When Kanye West’s sixth studio album, “Yeezus,” spilled onto the Internet early Friday afternoon, it culminated a six-week buildup that was both highly strategic and helter-skelter.
With one cryptic tweet on May 2 that read simply “June Eighteen,” West created a feverish buzz about an unannounced project.
Two weeks later, his team launched a wave of video projections for his then-unheard single, “New Slaves,” on the walls of landmarks in dozens of cities across the globe. The jarring, monochromatic sight of a stoic West declaiming on race and capitalism was a sharp piece of guerrilla marketing that screamed Shepard Fairey.
The very next night he was set to perform as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.” The two songs he unveiled, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” made it clear just how sharply he was turning in a new direction with his latest material.
Stripped of the meticulously lush and layered sounds that have become West’s trademark, “Yeezus” is an intentionally abrasive emotional purge concocted with the help of the rap-whisperer Rick Rubin from various elements of punk, new wave, and drill music that at times sound purposely dissonant.
“Yeezus,” which dropped Tuesday, makes the bleakest songs from West’s last solo album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and his joint record with mentor Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” sound like feel-good music in comparison. Those post-Taylor Swift creative outbursts marked the apex of West’s career, but also saw his content shift to more ominous thoughts on religion and wealth.
For the new album — whose title springs from a nickname given to West by longtime protege Kid Cudi — West has again assembled a superteam of collaborators, from Daft Punk and Frank Ocean to Chief Keef and Bon Iver. He smooths out the edges of Young Chop’s trap-music production on “Hold My Liquor” and spaces out the starry sound of Hudson Mohawke on “Send It Up.”
He fully embraces the god complex that he’s been criticized for since making “Jesus Walks” and wearing a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2006. On “I Am a God,” he raps, “I am a god, even though I’m a man of God, my whole life in the hand of God, so y’all better quit playing with God.”
He seemingly has more interest in alienating listeners than appeasing them. The very next verse, he rhymes, “Soon as they like you, make them unlike you, cause kissing people’s [expletive] is so unlike you.”
But for an album that’s long on shock value, only a handful of songs were laced with the venomous social commentary that all the hype suggested. By and large, West is either scarred and love-stoned or awkwardly — and pornographically — sex-craved. “Blood on the Leaves” is one of the few songs that remotely resembles a conventional rap song, twisting and bending Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” sample over the war horns of C-Murder’s “Down for My N's.” But all it amounts to is delirious breakup song.
The album is closer in sound to the dysfunctional but compelling records by Odd Future or the group Death Grips that have recently lurked at the fringes of rap. It’s as divergent from West’s previous work as 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak,” if not as accessible. It will likely rub people the same way as Mos Def's sophomore shakeup, “The New Danger,” or Lauryn Hill’s milestone/meltdown “Unplugged.”
West always seems a moment away from a monologue or a breakdown. He’s taken to wearing masks that either cover his face completely in diamonds or make him look like the abominable snowman. He just had a child with Kim Kardashian, and he has lashed out against still-standing stigmas on interracial romance. There’s a Dorian Gray quality to West, who sees himself as almost decaying invisibly in his own wealth.
At the end of a freestyle on an early mixtape, West told a rambling story about driving through Chicago, bumping into Oprah Winfrey, and telling her he wanted to one day be a guest on her show.
He said Winfrey asked who he was.
He answered, “I’m Kanye West — a rapper.”
As much as he sounded like he wanted the fame, hearing it some 12 years later, you get the sense he had no idea what he was signing up for. His character has become so distant from the 20-something frat rapper who thought he could take on the world with a backpack and a popped collar on his debut album. With “Yeezus,” West makes a provocative, peculiar, and clear statement that “The College Dropout” is likely never coming back.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.