Sound Bites

Album review: Rapper Kanye West pulls out all the stops for Yeezus

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 27, 2013 

Already, the album title itself has raised a few eyebrows in the Christian community. Is Kanye West, nicknamed Yeezy, actually comparing himself to the Messiah?

So, the controversy rages on - but not over his eviscerating genius.

Yeezus, the rapper reasons, is his 'god name' and West his slave name. Fellow rapper, Cyhi the Prynce, says the LP title is 'a lot deeper than folks give him credit for', saying that it stands for 'Ye-Is-Us'.

Just listen to I Am A God where West proclaims over laser-gun synths, rumbling bass and a killer Jamaican dancehall sample from Capleton's Forward Inna Dem Clothes: 'I am a god/even though I'm a man of God/my whole life in the hands of God.'

Whether you buy that argument is part of the polarising appeal of the record. Its no-frills, sleeveless packaging points to the uncompromising approach within, as he toggles with multiple perceptions and personalities to shattering effect.

He's swinging a sledgehammer to all precepts and starting anew. Just as Quentin Tarantino wrestles with the horns of racism by invoking slave-era America in Django Unchained (2012), West yanks out demons of modern-day US of A.

Roping in Rick Rubin and Daft Punk as co-producers and Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and King L as collaborators, he wants to clean the slate and raise the standards.

He's throwing down the gauntlet at younger agent provocateurs such as Tyler, the Creator to show who's leading the pack.

Sonically, he's nonpareil. The opener On Sight shoots out acid-house lasers amid retro gospel. In Blood On The Leaves, he samples Nina Simone's Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of African Americans, as horns blow and West zeroes in on intra-racism.

New Slaves takes on twin devils of 'broke n**** racism' and 'rich n**** racism', contrasting with how 'my momma was raised in an era when/clean water was only served to the fairer skin' and that the blacks these days 'want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain'.

The music, a macabre phantasmagoria of Chicago drill and Marilyn Manson-type industrialism and soulful sampling, keeps you on your toes.

West, whose girlfriend Kim Kardashian has just given birth to their first child, points out the same elephant in the room with the equally jaw-dropping Black Skinhead.

'They see a black man with a white woman/At the top floor they gon' come to kill King Kong,' he screams over martial thumps, a man gasping for air and a woman ululating like a tribal mystic.

Yeezus drills, pounds, grallochs - and shakes you mighty awake.


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House/synth-pop/dance

SETTLE

Disclosure Island/****

Post-dubstep

COLD SPRING FAULT LESS YOUTH

Mount Kimbie Warp/****

In a dire dance Middle-earth with dull David Guetta lording over as Saruman, there is hope in hobbits like the brave young ones from Disclosure and Mount Kimbie.

Pardon my Lord Of The Rings metaphor, but clearly, when most pundits bemoan the decline of dance music since the peaks of 1990s, any glimmer of revival is welcome.

This time, the Brits have come to the rescue.

Disclosure, comprising Surrey siblings Guy Lawrence, 22, and his brother Howard, 19, have made a slickly enjoyable debut that doesn’t dumb down.

Alchemising funky house, pop and the English offshoot of two-step garage, their songs bring diverse folk together (British young talents Eliza Doolittle, Sinead Harnett, Aluna Francis of AlunaGeorge) and imagine a better future.

Starting off with a speech by motivational speaker Eric Thomas, Settle launches into an elegantly deft player. Standouts include Jessie Ware’s sultry purr on Confess To Me and Jamie Woon’s soulful croon on January with their skittering beats and bouncy bass.

Equally creative are Dominic Maker and Kai Campos of the London duo Mount Kimbie.

Their second album, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, is a masterclass in postdubstep adventure - every micro beat is finessed for emotional impact.

You’re intrigued: synth arpeggios sniffing around the loops in the gorgeous Break Well; the staccato pounding counterpointed by Campos’ muffled vocals; and shuffling synths in Sullen Ground that shimmer and sizzle.


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Indie Rock

SOFT WILL

Smith Westerns

Mom + Pop/****

Love Da Music

Wistfulness is a delicate thing and few bands can invoke it well.

Smith Westerns, the indie rock trio from Chicago, have joined artists such as Beach House and Real Estate who could spin you into a summery tizzy.

Their third record, Soft Will, oozes such beatific languor, you'd be happy to wallow in its sun-kissed nostalgia.

Singer-guitarist Cullen Omori mopes beautifully like the wispy-haired dude that he is, in songs as addictive as Best Friend and White Oath.

Psychedelic guitars jangle and drums pitter-patter, as if time has stood still. Liberated from worldly concerns, you twirl in the breeze.


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Pop

SHADOWS

Lenka

Fontana/***

Lenka trades unabashedly on whimsy with a tinge of dark fantasy.

Motherhood, however, has raised the darkness quotient on her third record, Shadows.

The Aussie singer still chirps prettily but she's looking over her shoulder for any danger that may harm son Quinn.

"Don't be afraid of what's under the bed," she sings in a babyish voice that could narrate a Tim Burton-styled fairy tale.

Two Heartbeats even features the in-utero heartbeat of her then-unborn child, but she isn't going to push it over the edge like Swedish experimental artist Fever Ray ever did.

Throughout, you're enveloped in a warm cocoon of glockenspiel and vibraphone or whatever teeny F/X her keys create - and you'd be lulled to sleep very soon.

kaichai@sph.com.sg


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Album of the week

HIP-HOP/EXPERIMENTAL/INDUSTRIAL

YEEZUS Kanye West Def Jam/****