One thing on which just about everyone can agree: West is pretty good at turning sound into his personal playground. His records sound great, set standards and then move on to something new: the "dusties" soul vibe of "The College Dropout" (2004); the orchestral audacity of "Late Registration" (2005); the much-maligned-at-the-time melancholy electro-chill of "808s & Heartbreak" (2008), in many ways the most influential album of the last five years.
"Yeezus" is no exception, consolidating the worlds of '80s Chicago acid house and 2013 Chicago drill music (the sound of Chief Keef and King Louie, both of whom have prominent cameos), '90s industrial and the avant-rap of Saul Williams, Death Grips and Odd Future. Much of it sounds harsh, brutally minimal - sometimes stripped down to little more than West's voice and a drum beat or a distorted keyboard, with production help from Daft Punk and Rick Rubin, among others.
It is ruthlessly edited, with rhythms and rhymes that hit like anvils, a perfect soundtrack for dropping bombs, invading homes or bum-rushing an awards show complaining that no way did Taylor Swift make a better video than Beyonce. But there are sudden digressions and twists within the oppression, with glimpses of old soul and gospel, a sample of Hungarian rock, even Nina Simone's version of the protest anthem "Strange Fruit." Tucked inside lurk hooks and melodies that sink in over time.
Drill further down, and West sounds more complicated than ever, an artist willing to throw himself off the ledge not just to get a reaction, but to open up a conversation about, well, just about everything that matters to him.
A wave of noise opens the album, synthesizers spazzing out in "On Sight" as West rises, "a monster about to come alive again." He rages more outrageously with each line, a terrorist who is both merciless and irresistible. Abruptly it breaks into a sample from a gospel record that advises, "He'll give us what we need, it may not be what we want" - a sly commentary on an album that is sure to defeat expectations about West.
It is exactly those sorts of expectations that West aims to upend. A decade ago, he was creating songs about the precocious kid who hated his minimum-wage retail job - a relatable, everyday figure in a hip-hop world populated by larger-than-life stars.
Later, he was the celebrity with a tendency to run his mouth and overstay his welcome - never as cool as his hero and mentor, Jay-Z, or as prodigiously gifted an MC as Nas.
West has always owned and owned up to his contradictions, and "Yeezus" is no exception, even as it tramples all in its path. It amplifies his obsessions with race, class and sex (especially of the interracial variety), and how they speak to issues of control and freedom.
Over Gothic organ and ominously ping-ponging synths, "New Slaves" finds West protesting that many of his business partners are just new slave owners in corporate disguise. At the same time, the rapper goes out of his way to be more explicit, more tasteless than ever in rhymes that equate sex with violence and casual misogyny.
But in playing into a sexual-predator stereotype, he also forces a debate about why it's perpetuated: "They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong." West, of course, has been in a yearlong relationship with a white woman, Kim Kardashian, who gave birth to their daughter over the weekend.
Walking the talk
On "I am a God," West flirts with all those egomaniac perceptions of his public life. He plays into the outrage, even imagining a conversation with Jesus. "I am a God," he intones, "hurry up with my damn massage . . . hurry up with my damn croissants."
Even as West threatens to turn this into the blackest comedy record he's ever made, he goes one layer deeper on the track. Here's the artist who wrote "Jesus Walks" confronting the license granted him as a celebrity. By the end, heavy-breathing screams break up the electronic pulse, before being buried beneath a dark cloud of keyboards.
The album winds down with the deceptively bouncy "Bound 2," as if trying to let a little light through the curtain of steel. It piles on soul samples and a guest vocal from the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson, while West plays the rogue in pursuit of "one good girl." He talks on and on, until finally even he's had enough. "After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired, you tired, Jesus wept."
West has one final laugh at his own expense. It's an album that baits listeners into focusing on its most outrageous lines, its most brutalizing moments, independent of the whole. On the surface, he's created a polarizing album that practically demands to be loved or hated. But with West, it's never quite that easy.