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"I Am a God," Kanye West declares in his new album, Yeezus, which comes out Tuesday. With any other entertainment figure, that kind of hubris might be a major turn-off. And to many listeners, it will be. But a lot of the critics who've weighed in on the album already love it and seem ready to grant him a certain level of pop deism.
[Related: Kanye West: I Am the Steve Jobs of Culture]
Writes the New York Daily News' Jim Farber, in a five-star review: "It presents Kanye as nothing less than the Johnny Rotten of his generation... The raw, dark and minimalist reliance on stabbing, bristling synths recalls a sound pioneered by acts like Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails 20 years ago. But it finds a hip-hop corollary for it and adds many serrated twists of its own, aided by key production from Daft Punk and Rick Rubin... In hip-hop terms, it’s the hardest-rocking work since the early ’90s peaks of Public Enemy and LL Cool J. It’s just the album it should be: a chutzpah classic."
Rolling Stone gives Yeezus a rare four-and-a-half stars out of five, while pointing out that it may not be his most palatable work to the average fan. "Yeezus is the darkest, most extreme music Kanye has ever cooked up, an extravagantly abrasive album full of grinding electro, pummeling minimalist hip-hop, drone-y wooz and industrial gear-grind," writes Jon Dolan. "Every mad genius has to make a record like this at least once in his career – at its nastiest, his makes (Radiohead's) Kid A or (Nirvana's) In Utero or (Neil Young's) Trans all look like Bruno Mars."
The Los Angeles Times similarly calls it "the hardest, most abrasive record, both musically and thematically, of his career." Critic Randall Roberts says, "Yeezus is the most musically adventurous record he’s ever released, and after a handful of listens, it's pretty obvious that it will shock a lot of people. Those that already don’t like the polarizing Chicago rapper and producer will have a replenished arsenal come its Tuesday release date."
Not that West's fans and detractors are waiting till Tuesday to post their opinions. The album leaked onto the Internet Friday, four days before its scheduled release. That's how a lot of music critics first heard it, since opportunities for review had mostly been limited to semi-public listening parties prior to the leak.
Some critics wanted to take longer to absorb the album before officially weighing in, but tweeted their responses as they gave it a first or second listen. The album's overtly shocking sexual content — which some will say crosses the line into misogyny — and unabashed use of racial stereotypes gave some initial pause.
"Can't figure out if Kanye's new album means he likes girls or REALLY REALLY doesn't," tweeted the Austin American-Statesman's Joe Gross.
"I am surprised by how emotionally assaulted I felt on first listen, as a woman, and need to really think about that," tweeted NPR's Ann Powers, adding the hashtag, "#maybethepoint." She added, "What I mean is — if it's not just id... but a conscious effort to make sexual hunger shocking again...well, it's working."
Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy mentioned the incongruous presence of one of the album's guest stars from the rock world in one of the more shocking songs. He tweeted: "I think this is the first time Bon Iver's been involved in a song that mentions [a sexual practice that might come off as extreme to most of the population]." Additionally: "I just pictured Bruce Jenner listening to Yeezus. Happy Father's Day."
The Los Angeles Times points out that Yeezus is "not one that you’ll want your kids listening to. Ethnic stereotypes and shocking sentiments dot the record. The conquest of an Asian woman in 'I'm in It' is accompanied by a line about 'sweet and sour sauce.' Another already-controversial lyric in the song promises that West will 'put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.' This is not a man concerned with offending women or racial activists. It’s an otherwise thoughtful man in pure id mode, thinking with his groin and worrying little about the ladies’ vote. Is it the primal scream of a man about to be a father for the first time? An early midlife crisis? An attempt at alienating the marketplace so that he can live as an artist rather than a paparazzi target?"
The Times goes onto to suggest that maybe this last explanation "would explain the rhyme in the song 'I Am a God': 'I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage / in the French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants.' If it weren't embedded within a truly frightening song featuring curdling screams and deep bass, the line would be laughable. As presented, his intentions are unclear."
Rolling Stone pauses to mention the incongruous use of a sample of the racially charged classic "Strange Fruit" in a song about an unplanned pregnancy, saying, "Only Kanye West would take an American masterpiece about a lynching and use it to back a song about what a drag it is to have to attend basketball games with a girl you knocked up sitting across the court."
But if you think that these sometimes risible lyrics are a turn-off to most critics, think again.
Spin's Rob Harvilla, awarding the album a score of 8 out of 10, writes, "This is a vicious, petulant, abrasive, colossally vain, frequently hilarious record, most of the time intentionally — he thunders, 'HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS' fully cognizant of how many thousands of people would be powerless to resist Tweeting those words verbatim within 30 seconds of hearing them. I would not want to work at a Starbucks this weekend." He has his reservations: "Leave the corny horrorcore screams 'n' synths chicanery to Tyler, the Creator; leave the diminishing-returns retarded sexuality to Lil Wayne. But as exhausting as this dude can be, pretending that any other rapper alive is one-tenth as fascinating is doubly so. I hope he and that lady on Bravo are very happy together. I very much look forward to his next album, when it is revealed that they are not."
But West is coming in for more praise for the stark darkness of the music than the outrageous darkness of the lyrics.
"Musically, Yeezus is a powerhouse of brutal noise and abrasiveness that often makes you recoil on first listen," writes London's Independent, in a four-out-of-five-star review. "Bass is the primary sonic weapon that gets used repeatedly... If the provocation costs him some fans, then so be it because Kanye West has emphatically rejected the idea of making another slick hip-hop record precisely because it’s what has become expected of him."
Says the L.A. Times, "Sonically, Yeezus is pure minimalism, a record filled with more aural space than anything on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his excellent 2010 record. 'Guilt Trip,' especially, is a thrilling experiment with space: cosmic video-game synthetics race through the beat-heavy track, warbling and weaving bursts of noise that sound time traveled from 1982. 'Send It Up' is equally stupefying, a next-level freakout that sounds as weird and progressive as anything on the experimental beat scene."
Spin's Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is similarly enthusiastic about the sonics. "Production first: I have been waiting to see who's gonna bring back IDM (intelligent dance music), that maligned and ill-christened style of clicks-and-clacks that overtook Aphex Twin-sweating producers in the early 2000s. Time is ripe for a response to the corporatization of 'EDM,' but who the hell ever expected Kanye would be the one to do it?"
Also writing for Spin, David Marchese waxed a little less ecstatic about the album's take-it-or-leave-it starkness. "I'll keep trying to find a way into the album," he writes, giving it an initial 6 out of 10 rating. "A melody here or there would've helped."