black Skinhead” he’s staring at that next locked door and trying to scream it off its hinges. The (kinda fuzzy) analogy about ex-fans burning LeBron’s jersey in Akron got lost somewhere between that SNL performance and the leak, depriving us of a song in which Yeezy, on his I-contain-multitudes, claims common cause with both the second-highest-paid player in the NBA and the child soldiers of Chiraq, Drillinois. But he still draws blood right up front: “Enter the kingdom, but watch who you bring home / You see a black man with a white woman, at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.”
Get famous, in other words, and society breaks you off some money and offers you the illusion of autonomy, free agency, even adoration, but you’re perpetually one misstep away from being the Antichrist and having your willingness to accept those same gifts held against you. In that context, every impolitic thing Kanye’s ever done or said at an awards show suddenly makes sense. He just wants to hear what people really think about him, and he knows that censuring celebrities for “ranting” or “bad behavior” is one way this culture throws its real cards on the table with regard to race and class. And yet in spite of all that, this isn’t a song about frustration. It’s angry, but the anger doesn’t eat it up. It’s on some goon shit without actually being goon shit — you don’t rap over what sounds like a Flowers of Romance B side if you’re just trying to make goon shit, for one thing. And you don’t make your goon shit this catchy — those Gary Glitter handclaps, those “Sympathy for the Devil” yow!s — unless you also intend to ram it up pop music’s ass. Kanye wants to be a revolutionary and a rich prick and an auteur and Chief Keef and Steve Jobs and circa-1983 Michael Jackson and a beautiful swan at the same damn time, and chances are he’ll keep getting punished for refusing to choose a lane. But there’s something inspiring about his refusal to settle for anything less than everything.
3. “I Am a God”
Amos Barshad: “I am a God” — note the emphasis. In Ye’s mind, someone, somewhere doubted him on this point, and this anonymous, terribly foolish detractor had to be put down. Which means it’s not necessarily the monolithic, pathological bravado you want it to be; it is, at least in some small part, a self-help mantra.
In his New York Times interview, Kanye said he knew, when he wrote the words “got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson,” that he was going to be famous: “At the time, they used to have the Virgin music [stores], and I would go there and just go up the escalator and say to myself, ‘I’m soaking in these last moments of anonymity.’ I knew I was going to make it this far; I knew that this was going to happen.” I don’t believe him. I trust he had this plotted down to the minute details. I trust he’d spent hours tweaking the master plan. But I don’t believe he knew he’d pull it off. In fact, I think he stayed up nights deathly afraid he’d never make it happen. And I think he still worries that, come some awful day, he might yet lose it. We can believe that Jay-Z showed up fully formed, destined for greatness. Ye, though, we can see him sweat, we can see him scared. And that’s what’ll always, always make him my dude. Every morning he wakes up, he looks in the mirror, and he repeats those four words to himself: “I am a God. I am a God. I am a God.”
Very important footnote here: Can we spend just a few moments appreciating how aggressively bizarre “in a French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants” is? Didn’t Kanye record this in Paris? Couldn’t he have just, like, gone outside and seen that your regular French-ass restaurant probably wouldn’t actually have croissants on the menu? Maybe a croquembouche or a crêpe suzette, but probably not croissants? I assume you’d have to go to a cafe to get one, and then they’d usually be in the little front-window display, and also they’d be extremely easy and quick to hand over. Seriously, in what situation would there a dramatic lag between the ordering of the croissant and the delivery of the croissant? This quite possibly might have, in the history of the world, never actually happened?
On the one hand, this is Kanye knowing exactly how to fuck with us — he’ll throw America’s dastardly prison-for-profit economy in our faces one minute, then get perfectly, succinctly dumb the next (try, ever again, dining at an upscale continental cuisine establishment and not thinking of it as a “French-ass restaurant”). On the other, this is Kanye not being able to come up with that many things that rhyme with “amagod.” In conclusion: Only Ye could make an ode to self-deification in which the weirdest line is about breakfast pastries.
4. “New Slaves”
Hua Hsu: We live in the golden age of people launching albums we weren’t 100 percent sure actually existed. An hour or so after Kanye foretold of Yeezus by projecting “New Slaves” against a building in Brooklyn, I sat watching someone’s Vine over and over, an infinite loop of him nearing a violent simmer: “Fuck you and your corporation / Y’all niggas can’t control me.”
Bracketing for a moment the specifics of that “corporation” bit — and hasn’t this become hip-hop’s de facto fifth element, sentences that begin like this? — there was something thrilling about it all: the directness, the provocation, the simplicity (were there even drums?). There was nothing to look at except his face. In the full clip he just seemed to stare inscrutably whenever he wasn’t rapping, as though to hold your attention and force you to pay heed to his lecture.
“New Slaves” is a messy song, especially in comparison to much of the rest of Yeezus, which is just messed up. It conflates the one with the many, the hero’s struggle with those of his worshippers, modesty with weakness, boredom with oppression, actual oppression with the paparazzi’s flashing lights, the prison of expectations with actual prisons. It’s the onetime Louis Vuitton Don warning us about how capitalism works. There are moments of “New Slaves” that are absurd and self-absorbed and then there are these brilliant, clear-eyed lines that seem to distill the modern world’s contradictions into something tangible: the rich vs. broke n—- racism bit, the reality that some young fan might enter “DEA + CCA” into their search engine and wonder how we let that happen.
On a record that’s pretty much devoid of other thinking, feeling humans — it occasionally seems like a chronicle of some guy’s wayward semen — “New Slaves” is one of the only moments of empathy, care, maybe not love, but at least vague concern for one’s fellow man.
I remember listening to College Dropout for the first time, thinking of how arrogant yet egoless Kanye sounded. This was an album about some imagined we — “We Don’t Care,” the bird’s-eye view of “All Falls Down” or “Spaceship” — rich with glimpses into other people’s lives. “New Slaves” is one of the only songs on Yeezus in which that sense of paranoid distrust roves toward something larger than the self. The camera draws back to remind us that the hero actually lives in a city teeming with other people, their hopes and fears. He’s not all by his lonesome, pacing back and forth, muttering “The ‘D’ is silent” to himself in the mirror. There’s a crowd somewhere miles away, enraptured by a poem on the side of a building.
“I see the blood on the leaves,” Kanye spits, over and over. It’s not all his. As he approaches full Boucher, no windows are smashed, nothing is torn apart, no chains are broken. But he doesn’t sound like a slave anymore. Instead, a way out: drums roll, the clouds part, strings swell, and Kanye sings, clear-eyed and full-hearted, that he can’t lose, there’s no way he will lose. Elsewhere on Yeezus, these midsong eccentricities can feel like self-sabotage. As Frank Ocean retraces Kanye’s words, it feels glorious, divine, mysterious, senselessly bright. Yeezus drops tomorrow; Wednesday is Juneteenth.
5. “Hold My Liquor”
Emily Yoshida: Deepak Chopra Helps Kanye and Chief Keef Out of a Predicament
Chief Keef: I can’t control my n—–, and my n—– they can’t control me.
Keef: You say you know me, my n—-, but you really just know the old me.
Kanye West: When I park my Range Rover
Slightly scratch your Corolla
OK, I smashed your Corolla.
West: Ask me why I came over
One more hit and I can own ya
One more fuck and I can own ya
West: Pussy had me floating
Feel like Deepak Chopra
West: Then her auntie came over
Skinny bitch with no shoulders
Tellin’ you that I’m bogus
Bitch you don’t even know us
6. “I’m in It”
Mark Lisanti: Yeezus is, from the get-go, something of an angry and bleak affair. Then you arrive at “I’m in It,” six tracks deep in the Kanye psyche, and things aren’t about to lighten up any. It’s filthy like a poorly maintained sex-dungeon on a space station orbiting Planet Fuck XVIII, a floating fortress that’s now inhabited only by robots programmed to pleasure one another in the most terrifying manner possible. The Hans Zimmer synth-blasts that greet you upon docking are an immediate and visceral warning that something unthinkable has wiped out any trace of human life onboard; it would be better if you avoided the holodeck entirely. That’s where the robots lured the crew for culling, offering the temporary escape of their desires made pseudo-physical, but delivering only extinction. As you press on past the carnage, trying to ignore the churning pistons of the sentinels as they work through their joyless subroutines, you realize there’s one soul left aboard — it’s Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, whose carnal milieu is normally of the making-whispery-love-in-a-snow-capped-cabin variety, but who is trapped in a glass-walled prison cell and being menaced by a set of inspiration lamps that have achieved priapic sentience. He sings and sings for help, but his notes of distress have not been heard for years; when your eyes meet, you see an all-too-brief flicker of happiness, right before a lamp fatally impales him. From deep within the space station, you hear a Zimmer-blast commemorate his passing. You will not be his rescue party this day.
Or maybe it’s just a song about how much Kanye loves to screw.
I prefer my version. There are robots in it.
7. “Blood on the Leaves”
Rembert Browne: The thing that sucks about music is you can hear something for the first time only once. While I’ll never forget my first listening of Yeezus, which took place during a midafternoon drive through spottily serviced Tennessee, the I wish I could bottle this moment and access it whenever I want to feel things forever and ever, amen moment came 1:07 into “Blood on the Leaves.”
Seven tracks into an album titled Yeezus, having passed through songs called “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” and “I Am a God,” the Nina Simone “Strange Fruit” sample barely registered as shocking. Actually, it was more of an Of course he did feeling — neither positive nor negative, but completely predictable in its hyper-black, out-of-left-field, potentially farfetched relationship/slavery metaphor.
But everything changes at 1:07. That’s when Kanye (by way of TNGHT’s “R U Ready“) unleashes the entire marching band and figuratively beats your face into submission.
The abrasive nature of the fanfare is an appropriate introduction to the rest of this song, a tale of Kanye scolding a mystery woman for messing up what they could have been, followed by a Kanye rant thinly veiled as “Verse 3.”
The tale of the groupie and Kanye’s feelings on said groupie is a theme he’s tackled many a time, so much so that any of us should feel overqualified to represent Kanye’s feelings on groupies should he ever need a proxy. Because of that, it’s one of the least interesting topics he covers on the album. Not bad, but I get it, Kanye. We all do.
But those horns will continue to bring me back. And I’m not mad about that.
8. “Guilt Trip”
Molly Lambert: Using the Zodiac Signs of Various People in Kanye West’s Life to Figure Out What Mystery Capricorn He Is Talking About on “Guilt Trip”
• Kanye West is a Gemini, which fits perfectly with his bipolar celebrity persona, best summed up in this eternal GIF.
• Kim Kardashian (October 21, 1980) is a Libra. Libras are “idealistic” and “hospitable” but can also be “superficial” and “vain.” Libras like Kim are people pleasers, which sometimes prevents them from “knowing what their true feelings are because they are trying to make everyone happy.”
• Amber Rose is also a Libra. She has the exact same birthday as Kim (October 21), albeit three years later (1983). Amber is happily boo’d up with Wiz Khalifa, who may not be on Kanye’s level as an artist but is almost certainly a better boyfriend.
• Brooke Crittendon, the former star of BET reality show Harlem Heights whom Ye briefly dated, is probably a Leo.
• Riccardo Tisci is probably also a Leo.
• Jay-Z is a Sagittarius and Beyoncé is a Virgo. (Duh.)
• Selita Ebanks is an Aquarius, and so is Kid Cudi.
• Kanye’s late mom, Donda West, was a Cancer, as is Popcaan.
• Pusha T is a Taurus, which the “T” could stand for in addition to “Ton” or “Terrence Thornton.”
• Scott Disick is a Gemini, like Kanye, which is why they are such BFFs.
• Sessilee Lopez, a model Kanye was once associated with, is a CAPRICORN! But she hasn’t been linked to Kanye since 2008.
• Kanye’s former fiancée Alexis Eggleston Phifer‘s birthday is not listed online and she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, which is pretty astonishing considering she was once engaged to one of the most famous men in the world. Speculation about the mystery woman Kanye refers to repeatedly on Yeezus has centered on Alexis, and the fact that you can’t find her star sign online only fuels it. You could, of course check out her mysterious recent tweets, like “The tables always turn,” “love & family>fame & fortune,” and “What do all men want.” In fact, the more you read Alexis’s tweets the more it seems like something could be going on. What else could she mean by “Showing up like thunder / Disappearing like smoke,” “When you know it’s wrong and you choose to do it anyway…Wicked … Convicted” or “Eating my popcorn watching this movie called life”? Although to be fair you can read anything into a situation if you’re already looking for clues. That’s why people some believe in astrology even though it’s clearly bunk.
9. “Send It Up”
Wesley Morris: The air horn is like the wacky neighbor of dancehall-hip-hop-R&B. Its entertainment comes entirely from its obnoxiousness: I am grinding all over [redacted] while every three minutes the DJ reminds me that a train could pass through this club at any time. For me, the air gun triggers the Pavlovian expectation that Faith Evans’s roller-rink jam “Love Like This” is about to make me lose my mind. What’s obnoxious about “Send It Up” is the way it appears to exist solely to provide West the opportunity to run to the loo or attend a Lamaze class or eat a sandwich. The air horn signals that Yeezus just walked away from the mic, permitting King L to self-showcase. The horn’s ulterior point: young buck alert!
The horn, meanwhile, has been disturbingly distorted. It’s a police car wrapped around a telephone pole that won’t shut up about how wrapped around a telephone pole it is. West does manage to wipe his mouth, bus his tray, and return to business with talk of friends, the club, Louboutins. The song’s throb is actually amputated dancehall. But with seconds remaining, doctors manage to reattach the limb in time for the imported chorus of Beenie Man’s “Memories”: They “don’t live like people do / They always ‘member you.” Nightlife achieves wistful personification: While West speeds home, the VIP section sheds a tear. Either it misses him or is recovering from that air horn.
10. “Bound 2”
Sean Fennessey: Ah, there you are, soul loop. There is something perverse about closing this album with such a classicist Kanye stroke. Of course, perversion is Kanye’s trump card, his fetish, his glory, his flashing light. And what a fine perversion “Bound 2″ is — the only love song on an album about rejection and fear and sex and seething with not-so-subtle cries for revolutions of the bodypolitic and the ticking body. Though “love song” may be too specific a classification.
There is a game that happens when Kanye West albums leak now: Who is this song about? Which woman does he hate now? Wasn’t that relationship five years ago? Whether Amber Rose, Alexis Phifer, Brooke Crittendon, or any of the myriad women in between, Kanye seems deeply aggrieved about his relationships. And yet, “Bound 2″ sounds like the hymn of a man struck by love. Sure, his version of love is by now overheated and oversexed (“I wanna fuck you hard on the sink”) and overexposed. Before Yeezus was revealed, Kanye had been performing an ode to Kim Kardashian called “Awesome,” which featured these words: “Stop everything you’re doing now / Because baby, you’re awesome / Don’t let nobody get you down / You’re so awesome.” That isn’t the song that made the album. This is:
Hey, you remember where we first met? / OK, I don’t remember where we first met / But hey, admitting is the first step / And hey, you know ain’t nobody perfect
That isn’t sentiment; it’s a memory and a compromise. At first, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were too easy a target, too ripe for this world. They were Heracles and Megara, bound to tear each other part, poisoning their finely crafted personae for their respective bases. They were the problem of and the solution for fame. Then maybe something changed. Kanye charts the progress here: “And hey, ayo, we made it to Thanksgiving.” They made it to Thanksgiving.
When I search the Getty photo service for a photo of Kanye West using the “Iconic” tab, 80 percent of the results now feature Kanye and Kim together. It’s only right. Love, and now their newborn child, has transformed them into something bigger. To not acknowledge that, after all the hectoring, flailing, and righteous fury of Yeezus, would have seemed strange.
“Bound 2,” which stirs up the paint from Ponderosa Twins Plus One and Brenda Lee and Wee, could have appeared on any Kanye West album. It is rich with that modulated soul cry that first inveigled me to Kanye. It features all of the forced cultural references (“Brad reputation”!) and biblical guest spots (that Charlie Wilson bridge for no damn reason at all) of songs past, with no real drum track or general sense of structure to speak of. Kanye is expressing love and he doesn’t know what shape that should take. “Bound 2″ is the most traditionally Kanye song here, and also the most different. It is encouraging. Rage — born of the feeling that he has not been properly celebrated in his time — is what fuels him, always. That Yeezus ends with Brenda Lee’s affirming “Uh-huh, honey” promises the beginning of a new story, an optimistic story. Can Kanye be happy now? Probably not. But it’s nice to think so.