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How Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ Tears Down 30 Years of Hip Hop Orthodoxy

Ever since Kanye West’s Yeezus was announced, the general consensus has been that it’s a “producer’s record,” a label that really reflects the prejudices of whoever’s saying it — if you’re one of those who believe West’s a moneyed charlatan, there’s a whole roster of producers you can deflect credit to. But it would be contrarian to argue that West remains anything besides firmly in charge here. As with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s like he decided on the sounds he wanted for Yeezus and then drafted the producers best equipped to help realize his vision.

The resulting production is by far the most interesting part of Yeezus. At least part of this is because this record serves as yet another reminder that for all his studio genius, West’s still not a particularly great rapper, both in the conception and delivery of his rhymes. It’s notable, for instance, that the “Thursday/ birthday/ thirsty/ thirty” he delivers in “Bound 2″ jars like some horrible alarm clock, whereas when Biggie did something similar years ago with “Juicy,” his mellifluous flow was enough to smuggle the awkward pararhymes past the listener’s ear. Elsewhere, West’s still doing that thing where he rhymes a word with itself, a career-long habit that’s still infuriating (here he manages to rhyme “Corolla” with “Corolla,” which still doesn’t quite rival the glorious lunacy of rhyming “Dwyane Wade” with “Dwyane Wade,” but does get close).

Then there’s the much-vaunted focus on race and society, which is really something of a bait-and-switch, because it’s most evident in the two tracks the world had already heard before the album leaked last Friday, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.” Most of the time, West spends Yeezus playing up to his own image — who else, for instance, would dare sample Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and then use the sample for a song about how he can’t sit with his girlfriend at a basketball game, comparing the situation to “apartheid” for good measure? As ever, there’s possibly more going on here, but really only West knows for sure.

The way West’s imperfect rhymes form quite the contrast with his consistently flawless production is an interesting discussion, but not one for this article, because I want to talk about how little interest Yeezus shows in, well, hip hop. It’s short on beats — “New Slaves,” for instance, has no drums at all (or not until its incongruous outro, anyway), and still manages to be by far this record’s punchiest track. Where there are drums, they owe far more to the four-to-the-floor sounds of Chicago house than they do the syncopated kicks that have traditionally characterized hip hop.

Beyond the beats, the most notable influence on Yeezus is industrial music. Sometimes these debts are obvious — the pounding beat of “Black Skinhead,” for instance, which is either sampled directly from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” or just owes that song several drinks and a bunch of flowers. And sometimes it’s entirely oblique, like the Isaac Hayes sample that passes by way of C-Murder’s “Down for My Niggaz” and emerges as the buzzsawing riff that underpins “Blood on the Leaves.”

Kanye’s not the first to explore this idea, of course — Death Grips’ entire oeuvre is basically industrial hip hop, and further back, you can point to Saul Williams’ glorious 2007 record The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, which found Williams working with Trent Reznor to spectacular effect. There’s an argument to be made that NiggyTardust is the album that Yeezus wanted to be, because it’s genuinely abrasive and genuinely full of plenty of lyrics about civil rights and race relations.

Judging by the comments on Saul Williams’ YouTube videos, I’m not the first to make this connection — but ultimately, the revelation that this has all been done before is irrelevant, because, after all, everything has been done before to some extent. For better or worse, West’s status and fame gives him far more clout than Williams, and here he is, choosing to follow the most universally acclaimed hip hop record of recent years with an album that tears down everything he’s built.

Pretty much every commercially successful development in hip hop over its lifespan has ultimately revolved around the idea of burnishing and refining the genre’s sound. It’s amazing when you think about how far hip hop production has come in 30 years — from the raw, DIY-centric, punkish ethos of its earliest two-turntables-and-a-microphone incarnation to the futuristic sci-fi sounds of The Neptunes and Timbaland, and beyond.

There have, of course, always been harsh elements in hip hop, but they’ve been often underpinned with a certain sonic smoothness — Dr. Dre’s classic ’90s productions weren’t called G-funk for nothing, taking as much as they did from ’70s p-funk, a genre that pretty much defined smoothness. Indeed, ’70s funk and its predecessor genres — soul, jazz, R&B — have been to hip hop what the blues has been to rock ‘n’ roll, a sort of spiritual precursor to which modern-day descendants have frequently returned for inspiration. But industrial hip hop is notable for having almost nothing to do with this. Instead, it’s all about sharp edges and harsh, arrhythmic sounds.

West embracing these sounds by definition represents the furthest they’ve progressed into the mainstream. Apart from the industrial influences, you can also see the trembling hand of EDM here (listen to the synths and bassline on “New Slaves,” for instance). Even where West does draw from “traditional” sources of inspiration — the Isaac Hayes sample in “Blood on the Leaves,” for instance — the sources are either twisted beyond recognition, deconstructed into something else entirely, or dropped as curious non sequiturs (the outro of “New Slaves,” for example).

As a whole, the tracks on Yeezus play like an exploration of different ways to break down the smooth facade of hip hop production. Lyrically, the album is as obtuse and contradictory as ever, and to an extent you can say the same thing about its production — the closing “Bound 2,” for instance, is as breezily summery a piece as you’ll find on any of West’s records, notwithstanding its “spunk on the mink” lyrics. More than anything, Yeezus is an exercise in dismantling 30 years of hip hop production by the producer that remains the genre’s most visible innovator, and that’s a far richer topic than whether its creator would rather be a dick than a swallower.

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