WRITTEN BY: A-Rayz
Note: Click on song titles for Rap Genius lyrics & analysis.
Music has the inherent ability to encapsulate and express emotion at any given moment in time. How this art form can affect us is solely a result of the independent mind of the listener: different songs affect different people differently. The vast freedom of this universal language and art form can allow an artist to be whoever they want to be, express whatever they want to express and evoke a plethora of different emotions. In the oftentimes stringent genre of ‘Hip-Hop’ the idea of being ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ can prove to be a somewhat of a box.
Throughout history, there is a record of various artists pushing the boundaries of expression: MF Doom takes on various personas for different characters, and Eminem uses his off-beat goofy ‘Slim Shady’ persona, for example. In other cases, artists such as Rick Ross can be berated for promoting an unauthentic Mafioso personality. In any regard, music allows for an artist to express oneself separate from who they are, much as how acting can allow an actor to portray someone separate from who they actually are. For an artist like Kanye West – a grandiose, boundary pushing, innovative, well-rounded producer/rapper – this fine line may often times be blurred, leading to an indistinguishable disparity between Kanye West the person and Kanye West the artist.
Firstly, from an early age I always took this into consideration when listening to hip hop music; although Kanye West the artist draws inspiration from Kanye West the person, the person does have the artistic freedom to be and say whatever he desires. Additionally, Kanye West is a master storyteller/author, with a common thread within his albums. He is an artist that begs us to look deeper into his identity and question it. It is with this in mind that I approached his latest project, Yeezus, a hyperextension (in my opinion) of his last project, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and a title that may not be referring to Kanye West the person as ‘Yeezus’ (Ye-Is-Us) as we might quickly think.
People of certain beliefs often attribute the actions throughout their lives to culminate into the ultimate direction of the soul when they die: to ‘heaven’ or ‘hell.’ Over majestic instrumentation, and driven samples, Kanye West eloquently conveys a deeply embedded belief in his precursor, MBDTF, that heaven and hell are a result of our minds. As humans we seek to convert our innate ‘mind’s desires’ into tangible goods and emotions. While the old saying goes, “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop,” Kanye literally attributes a mind devoid of ‘freedom of thought’ to be a hell, and the person embodying it to be ‘a devil’. Kanye West associates loss of this ‘freedom of thought’ through materialism, consumerism, outside opinions, lust, and temptation, all fixations of a mainstream global culture. Very often, Kanye associates women (“Devil in a New Dress”) to be driven by temptation, materialism (money in the case of “Gold Digger”), and may likely be referencing the archetypal image of Eve from the Garden of Eden. Similarly, a mind filled with aspirations, dreams, and motivation represents the heaven we long for, one that human ‘Gods’ seek to make tangible on earth. Kanye’s revelation to this matter is greatly conveyed in his standout hit, “All of the Lights,” his metaphoric ‘enlightenment’ boasting: “if you want it you can get it for the rest of your life,” and finishing with, “I tried to tell you but all I can say is ohh” – all revealing the ‘light’ in his inner mind as well as his desire to spread this knowledge. Kanye establishes that he has nothing to hide and he literally puts his mind on paper.
However, throughout the album he is trying to find this ‘heaven’ while still grasping the burden of being a ‘powerful’ man and not letting this get to him. From the very introduction of the album from the fantastical, story-like, intro by Nicki Minaj, we see that Kanye is on this very journey, pleading “can we get much higher?” – closing the number with the polarizing images of angels (“white herons”) and devils (“Chrysler LeBaron”) all leading up to him “waking up in Paris”. Throughout this album we see his qualms and his shortcomings when “crossing the line” in “Monster” (the track right after “All of the Lights”), his depiction of women “Devil in a New Dress,” straddling ‘the edge’ in “Gorgeous” and strongly asking if “hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion.” Throughout this journey, we learn one thing – Kanye is lost – not only in the world, but also in his mind. We find him citing the short comings in “So Appalled” while going on a questionable adventure on “Hell of a Life.”
Importantly the unstable West, inevitably, finds the greatest root to all of his problems: the necessity for balance. Balance not only in the form of the good and bad in his mind, but also the form of a lover. This ultimately builds into the majestic yet chaotic conclusion of the album: “Lost in the World.” Kanye describes his loss of balance at this point expressing “you’re my devil, you’re my angel, you’re my heaven, you’re my hell, you’re my now, you’re my forever” when referring to his lost lover (the Phoenix depicted in the film). The magnification of this loss also reveals the dichotomy of God and Satan which becomes a resonating theme in Yeezus; Kanye must inevitably find a balance in his ostentatious, braggadocios (devil) side and his respectable, “Runaway-leave-the-bad-guys-alone” side. The song ends in an eerie resurrection of the ‘female-devil’ motif with the chants “run from the light, run from the night,” which is trying to further throw Kanye off balance. The album ends in a clout of speculation with no real resolution; there still remains an unstable Kanye, trying to find the inner balance of mind, although he knows what it takes (as he preached in “All of the Lights”).
This is precisely where Yeezus begins. Yeezus’ frenetic opening number “On Sight” is very texture driven, but extremely visceral. My first listen was with my eyes closed, and upon listening, my mind was transported to a whole new realm (ironically, he mentions in the last song of Yeezus that we should all close our eyes as the words paint a thousand pictures). Immediately, this in itself is a true testament to Kanye’s creativity and brevity in evoking emotion in the listener. “Lost in the World” ended with a resurgence of a sample used in “Power,” a song conveying his desire to utilize power to take over the human world, implying maybe that he would take the same approach in his fantasy world/mind. The rough saw synthesizers to me evoked a boastful Kanye West traversing through an open desert, chasing a beautiful female (his dream woman).
The initial 32 seconds of the song without lyrics spurred the raw fervor and a growing Kanye as he gets closer to her, a giant behemoth controlling the winds and wreaking havoc. Appropriately Kanye starts of classically boasting: “Yeezus season approaching” followed by “a monster about to come alive”. Boom, instant connection made. There is one special breakdown in this song which I feel sets the framework for the entire album, it is the point in my mind where he captures the woman he is chasing (and metaphorically the essence of his project). The sample breaks down into an eerie qualm: “he’ll give us what we need… it may not be what we want,” a foreshadowing of what the album will symbolize in terms of life lessons but comes in a form that we may not enjoy. Kanye has accomplished a great simplicity with his typical grittiness, pushing messages clearly over simple yet unique beats and has not sacrificed his artistry in the process. The saw synthesizers come back as quick as they left, leading Kanye back into chase mode. Kanye’s previous allusions of women being devils led me to associate the turgid end of the song to Kanye not finding himself face-to-face with a woman, but rather with the devil. In my mind the cacophonous breakdown of the synthesizers with a plea, “I need you right now,” captures Kanye’s metaphysical breakdown in which his soul (a pure, luminous, white ball of energy) escapes.
The ending of this song lays the foundation for the rest of the album, one that unequivocally will follow the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ and present an epic battle between good and evil and growth. From my first encounter with this leadoff track I knew Kanye’s conflicts to be resolved in this album would be two-fold: finding inner balance by finding a woman that genuinely loves him, and defeating the devil (a greater omnipresent force of his mind more so than an actual person). Furthermore, Kanye will have to re-emerge from his fantasy world into the real world, undoubtedly having to realize whether to use his newfound power for evil (self-fulfilling) or good (the betterment of all/ spreading knowledge). That will be the delicate yet crucial revelation period in which Kanye heeds the classic “with great power comes great responsibility” quote from Uncle Ben of Spider-Man. The realization will beget the real war at hand, finding self-worth and ‘God’ in the midst of a world filled with opinions, temptations and materialism and transcending above it all to be a bit greater than the average man.
“Black Skinhead” is the triumphant return to the world of reality. A pedaling drum beat with gasps and whispers indicate the arduous journey that leads up to his arrival in his body “zoning at 4 in the morning.” Kanye also further lays the foundation for his project, exclaiming “enter the kingdom” i.e. his mind, “but watch who you bring home,” implying that bringing the wrong woman/devil home will spur into “devilish” consequences. This further transpires into the dichotomy of “black man and white woman,” laying the framework of balance and quest to find a good woman to bring into his “kingdom.” The song “I Am A God” shows the innate struggle of using his newfound power and knowledge. We see the classic materialistic Kanye boasting brands “Pyrex” “Don C snap backs,” wanting “massages,” “croissants,” and “stacking millions.” What is done most importantly in this song is the establishment of Kanye as an earthly manifestation of God. As he refers to Jesus, and divine Godly figures, he realizes that with his power he is only after materialistic goods which probably led him to his screams in the song (the eternal struggle for balance). “I Am A God” closes with the Justin Vernon lines, “ain’t no way I am giving up on my God,” which maybe suggests that Kanye strives to look beyond the layer of materialism he has obtained to the more important issues at hand including organizing the entropy of his mind. There is a notion that one “sells their soul” in order to be successful, maybe Kanye is looking to regain control of his soul and realizes he can use his mind for good. It seems like the screams also show Kanye’s lack of purpose in the world and that this can only be quenched with relationships (woman) to offset his lust for fortune and goods. He still hasn’t found himself yet.
“New Slaves” serves as the main social commentary track where Kanye explains how consumerism and mainstream media relinquishes freedom of thought and leads to many people all aspiring for the same materialistic possessions (diamond chains, Bentleys, fur coats, etc.). The chorus boasts not to be a “slave” of another’s opinion and not move blindly underneath leadership. He chants that he sees the “blood on the leaves” and that “they can’t control” him. I believe that the Frank Ocean outro serves as a great moment of clarity for Kanye, in my mind it is where he is rising, realizing the great power he has, and harnessing that power for good to become the ‘God’ that he wants to be. I personally find this to be the most beautiful part of the album, and Frank Ocean’s highlights are done all too perfectly without taking any shine away from Kanye.
“Hold My Liquor” is another song that follows the same concept of “New Slaves.” Holding one’s liquor refers to them not doing anything foolish while inebriated. The track includes the addition of up and coming artist Chief Keef, perhaps symbolizing an earlier and younger Kanye, who although realizes that others cannot and will not control him, he still isn’t able to “hold his liquor” and control himself. As Chief Keef says, I have no control over other people just as other people have no control over me. The title itself serves as a two-fold describing the control older/mature Kanye has in the midst of other people’s thoughts and opinions. Kanye juxtaposes this with one of his biggest struggles: the fact that his lover sacrificed her thoughts and not forming her own opinions of Kanye. She rather listens to her “auntie” — “Then auntie came over, telling you I was bogus,” which leads to the disintegration of their relationship. In this song, Kanye points out the loss of control/thought from intrusive slanderers. This song reveals that through time, Kanye has learned to not regard outsider opinion; he can hold his liquor and control himself in the midst of what seems to be the normal bombardment of different views. This can be reflected in his day-to-day life; he has traversed through criticism and controversy. This track also alludes to what causes Kanye’s personal loss of free thought and source of imbalance: temptation. Temptation is what spurs the ‘devil’ within him, more specifically, the temptation from women maybe because he is vulnerable and has a strong libido. This is explained in the subsequent song.
In the song “I’m In It” we see the great battle that the album was leading up to. The song begins with a macabre intro: a chopped and screwed Kanye voice symbolizing the presence of, and battle with the devil. The vulgar lyrics show a cathartic Kanye West devoid of persona, driven by insecurities and temptation from a woman leading up to him revealing “I’m so scared of my demons, I sleep with a night light.” The inclusion of Justin Vernon in this song reveals another interesting tactic. To me, all this time, Kanye has been using Vernon’s voice as the voice of reason, and his conscience. The song ultimately reveals to Kanye that his temptations are driving the hell within his mind, and for him, a woman will always be more of a temptation than a balance. This realization boils over to “Blood On the Leaves.”
“Blood on the Leaves” is perhaps the most poignant record on the entire album. The story is a juxtaposition of the lowest point in his archetypal journey with a separate Aesop-fable/life-lesson tale of another person losing everything. All this is over the eerie Nina Simone cover sample of the classic “Strange Fruit.” The song starts off with Kanye exclaiming “I just need to clear my mind now” (the final revelation) of the ill wills of “wanting what I can’t buy now.” He continues to describe women only “want something out” of him – materialistic goods instead of his character. He continues describing the mainstream controversial drug “molly” as well as the “limelight” as temptations driving the mind and leading to loss of control (to which he retorts “I know there ain’t nothing wrong with me” as he has figured out that these lead to degradation of the mind). The record serves as a reoccurring theme in Kanye’s music that women can be: “two-thousand dollar bags with no cash” i.e. a beautiful body with no mind (the proverbial ‘hell’).
The most jarring parts of the record are the ominous but in your face horn sections The blood on the leaves not only references the point made on “New Slaves,” but also personifies a loss of innocence and gateway to insanity (similar to ‘blood on the hands’ in Macbeth). The original “Strange Fruit” was a metaphor for the lynching of slaves and Kanye West breathes a vibrant, aptly controversial new life to it. Perhaps with the multitude of ‘materialism’ references one can associate the ‘strange fruit’ to be apples, again referencing the Garden of Eden. “Blood on the Leaves” is definitely the most imbalanced we have seen Kanye thus far, and offers a great segway into the next track.
“Guilt Trip” with ex-labelmate Kid Cudi forms a very introspective point in the album, a time in which Kanye really looks deep within himself and his mind. Although highlighting differences between he and his lover, Kanye is also reflecting on the breakup, perhaps convincing himself that there is hope. The sampled chorus boasts that although she has a gun to shoot him down, she never did pull the trigger. This more than likely is the convincing stage in which Kanye West realizes that he can save the relationship, and musters the courage to win her back. Kanye finds the balance between temptation and love and feels that he can bring his lover out of the darkness.
“Send It Up” returns to Kanye West’s trademark more chauvinistic approach with the inclusion of fellow rapper King Louie, the climax of the project. We find the duo back into the familiar club scene, Kanye ready to approach the woman he loves. “Yeezus will rise again” is the laughable pun where everything clicks; it’s the final moment of clarity, the point in which Kanye has established the ever so perfect line between “wants and needs” (referenced from “On Sight”), “love and hate,” “materialism and idealism,” “seriousness and hilarity.” And the ultimate and last revelation that to save the woman he loves he must, as the thunderous chorus boasts, “send this bitch up, it can’t go down.”
The metaphoric force ascent (because she’s already in hell and “can’t go down”) goes to show that he can bring her out of her abyss and balance her (which in turn will balance him). Harking back to “On Sight” where the disarray of synthesizers referenced a ‘reality check,’ I attributed the breakdown on this record to Kanye saving his girl. The calming outro recites that when we leave this earth, all that will be left of us are peoples’ memories of us, once again magnifying the power of choice and connecting heaven and hell with our thoughts and manifestations on earth. If we leave good impressions we will be regarded with greater dignity and looked beings that are greater than men: Gods.
“Bound 2” is the final song on the album and is a happy ending to the epic tale. It is the song where Kanye finds love, finds new meaning, finds his identity, and fulfills everything that he had set out to fulfill. He has struck the perfect balance between idealism and materialism. A great emphasis is placed on the title, the use of the number ‘2,’ indicating the union of man and woman. He also beautifully ties in the idea of progression and innovation through Thanksgiving and Christmas which to me symbolize a dinner date, a marriage proposal, and eventually the church steps for wedding. This is all exquisitely tied together with the last line “Jerome’s in the house” a reference to the show Martin of where Jerome was a character and acting as a DJ, perhaps indicating that he was just acting as well. This to me implicates that Kanye planned this epic story and that while each song may draw inspiration from his life, it may not literally parallel his life.
What Kanye’s greatest success with the album is his unadulterated gaze into the meaning of life; the great revelation that “the balance (the proverbial yin-yang) of life” is ultimately the foundation. There is a great revelation on how malleable our minds actually are and the real idea that our minds are in fact the heavens or hells based on our choices. Our imaginations have the ability to allow us to be whomever we want; an immense gift and burden at the same time which we must use wisely. The real balance between heaven and hell is where we must lie knowing that our temptations will lead to consequences and our drive will lead to happiness. The understanding of this leads to the earthly manifestation of a greater creature as resembled by the being of Yeezus.
If anything, the album translates into the man Kanye West – an ever innovating artistic mogul never hindered by fan perception, never derailed by the public opinion of his choices, and always staying true and maintaining a strong artistic integrity. A true innovator, he will continue to create fresh new bodies of works such as this. If this was the intent of the project, sneaking an epic hip hop saga under our noses, then Kanye West is a genius. But perhaps he didn’t mean to, and I am just overanalyzing everything too much.
At the end of this all, I look back at my younger days when I once wondered: Is life very complicated? Or is life just very simple? Regardless of Kanye West’s intent, I think I have gotten a little bit closer to the answer now.