Yeezus is a supremely arrogant title. In fact, for all the braggadocio in hip-hop, I’m not sure I can think of one that surpasses it. The essence of modern day rap is to tell the listener that you’re good and, in fact, quite superior to the other so-called rappers. Also, you have money and girls and cars. You like to pop expensive bottles, even though you’re flirting with 40 and for anyone else that’d be depressing as hell. That’s pretty much it. Yeezus, as arrogance incarnate, flies high over the top of that because it’s a pretty low bar. Not to say there aren’t good rappers out there, but let’s be honest, you don’t care what Cam’Ron is doing right now. You don’t care if Rick Ross had a good week in Miami whilst on the run from actual gangsters. To me, Yeezus is the difference between the protagonist and the extras in a posh scene at a nightclub. They’re all at the same party, but I can only divest interest so many ways.
Said another way, Yeezus is impressive as a title because it embodies the length Kanye will go just to be arrogant. We first met him as Kanye West, then he was ‘Ye, then he was Yeezy, and finally we arrived at Yeezus. The album received more cultural attention than, say, Drake’s latest single because Kanye seems to genuinely revere the idea of being bombastic, as perverse as that is, which oddly makes him not a rapper, but suddenly a human being. I believe there’s a threshold where honesty causes the camera to point toward the extra and make him a protagonist. We were long past that point with the release of the masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now we’re carried into the third act with full steam.
Jigga Man and Kanye have never had very similar discographies, starting from the beginning. Reasonable Doubt had plenty of snare-bass interplay, solid backing vocals, and all-time lyricism, hearkening to boom-bap. College Dropout was infused with soul, orchestral arrangements, and wanting it all (whereas Jay already talked about having it all on his debut record). And with Kanye headed toward 808s, MBDTF, Cruel Summer, etc., the chasm grew. It only made sense then that their careers converged in a duo album; they were made to play off of each other’s strengths. Now for once, excepting Watch the Throne, they seemed to have the same ostensible vision in Magna Carta Holy Grail and Yeezus: being a god by taking their own paths. Hov always reminded you of attaining greatness and the regrets brought on by the street life; Kanye preached about greatness in spite of his myriad flaws. The external versus the internal. Curiously neither was featured on the other’s album this year, perhaps in an attempt to identify separate selves during a year of titular thematic overlap, so we would be thusly remiss not to see the albums as a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-type struggle of complement and antithesis.
Jay-Z did a marketing campaign with Samsung where everyone speculated how many seashells that vagrant on his couch had tangled in his beard. Kanye projected his black-and-white-but-mostly-black mean mugging onto a 60-foot wall in Los Angeless. It doesn’t take a music critic here.
Jay did what he usually does: find the emerging and established talents from across the land, coax the wow out of them, rap blithely over the beats. Many have said that Jay took a siesta lyrically on some of the songs. I don’t think that’s completely true. Think about where we are sonically compared to his early days. You can comment that classic rock was better than today’s music until your fingers blister, but it can’t be denied that we have technical savants aplenty among us, not just the transcendent mixing talent here and there (like Pete Townshend). Don’t let the Bruno Mars archetype buzzsaw over the impeccable craftsmanship we are enjoying from Frank Ocean, Kanye, and Swizz Beats. The point being that, while Jay is not Blueprint Jay on this album, it’s hard not to notice the discrepancy between music and lyrics when the production is this finessed.
Yeezus sounds like the muzak of a Transylvanian torture chamber. It sounds like MUSE underwater with mythological sirens shrieking above the waves. If Michael Giacchino, Skrillex, and a Ferrari in fifth gear collaborated on a track, it would be too normal for this album. All of the above are compliments of the highest degree.
Sample lyrics: “This fame hurt, but this chain works/ I think back/You asked the same person
if this is all you had to deal with/Nigga deal with it, this shit ain’t work, this light work” and “I’ll move my family out the country, so you can’t see where I stay/So go and grab the reporters so I can smash their recorders.”
For the record, ‘I’m going Bobby Boucher’ is something that will replace ‘getting rachet’ in my lexicon effective immediately. What an excellent turn of phrase. I only wish I was sewn within the hip-hop culture to understand the significance of ‘the chain’. In one album, it’s ‘fuck the chain, man it always gave me back pain’ or ‘I used to have hood dreams/Big fame, big chains’ or ‘2 Chaaaaaaaainz’. After listening to J. Cole’s ‘Chaining Day’, I have decided that the mythos of the chain probably outdates Beowulf.
The chain is significant in Jay-Z’s case because, whether he wears one or not, I can’t think of anyone who still views him as ‘a chain guy’. Restaurant chain, maybe. Chain of command, definitely. I mean he just poached Kevin Durant in his first year on the job. Guys with a chain mentality do not accomplish that. It’s easy for him to say you have to adjust to the fame because he isn’t that guy any more. Sure, he’s still hounded by papparazzi, but they’re fucking with a legitimate business man now and a different level of respect has to be conferred. As villified as the gossip media are, they probably treat Sir Richard Branson with more regard than MTV’s flavor of the week.
If I’m Kanye, yeah, I’m leaving the country. He’s earned every second of the papparazzi’s voracious attention. There are pretty much no rules for what goes with him.
Sample lyrics: “House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern/Because I be going ape at the auction/Oh what a feeling/Aw fuck it I want a trillion” versus “You see its broke nigga racism/That’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’/And there’s rich nigga racism/That’s that ‘Come here, please buy more’/What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/All you blacks want all the same things”
Leaving aside the fact that Kanye named a song after a Lamborghini on his last album and that he boasts of having a Chewbacca fur coat in “Guilt Trip”, they both seem to be speaking to the same point despite the apparent clash between Jay’s vaingloriousness and Kanye’s disdain for the rich black stereotype. (I’ll stop my red flags about this verse there. If we’re going to write about the contradictions of Kanye West, better to do so in an article whose length gives In Search of Lost Time the night terrors.)
The theme was and always will be style with them. Perhaps Jay spent too much time sipping Gatsby’s cocktails while mixing for Baz Luhrmann, perhaps his next frontier truly is art collection. He certainly has culture, but the number of times ‘Basquiat’, ‘Picasso’, et al are name-dropped on MCHG still makes me think he’s posturing to outrun West’s latter racism, as he has for most of his career. Jay-Z accurately imagines himself as a trendsetter. In Blueprint III, it was “switching gold bottles onto that Spade shit”. In Watch the Throne it was a “new watch alert: Hublot’s/ or the big face Rollie, I got two of those”. What you are hearing in this album is his flight from the standard taken to its most ridiculous height. Kanye, rather than doing likewise through his fashion line, is eschewing the whole blinged enchilada.
Sample lyrics: “Baby needs Pampers/Daddy needs at least three weeks in the Hamptons” versus “Fuck you and your Hampton house/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse/Came on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth.”
This should make for interesting dinner discussion at Wolfgang Puck Los Angeles.
Being Michael Jackson (?)
Sample lyrics: “I’m like Michael recycle/These are not 16s/These are verses from Bible” versus “The only rapper who could compare to Michael”
I’m operating under the assumption that they’re both talking about the King of Pop and not Jordan here because a) Jay has another MJ lyric on MCHG: “Illest nigga alive/Michael Jackson thriller” and b) the verse preceding Kanye’s is “As soon as they like you, you make them unlike you.” Find me a square inch of Ye’s hometown where Jordan isn’t god.
Having said that, Kanye just keeps stepping in it. Did he not get to preview MCHG, or are these deliberate shots at his big bro? Seems less unfathomable after he showed himself unafraid to put down Suit and Tie. Most likely just coincidence. Either that or these legends need to find a new cultural reference. I nominate Screech from Saved By The Bell because why not.
So who’s right? Who is Michael Jackson? Kanye asserts it can only be him. He’s half-right. Alone, he isn’t Michael, nor is Jay-Z. Sean Carter made all the right business moves (‘scept that 30 million dollar apartment debacle), never let people forget how incredible his career has been, and re-appeared in the public eye with consistent fanfare. But he needs haters, and lots of them. He needs an unblemished clean-cut style image, not the Jay-Z from ‘Do It Again’ or ‘So Ghetto’. He needs one controversy after the next. He needs to fend off all competition for the genre, for now and forever. (A blowout race for Michael when second place is Justin Timberlake, an admirable artist in his own right. And Prince can’t be confined to pop music, blouses.) In short, he needs Kanye. All of him. With death being the great equalizer and, as Tolstoy wrote, inevitability arriving as the event is pushed further into the past, let’s imagine that Kanye and Jay-Z die, as separate beings. Jay-Z’s death would be much more like Sinatra’s than Michael’s. What’s there to say? He ruled with impunity and his fans owed him more than their money could give. Michael Jackson dying was a huge, huge blow because there were still so many questions. We were beginning to unravel this human being from the coil of pop stardom. (Not to say he was guilty of those heinous charges. He wasn’t.) Michael was special because all of his wonderful #1 songs eventually acquired the darkness they’d never had; we could still have the brilliant joy of Billie Jean and the wrenching aspects of life under Joe Jackson. I, at least, could feel right in hating the perception of him, just not the man himself. Michael’s death will stay with us whenever we start to wonder about the tumult within the idols we create. Kanye being added to Jay-Z as Mr. Hyde would not approach the same feeling MJ evokes, but it’s the closest the two of them will get.
TL;DR: “You’re not Michael. Neither of you get to be Michael. Now stop fighting or I’ll turn this car around right now.” – Rick ‘Still Smelling Funky Since ‘88’ Rubin.
Fatherhood, Sort Of
Sample lyrics: “And I’m stuck in that old cycle/Like wife leaves hubby/Fuck joint custody/I need a joint right now” versus “Uh, the kids and the wife life/ Uh, but can’t wake up from the night life”.
We all expected these lyrics in one form or another. Jay-Z is adjusting to the responsibility of fatherhood, as any 43-year-old would, and Kanye is adjusting to just slowing himself down, as any grown up 7-year-old would. To be completely editorial, Blue Ivy and North West seem like a nearly perfect parallel to Yeezus and MCHG. When Bey and Jay got married, most had expected the kid to follow thereafter. It made sense that owning their respective genres culminated in a passionate romance. Kanye and Kim Kardashian also made sense together – 2013 Colonel Kurtz says, ‘the ego, the ego…’ – but the baby thing felt just a little like they were following the trend of their best friends. MCHG, while a carefully constructed album for the most part, felt like it didn’t have to happen. Like maybe, just maybe, Jay-Z realized he was playing catch-up with Kanye for the first time in his career, even though MBDTF and Blueprint III aren’t even artistically comparable. And then there was Yeezus, an unbridled screaming iconoclast of inner demons and sexual fantasies too fucked up for the most liberal XM airplay.
Since I won’t even pretend to know about their home lives, that’s what their fatherhoods mean to me, the devoted fan.
Sample lyrics: “Toast to cliches in a dark past” versus “One more fuck and I could own you”.
At the same time Jay-Z wrapped up a love note to his wife and daughter, Kanye created an album that Dick Whitman wouldn’t even leave in his locked drawer of secrets. Jay-Z created a hip-hop memoir that explains his affection and how it was enriched by his contrasting past. Kanye created something that will have to be explained delicately to his daughter one day, and I do not envy whomever has to facilitate that discussion. There’s rapping about women and then there’s rapping about fisting, condiments for vagina, and comparing orgasms to Parkinsons. At 36 years old, he’s societally considered to be past the token angry youth stage, re: Tyler, The Creator and Eminem. But if the recurring motif is god status, it’s quite unlike premature fame alone. Fame gets you into the roped-off areas, attracts those who aim for mere proximity to fame and all of its carefree hedonism, and provides an insignificant voice, but a voice nonetheless. Being a god, however, means walking into a room and others having polarizing opinions about you to the extent that friendships could be strained. Thus ‘One more fuck and I could own you’ means converting an agnostic to your cause. Kanye isn’t so much seeking dominion as he is trying to separate those who understand his vision from those whom are against everything he stands for; ex: “If I don’t get run out by Catholics, here come some Conservative Baptists”. ‘I am a god’ is not necessarily a boast.
Overall consensus: Jay-Z’s claims to divinity reside within the sacred possession of the gods, the Holy Grail, or, The Discography of the Most Successful Rapper Ever. His album felt more accessibile and yet more distant precisely because he had something to show to you, but it wasn’t really him, save for some callbacks to the peak of his powers. It was a little like an album Tom Sawyer would have made after seeing his own funeral, if Huck and Tom acquired all of those riches times a million. One of my favorite lyrics from the album – “Have Mercy on a Judas, angel wings on a ‘ghini” – nicely summed up Jigga’s rap career as an epitaph.
Kanye West did proclaim himself a god, except the album was so riddled with self-hate and frustration that no one would want to trade lives with the god within that album. If the sequel to Yeezus is coming as rumored, it won’t be called Yeezus 2. It will be called Yeevil.