By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Kanye West is not stingy about naming his inspiration. In an epic interview with The New York Times last week, he listed Steve Jobs, Rick Rubin, "Tipsy," Dead Prez, Walt Disney, Anna Wintour, David Stern and Corbusier lamps as influences.
Listening to West's abrasive new album "Yeezus," I thought of one more: Ira Glass. The humble, soft-spoken host of the public radio show "This American Life" basically defined the artistic arc of West's career.
"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste," Glass said, describing his career in public radio. "But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you."
While I think West has had the strongest run of albums of anyone in popular music over the past decade, he remains dissatisfied with his work and himself. In the Times interview, he implied he wasn't happy with his last solo album, 2010's "My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy" -- arguably his most critically acclaimed release -- and he said looking at photos of his earlier fashion choices makes him want to kill his young self.
His artistic restlessness feels indistinguishable from his evolving tastes.
Anyone who's followed Kanye's progression from socially conscious backpack rapper to avant-garde pop superstar has watched him trade in pink polos for couture fashion -- a shift that is now part of his own self-mythology -- while similarly elevating his point of view from that of an upwardly mobile middle-class striver to a super-wealthy artist who namedrops luxury brands that may as well be a foreign language to 99 percent of the population.
Material wealth, so often presented as the goal of hip hop, merely seems to be a means to an end for West. Kanye doesn't rap to buy nice things; he buys nice things to make better rap music. Or at least that's how West sees it, hence his assertion that the sound of "Yeezus" is inspired by a $7,500 lamp.
Whatever the case may be, you can 't argue with the results. With the help of Rubin -- the legendary producer behind a slew of classic Beastie Boys hits and Jay-Z's "99 Problems" -- West has completely reinvented his sound, synthesizing his old hallmarks into a suite of 10 songs of electronic and industrial soundscapes as hard and black as a piece of coal.
Some stray observations:
¥ The opening track, "On Sight," is a mission statement. That statement is: "I don't care what you want." Co-produced by Daft Punk, the music sounds like the final transmission from their robot helmets before they succumb completely to a corrosive alien virus.
Still, in the middle, the digital noise pauses just long enough for Kanye to drop a gorgeous sped-up gospel sample, as if to remind us that if he wanted, he could still make his pretty hits of old. But he doesn't. That Kanye is gone. He is blood on the leaves.
¥ Speaking of ... when the beat drops on "Blood on the Leaves" at around the 1:08 mark, it hits like the trumpet that brought down the wall of Jericho. If you haven't heard the track before, savor the first time, because it is awesome.
¥ Less awesome is the sample of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" that opens the song: "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze." It's a stunningly haunting song about racism and lynching in the South that sounds fantastic interjected here, but I wish the subject was more elevated than a cautionary tale about what a bummer it is when your mistress won't get an abortion.
¥ It's also appropriate that "Black Skinhead" sounds like Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" because Kanye is certainly aping vintage "Manson now going door-to-door trying to shock people"-era Marilyn Manson. And it's mostly fantastic.
¥ Many of the lyrics here are cartoonishly pornographic, but I don't know if the sentiments are more misogynistic than your average Rolling Stones album.
¥ The completely absurd "hurry up with my damn croissants" from "I Am a God" is the instantly quotable line, but my second favorite occurs in "Send It Up" when West raps about a girl in a tight dress dancing close to him and he proclaims, "Yeezus just rose again."
¥ I think one interpretation of this album is that Kanye sees himself as a monster, his humanity crushed by the machinations of a racist society, and it's his duty to wreak havoc on wealthy white people. I just wish he had a better revenge in mind than having sex with white women, which he mentions multiple times.
Still, it's not an image without power, particularly in "New Slaves" when he mentions the corporation profiting off the black people locked up in privately owned prisons, and then promises to visit your "Hampton house" and have sex "with your Hampton spouse."
¥ I chuckle thinking about Kanye's daughter, born this week, listening to this someday, while Kanye is all, "So this is what I was feeling when you were born."