The low-point on Yeezus, Kanye West’s sixth album, is “I Am A God,” a rhythmically rote electro-buzz that inflates Kanye’s legendary ego to (literally) biblical proportions. That Kanye’s anointed himself as Jesus’ BFF isn’t surprising: After a decade of hip-hop domination and high-profile media spectacles, the dude’s made plenty of enemies—Jesus may be the final person he hasn’t totally pissed off. The song’s (unintentional?) punchline is its underlying paradox: Kanye worships God; Kanye is God; therefore, Kanye worships Kanye. Which sounds about right. What’s missing from “I Am a God” is the humility, the self-deprecation. The reason we put up with Kanye’s bullshit is because he’s a flawed, vulnerable, hilarious human being—not the drooling Caligula at the heart of “God.”
Ultimately, Yeezus is the least likable album Kanye’s ever made. The beats (a jarring blend of Jamaican dance-hall, spasmodic electronics, and art-rock synths) are sparse and jagged, lacking tangible hooks—not to mention the groundbreaking sonic flourishes we’ve come to expect from hip hop’s most cutting-edge button-pusher. It’s a logical move: 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a maximalist head-rush, Yeezus’ polar opposite. Musically, though, there simply isn’t a whole lot to savor here, especially on the album’s bruising first half (the grimy, Daft Punk-produced “On Sight;” the shrieking, industrial-meets-Gary-Glitter pulse of “Black Skinhead”), and that sparseness sheds light on every tired lyrical cliché (“300 bitches, where’s the Trojans?,” he raps on “Skinhead.” “Baby, we living in the moment.”)
Luckily, Kanye’s still more man than God. Yeezus’ second half is weirder, darker, more introspective—all the qualities that define his best work. The first revelation is “New Slaves,” a racially charged gospel set to a gothic, electro-choral swirl. The first verse alone is masterful—as focused and emotionally affecting as anything he’s ever written (“You see it’s broke nigga racism that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’ / And this rich nigga racism that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more’”), delivered with a razor-sharp cadence, with an eerie sonic framework that adds urgency to the message. Basically, it’s the anti-”God.”
Elsewhere, we’re treated to a potpourri of guest stars—some excellent (Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean), some atrocious (Chief Keef, whose lifeless, auto-tuned spot derails the otherwise fascinating “Hold My Liquor”), some inconsequential (Kid Cudi shows up to moan a few stray lines). The best collaboration is “I’m In It,” a disturbing sex rap set to skittering snares and a soulful Vernon croon, with Kanye emancipating a woman’s breasts and sneaking off for condoms like a ninja.
Yeezus is a typical whirlwind of contradictions (Kanye the sex-crazed psycho, Kanye the racially profiled, Kanye the God), but we exit gaining little insight about Kanye West as a man (the expectant father, the Kim Kardashian boyfriend, the Rick Rubin side-kick). The album closes with “Bound 2,” an old-school College Dropout throwback—built on a warped soul sample, crammed full of classic Kanye observations. “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” he notes, between sink-top sex and Fight Club references. “You remember where we first met? / OK, I don’t remember where we first met / But admitting is the first step.”
Perhaps more of these layers will unravel in time—if there’s one artist who’s earned our dedicated spins, it’s this guy. In the meantime, it’s a beautiful blast of humanity on an album—a perplexing, fascinating, absorbing album—that often feels outside normal human grasp.