It begins in college. He is naive, idealistic and a preternaturally talented orator. Next he is in New York, working at a paint factory that has perfected the formula for high gloss. Then he is wounded, hooked to a machine in a glass box. Later, he is brought into the world of the elite, where he is seduced by white women.
He is asked by his bosses to deliver a speech, to start a movement, but he goes a little too far, gets a little too up his own ass and over people’s heads. Finally, he is disillusioned and becomes militant. He goes underground, living in a room filled with nothing but light fixtures, playing an old soul record over and over.
That is (very) roughly the plot of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Spot any parallels with Kanye West’s career? His picaresque discography runs from The College Dropout to the slick and colorful Graduation to the damaged and mechanical 808s & Heartbreak to this brash and angry latest. Ellison’s unnamed protagonist ends up hiding in a bunker of light bulbs; Kanye claims his new LP was inspired by a lamp.
Yeezus H. Christ, I know, it’s pretty unbearable when a critic compares a record to a classic novel. It is tenuous; Yeezus does not equate to one of the great works of American literature. But the pop persona of Kanye West strikes me as a character Ellison would invent had he lived today.
West is intoxicated by the power of his voice, but increasingly unsure of how to wield it, and unsure for what greater good it serves. There is one key difference between the Invisible Man and Yeezus. Ellison’s title character claims he is invisible because ‘people refuse to see me’; Kanye has been fading to invisibility because he refuses to let us see him.
It’s difficult to believe that a megalomaniac like Kanye would hang in a studio with a down-to-earth indie dude like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (who lends his hands to two cuts here), or allow his work to be redacted and tweaked by a Svengali like Rick Rubin at the 11th hour, or keep his ear to the underground to cherry pick collaborators like Evian Christ (‘I’m In It’) and TNGHT (‘Blood on the Leaves’).
Vainglorious idiots do not typically surround themselves with this much brainpower. Kanye is a savvy appropriator. His greatest talent is in melding, in the way he can pull together disparate elements like Daft Punk, Vernon, Chief Keef, Nina Simone, TNGHT and his trademark soul samples into a cohesive vision. In that manner, the ’80s pop icon Kanye most recalls is Madonna. Unfortunately, Yeezus is his American Life.
If you want to observe West’s keen marketing skills, look at how successful he’s been at convincing writers that Yeezus is some kind of punk statement. Sure, the record certainly begins in a bracing, belligerent manner. The shrill alarm of the opening ‘On Sight’ pushes levels into the red with electroshock bleeps. ‘Black Skinhead,’ far and away the best track, turns a Gary Glitter glam stomp into a goose-stepping protest march.
There’s a playful obnoxiousness to the deep bass and cheap haunted house jolts of ‘I Am a God.’ This strong opening suite, all produced by Daft Punk to the punishing fuck-you standards of Human After All, leads into ‘New Slaves,’ a cut which begins brilliantly before collapsing into the disappointing, dick-obsessed stupidity of the back stretch.
Kanye used to weave captivating narratives of his life and struggles. Today, Kanye talks about his dick. A lot. The major letdown of Yeezus is that for those few vital rants on the corporate prison system and consumerism, the record is largely about a certain penis.
Ghostwriters litter the production credits to Yeezus in a blockbuster-like litany that shatters any notion of this record being raw or spontaneous. Check the fine print. Those Rage Against the Machine polemics on ‘Black Skinhead’? Lupe Fiasco is credited. Rhymefest gets noted for ‘On Sight’ and ‘New Slaves’. Invisible men penning lyrics for an invisible man. This CD comes encased in nothingness, in clear plastic. It is an invisible album.