Kanye West doesn't make it easy for his fans.
I popped in the new Kanye West record, "Yeezus," this week (read: I streamed it through my phone while I was at the gym) and couldn’t believe my ears during those first few seconds. Loud-ass synthesizers growl like digital lions, a twitchy, post-Kid A beat pulses underneath, and then Kanye himself comes in, holding off ’till about half a minute in before unleashing in perfect cadence, crowing “on siiiight” like some hip-hop robot gone into kill mode. Needless to say, I was hooked. Then came some choice lines:
“We got this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s.”
“It’s too many hoes in this house of sin.”
“Black dick all in your spouse again.”
Ugh. So despite Yeezus’ wild musical construction, lyrically, it’s the same old song. First single “Black Skinhead,” the one he killed it with on SNL and threw up on the sides of buildings all over the place just ’cause he can, is chockfull of more bitch talk: “I keep it 300, like the Romans/300 bitches, where’s the Trojans?”
I’m a sucker for wordplay, but riffing on the title of a shitty movie isn’t just lazy, it threatens to overtake your memory of the rest of the song, which is thoroughly brilliant. A punishing Marilyn Manson-style beat keeps everything in lockstep, with scary noise looming in the background at every turn, thanks in part to producers Daft Punk. Vocally speaking, Kanye’s on fire, getting high and hoarse like he’s being tortured, calling out racist pricks with lines that singe (“Watch who you bring home/They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor/They goin’ come to kill King Kong.”)
Yeezus came out last Tuesday with no credits listed and no super early leak, giving the music maximum impact. That strategy seems to have worked. Critics have lined up behind Kanye like a musical savior again. I haven’t been able to stop listening to Yeezus since it came out, but I can’t stop turning over its lyrics, which perpetuate hip-hop stereotypes about women.
Often the lyrics that stand out the most offer fill-in-the-blank derogatory names for women, which is upsetting when you consider that musically, Kanye West is arguably pushing things further than any pop artist of any genre. The genre-swirling, abrasive "Yeezus" doesn’t have a radio hit among its 10 tracks. It’s the best music anyone has released this year so far, and probably for all of 2013.
But Yeezus’ sometimes-brilliant, often-frustrating lyrics are its biggest detraction. He’s already gotten in hot water from the American Parkinson Disease Association for that dumb Parkinson’s line. Scores of others are calling him out for misogyny.
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe Kanye West means to be a misogynist. It doesn’t line up with his other public political statements, however untactful they may have been. More important than his public support of gay marriage, he’s urged other rappers to stop discriminating against gays. And remember “George Bush doesn’t care about black people?” Sad, funny and true.
The anti-women lyrics to me come off more as dashed off than anything. Hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, who came on to help with recording bits of "Yeezus" just before its release, had this to say: “The album was to be turned in two days later. Kanye was planning to go to Milan that night. Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. In the two hours before he had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto.”
It’s true that lyrics can come out just as good, or better, when they’re done in the moment and speak to the way you really feel. But when what comes out is “I’m In It’s” “eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce,” you have to wonder if more time would’ve led to that lyric being axed. It’s also hard to take his support of gay marriage seriously when he includes a line like “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” in “New Slaves,” which to make matters worse, includes a verse from Frank Ocean. It’s not clever, and it’s questionable given the inclusion of Ocean, who came out last year.
This is nothing new. Kanye’s clearest predecessor as far as his social impact is Eminem, whose music won over fans and critics across the spectrum and who similarly had troubling lyrics, though I’d argue his music was worse and his lyrics clearly more offensive. And it was the same thing then -- his lyrics pissed a lot of people off, yet support came from the likes of Elton John.
So what’s the not overly reactive listener to do? I’d say that since "Yeezus" contributes so much musically and that his lyrics aren’t outright hateful, he gets a pass this time around. But next time he’ll have to do better than lame lothario come-ons if he wants to keep us interested.