Given what we know about Kanye West, a comparison between his newest (best, maybe) record and the long-dead punk rock movement seems like a tough case to make -- the dude telling God that he's stacking his millions seems like an odd choice for a continuation of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
But it's worth noting that ego and punk aesthetics have never been mutually exclusive -- anyone who's seen or read an interview with Johnny Rotten knows that, and, anyway, it's hard to stay humble when you're stuntin' on a Jumbotron. But West's unapologetic consumerism, of which he's always been a willing, if critical, participant, handicaps his credentials in this realm considerably, at least at first glance. The hypocritical dude selling you Air Yeezys is going to criticize your spending? Give me a break.
The ire directed at Ye following the leak, swift and histrionic and ultimately meaningless in light of the album's numerous successes, took issue with his ham-fisted connection of important political discourse and rap's typical money-and-hos fixations, a connection perhaps best exemplified by the unforgettable "put my fist in her like a civil rights sign" line in "I'm In It."
But it's the contradiction here that's so fascinating, and what's always been so fascinating about Kanye: "NOT FOR SALE" projected onto Louis Vuitton to announce the record, "free at last" in reference to titties, you get the idea. He manages to embody both mindsets. He's everything to everyone even if, on this record, he doesn't seem to want to be anybody's anything.
But Yeezus is his most difficult, and therefore most exciting, record to date, even more than the divisive 808s and Heartbreak. He's experimenting more, he's subverting himself. In "On Sight," the album's opening track, he drops the backbeat entirely just to prove how much, in Ye's words, he don't give a fuck. And even from a perfectionist like West, I take him at his word. He's fucking angry.
It's difficult to know exactly how much of this might be attributed to the notable lack of Jay-Z on Yeezus. It's impossible not to draw a comparison between West's willful rejection of aesthetics (see: the plain plastic jewel case in which the album was released) and Jay's curious choice to release his new record through a goddamn Samsung Galaxy app.
Jay-Z almost definitely set the terms of that release deal, but ultimately it's still a deal with a company; Ye's "fuck you and your corporation, y'all niggas can't control me," a punk line if I've ever heard one, seems almost a direct rebuttal of Big Brother's decisions of late.
It's worth remembering, of course, that hip-hop has always been politically charged. A genre born in the disadvantaged inner-city by a disadvantaged minority group inevitably is going to be. Kanye's not the first to use hip-hop to political ends, and he certainly won't be the last.
But like everything he does, his take on this is special, notable, unique. He's moved beyond the Givenchy-embossed gold of Watch the Throne and, arguably, he's better suited to make the anti-capitalist case than his backpack-rapper brothers because he's actually seen the other side.
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No other rapper has the nation's ear like he does, and his SNL "Black Skinhead" performance was as angry and as galvanizing as any drunken mess the Replacements ever made. West's voice is, as it's been since The College Dropout, conflicted, provocative, and necessary.