Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kanye West - Yeezus (HHES Review)

Here's my review of the new Kanye West album "Yeezus," using the Hip Hop Evaluation System (HHES).

First up I'll say that I'm really impressed by the overall new direction of this album, which is one of the more exciting directions I've seen a rapper go in for a while. Second, I like that it's short and no-frills in terms of packaging, since the focus really should be on how original the music is.

"On Sight" starts the album off in a brilliant way. The first few sounds out of the speakers give you a very clear indication that this isn't what you've heard before, this is something new. At least from a sonic standpoint. Once the lyrics kick in, you see that this isn't the song where Kanye is going to challenge you with his words, although it does have quite a few good puns and references in it. They key is the production, though, which is possibly the strongest part of not only this song, but the album.

"Black Skinhead" kicks it up a notch. Or several notches. Not only does the song have one of the best backing tracks on the album, one that hits so hard you feel it physically, it's one of the strongest tracks Kanye has ever dropped lyrically. It's not even the best on the album, though, but lyrically it's a very good take on racism and haters that you are likely to hear on anyone's album. Ever.

"I Am a God" isn't quite as great lyrically as the songs that surround it, but it's an interesting response to a critic, particularly in defining how strange a person Kanye is and how big his ego is. The only bigger statement that "I am a god," would be "I am the god." That'll be on the next album. The production continues the theme of the other early songs on the album and continues to be radically different than most things other rappers have done.

"New Slaves" may be the best song Kanye has ever made. It has probably the most intelligent and hard-hitting criticism of the racism in the system by a popular artist since "Straight Outta Compton." It goes off the rails a little with the misogyny at the end of the second verse, but that can't take away from the power of the hard-hitting backing track and the attack on privately-owned prisons and the revival of the prison-lease system. The outro, sung by Kanye and Frank Ocean, adds a beautiful end to a great song.

What had been a near-perfect album up to this point starts to lose it a bit when "Hold My Liquor" comes on. Chief Keef adds nothing to the song which doesn't seem to have much of a point, other than continued quality production. The lyrics are a bit inane, really. The lyrics aren't much better on "I'm In It," which really isn't about much more than getting laid, and is quite a bit sexist.

"Blood On The Leaves" brings the socially conscious part of the album back, if not in Kanye's lyrics, which are about relationships, but in the Nina Simone sample. This isn't the first time on the album where Kanye compares or couples something non-political and seemingly inconsequential beyond his life with political or social content, but this is the place where it works best. The production continues to be epic and most of the songs on the album to this point could easily be part of a soundtrack for a large-budget movie that combines violence and strong emotion, like "Black Hawk Down." That's a compliment. The songs sound good enough that they'd be a great compliment to a scene about life and death.

"Guilt Trip" is far from the best song on the album, but the Chewbacca reference is probably the best line on the album. The song itself is a bit of filler, but it isn't harmed by the Kid Cudi interlude at the end.

"Send It Up" is the best use of guests on the album. King Louie is pretty good, but Beenie Man's outro is one of the emotional high points of the album. The noisiness of the backing track is perfect.

"Bound 2" is another song where the lyrics are pretty pointless, like many of Kanye's previous albums. But sound-wise it's the first song on the album that has a hopeful sound and it's a bit of a palate-cleanser that you need after the hardcore noise and darkness of the rest of the album's sounds (and that's not to downplay how powerful those tracks are, just stating that factually).

Overall Analysis

Flow: 8. Kanye has never had the best flow in the world, but he does keep getting better. This is the best he's done and on songs like "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves," he's damned-near perfect and totally original.

Lyrics: 7. This may be the best collection of lyrics that Kanye has written, another thing that is not his strong point. There are a lot of clever turns of phrase on these songs and

Message: 8. While the message is a little messy at times and a sense of humor is largely absent except in spots here and there, the important messages are not lost. There are few better explanations of the reality of institutional racism than "New Slaves." Much of the rest of the album is the same message that Kanye always sends: I like getting laid, I'm awesome, I'm rich, I work harder than you do, my critics are stupid, etc., but there are enough touches of serious thoughts throughout the album to make you not worry too much about the repetitiveness of the messages from earlier records.

Technical: 8. Vocally, Kanye tries a lot of things here and they pretty much all work. In particular, the punk rap that he does on the first half of the album is amazing and not many other rappers could pull it off without sounding kinda dumb.

Production: 10. This has got to be one of my favorite albums, production-wise of the last 10 years. It is not only adventurous, it's ground-breaking. There might be some other rappers who have had albums with this kind of music behind the vocals, but you've probably never heard of them. And neither have I. This stuff will be around for a long time.

Versatility: 9. The album is too short to offer much chance for versatility, and yet it manages to do it not only well, but better than most hip hop records. The hardcore industrial of the early songs, the sample-led songs like "Blood on the Leaves" and "Bound 2" that totally change the style, the reggae vocals and judicious use of autotune offer a wide range of choices for any current rapper, but especially in 40 minutes.

Collaborators: 8. Vocal collaborators on the album are few and far between, but considering the vision that Kanye is putting forth here, that's legit. Having too many other people voicing these words wouldn't make sense and the songs that have the most additional vocals on them come off the weakest. There are some well-placed verses and samples here and there that are great and the producers on this are just plain amazing, so it seems like most of the choices in this area are very wise.

History: 9. The album shows an amazing mastery of the knowledge of music and rap history in the production and samples. Then it goes into songs like "New Slaves" that give a concise and important look at things like the prison industrial complex. If you don't learn something from this album, you aren't paying attention.

References: 9. The audio references are the most diverse and entertaining, but Kanye has just enough pop culture and rap references to keep the peeps at Rap Genus busy. This is the perfect mix of such things, I think.

Originality: 10. This is not only the most original album Kanye's put out, which is saying something, it's likely the most original album by a popular artist, in any genre, that 2013 will produce. It's hard to imagine anything that will be more surprising and out of left-field than this coming from other rappers. Or anyone else for that matter.

Total Score: 86. A total classic and likely the best thing Kanye will ever produce.

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