For a moment there, not long after Kanye West debuted “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live, it looked like Yeezus was going to be an overtly political album — maybe something like West’s version of Public Enemy’s abrasive, confrontational classic It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, or Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free. And in the context of both West’s catalog and contemporary mainstream hip-hop, it sort of is — it’s angry, loud, and provocative, and at least half the songs have something very pointed to say about race and the limits of social mobility. But Yeezus is not so simple or straightforward, and its politics are inseparable from West’s personal life and monstrous ego. Anyone looking to Yeezus for a coherent message or worldview will be sorely disappointed — every moment of the brief, ruthlessly on-point album has West spilling his undiluted, thoroughly conflicted emotions and thoughts direct to tape. The music is finely crafted and artfully edited, but the words are pure id.
Though some songs, like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” seem stridently political at first, they are really more about West pushing back against personal slights in his professional life. One of the boldest couplets in “New Slaves” — “doing clothes you would have thought I had help / but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” — is basically just an attack on the critics of his first fashion line, which was bashed largely on the assumption that he was only involved in name. He makes some sharp comments about the prison industrial complex, but then veers off into a psycho-sexual revenge fantasy on corporate bosses who want to control him. “Black Skinhead” is vicious and heavy, but it turns out to be more about West’s paranoia and obsession with being at the vanguard of pop culture than it is about actual persecution of black people.
This would be disappointing if West’s ego weren’t so fascinating — as with his previous work, the extreme contradictions of his personality are a feature, not a bug. His lyrics are a tangle of sharp observations, petty aggravations, wounded emotions, burning ambition, ravenous libido, raging insecurities, and rampaging id. While the things he says from moment to moment don’t always add up, you get a panoramic view of a whole personality. And though Kanye West is a very distinct person living in very unique circumstances, the mess of his mind resembles something bigger in culture. West’s music, especially on Yeezus and My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, is a warped funhouse mirror of what most of us feel every day, and a lot of the music’s power comes down to his refusal to separate righteous indignation about true injustices from personal grievances, lust, and self-destructive urges.