Kanye West’s existential project is to advance lyrical honesty and musical innovation. Each of his records so far has accomplished that goal, but his newest album, Yeezus, is his most extreme progression to date. Read all the major reviews though, and they are wary of endorsing it fully. In general, critics laud the production, especially Kanye’s inventive and precise incorporation of electro, acid house, industrial, and dancehall. But they cringe at the lyrical inconsistency. Specifically, most reviewers scold Kanye for mixing exhortations of justice with sexual and materialistic fantasies.
On the first track, “On Sight”, Kanye interjects his abrasive, electro-backed braggadocio with a children’s Church choir that croons, “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.” The title of “Black Skinhead” attaches Kanye’s sociological indictment on media stereotypes with an extremist movement that calls for racial supremacy. On “I Am A God”, Kanye claims superhuman omnipotence but demands croissants. Kanye labels victims of corporations “New Slaves,” but ends with a heavenly-sounding promise that they will ultimately prevail. On “Hold My Liquor,” Kanye claims that he can control himself, but his described actions betray recklessness. On “I’m In It” Kanye applies civil rights slogans and imagery to lewd bedroom exploits. “Blood On The Leaves” features Kanye rapping about his sordid relationships with gold diggers over Nina Simone’s horrific description of racist lynchings in the South. On “Guilt Trip,” Kanye raps that he is still the “number one chief rocka” without a woman’s love, while inside he is really “softer than clay” and mourns why she let him go. “Send It Up” conflates heavenly ascension with sexual arousal—“Yeezus just rose again.” And on the album’s finale, “Bound 2,” Kanye intersperses hard-won advice on true love with destructive and lustful fantasies. Kanye’s final lines on the album paint the starkest contrast of profound truth and base pleasure—a weeping Jesus and a giddy Jerome, the insatiable woman-chaser from the show “Martin.”
So why does Kanye do this? Why does he juxtapose the undeniably righteous with the wantonly depraved? It is to advance that same project—honesty. Because honestly, Kanye West is multi-faceted, just like all of us. We all seek justice, but sometimes settle for pleasure. We all claim confidence, but sometimes fall to insecurity. And we all want love, but sometimes succumb to lust. What Kanye does on Yeezus is express each impulse—the profound and the profane—in its most extreme lyrical and sonic form, and then present them together in order to break down the stereotypes that people are expected to conform to in order to allow truly authentic expression to survive.
Viewed in this light, Kanye’s Jesus complex is understandable. He is willing to be so honest that he is vulnerable to attack from critics who disingenuously deny the complexity of the human spirit because of their own insecurities. Kanye is thus sacrificing his image in order to save music. And by that measure, Kanye West has succeeded, because Yeezus really is what we need, although it may not be what we want.