Yeezus don’t want me for a sunbeam…
Katherine St Asaph: “Black Skinhead” is such a good title I’m shocked no one took it sooner; it could be literal (there are black skinheads, though history remembers the pasty ones), but here Kanye’s using “skinhead” as a synonym for “person who scares communities.” (See the early talk of there being a Marilyn Manson sample here, which there is not; maybe it’d be too on the nose, or maybe, given his associations these days, that’s a place Kanye just didn’t want to go, or maybe Marilyn Manson is still a buffoon and doesn’t deserve to be in this debate.) Fittingly, “Black Skinheads” is both instantly accessible, alternately coiled like a sprinter and taunting you from three steps ahead, and designed to piss off as wide a swath of listeners as possible. Audiophiles will note how guitar and vocoder are both recorded to sound like they’re clipping at any volume over any speaker. Pedants will nitpick the 300/Romans/Trojans line; moralizers might just nitpick the last word. Rap heads will point out that Kanye’s not especially rapping here; non-rap heads will point out a number of things, in descending order of intelligence: the flippant recording schedule, the presence of Auto-Tune, the number in Kanye’s bank account, the existence of Kardashians or the idea of rap. But they’re still paying attention; I hate to throw around the word “subversive,” but getting “Chiraq” onto Saturday Night Live and into a song Middle America will almost certainly pack in to hear (drill did it first, but Middle America’s not packing in for that) makes him, yes, pretty damn subversive. Vindictive, maybe. Definitely propulsive.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: When “Black Skinhead” was premiered on SNL, the song ended on the line “just close your eyes and enjoy the crash.” As much as it acknowledged West’s rollercoaster public persona, the closer also updated the death imagery that closed out 2010’s similarly tortured “Power,” where West mused that jumping out of a building would make for a “beautiful death.” Between the SNL performance and this week’s release of Yeezus, the closing line was replaced by one that sneered “if I knew what I knew in the past/I woulda been blacked-out on your ass.” Where “Black Skinhead” originally culminated with morbidity, it now asserts itself, kicking and screaming at the world. It’s Kanye risen from the dead and making sure everyone knows it. You could even call this the flipside of “Power”, the come-out-fighting bravado of that earlier anthem traded for an explicit focus on the anger that surged quietly through it. To underline this all, West calls “Skinhead” his theme song just like he did on “Power.” Only difference this time is that he’s not pretending he’s a superhero: he’s a goon, a skinhead, a defiant king but not infallible or superhuman. He’s human enough to fuck up a 300 reference and furious enough at everything that you wouldn’t dare interrupt to call him out on it.
Brad Shoup: Who will survive in America? The rich, clearly. The label owners and label designers, the content queens and kings. Gary Glitter survived in three countries, and he’s a motherfucking monster. Far more people are just poison; they’re insinuated into your brain and it’s on your internal systems to process the toxoid. John Lennon was poison in blue jeans: a restless, cynical ass who turned to politics as a way to harangue the most people in the most efficient manner: toffs and hawks, Catholics and conservative Baptists. “Empire in decline,” Billy Woods said last year, “but still got plenty paper.” (Eager to front, ‘Ye.) But for all that fronting, Mr. West understands this: if you can’t make some of it nice, we’ll toss it. So even though we have personal neuroses conflated with a collective sin, women stacked like paper in a vault, and an entire industry slagged for lacking his resources and resourcefulness, there’s still that black-metal moan and the deathless Glitterbeat, heavy breathing and all. It’s too late in the game for an actual demon, but there’s always room for specters. Shame he’s haunting his own head. “God,” he harrumphs at the end, suddenly the pop game Napoleon Dynamite.
Cédric Le Merrer: Whatever meaning “Rock and Roll Part 2” had when originally released in the UK, Kanye probably knows it — like most people — as the “Hey Song,” sung by drunks and stadium audiences, and he repurposes it as an aggro rant against anyone who might ever have sung it (meaning practically everyone, for Kanye’s purpose). But it’s certainly not the “Kanye going political song.” For one thing, he’s always been political, but his best political songs are the one where he uses his personal experience to help his statement. Here, it’s the opposite: these paranoid ramblings are using race and politics only as far as they’ll serve Kanye’s martyr complex. This is a toast by a douchebag. It really should be unrelatable but for this primal rhythm, which is as universal as it gets. Kanye’s ego trip joins Glitter’s sleazebag anthem, Manson’s phony horror show, and Katy Perry’s homophobic hit in the list of douchey hits that make you hate loving that beat.
Alfred Soto: With beats harder, better, faster, and stronger than ever, Kanye finds a correlative for the rage that has contorted his music for three years. The beats, yeah, but also the way he stops himself just as the torrent of bile threatens to gush. As a critic who loathed My Banal Pedantic Titty Fantasies, I think this is an advance.
Jonathan Bradley: “As long as I’m in Polo smiling they think they got me,” rapped Kanye in “Gorgeous.” “But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me.” This is West embracing the inverse of that Polo: a grim acknowledgement that he can never vanish into the bourgeoisie and will always be a gawking America’s King Kong. He, raised middle class in the Chi suburbs and in an African American society more perilously porous than what the rest of America thinks of as middle class, deliberately aligns himself with the newest American terror, “them black kids in Chiraq” (observe the hand-wringing over Chief Keef), at the same time as he brands himself a king and a wolf, regal and monstrous. Note the repetition of “black” as a verb: ‘Ye embraces it all. Whatever you say he is, he will be. He is prepared to live up to our highest expectations and our ugliest prejudices. He will do it all with a dangerously infectious glittery — as in Gary — stomp. And he doesn’t even need that: this track he cuts off like oxygen; now we ain’t breathing; we gasping.
Josh Langhoff: One way to explain people’s visceral reactions to this song — you know, besides the lyrics and the mega-celebrity factor — is to recognize how Kanye shoves the sound of breathing right in their throats. Vocal sounds connect intimately, physiologically. Even if they’re not singing along, listeners imagine other voices in their own bodies; they can tell you how vocal passages feel in ways that go beyond intellectual description. (This is why I have trouble listening to recent scratchy-voiced Merle Haggard — it’s physically uncomfortable.) Twisting this to his advantage, Kanye creates a phantasmagoria of wild voices and breaths, manipulating the only rhythm instrument that’s also a life-sustaining function, invading listeners’ bodies. As the breath becomes the beat, Kanye becomes your own personal Yeezus. When he taunts listeners for gasping instead of breathing, he’s taunting them for not being ready for action, for not being in control. To paraphrase Pauline Kael on The Eyes of Laura Mars: if the producer had gone for the handclap, probably the song wouldn’t be so frightening.
Andy Hutchins: This is the sound of a man’s shadow chasing him down his own warpath, down to the propulsive, percussive panting and the “BLACK” blips that sound almost like alarm tones. Whether the campaign is justified — on “Black Skinhead,” where symbolism stands in for substantive critique, it’s more justified than not — is largely irrelevant: The point here is making sure you hear the speaker. Kanye probably said “Testing, 1, 2 … a billion” once, then never again.
Jer Fairall: The gnarled intensity of his delivery makes up for his deficiencies as a rapper, for once, although take away the industrial clamour of the production (itself possibly the best Nine Inch Nails music made by anyone since The Downward Spiral) and then see what we’re left with. If I sound suspicious of Kanye as a performer, call it a condition of my constant suspicion of Kanye as a personality: once again, he’s conflating his race with the public perceptions of his own celebrity and, well, I wish that someone who is far more invested in Kanye’s work than myself would finally call him out for shit like that. No points for pointing out the obvious racial subtext of King Kong either, because duh!
Patrick St. Michel: The Saturday Night Live performance is way, way better than what ended up on Yeezus. Mainly, the screams that sounded so fierce live now come off as a bit bird-like. It really takes away from the force of Daft Punk’s production (which… didn’t see that coming). But man, those drums.
Edward Okulicz: West’s got impeccable taste in drum samples, and is obviously smart enough to realise you can do less with more, but he sounds off when he deviates from “Rock and Roll Part 2”; perhaps he should have just gone full schaffel and been done with it. Ye gives his usual cocktail of good lines and clunkers, his flow is definitely more speaking than rapping, and adding echo effects on what I guess are Big Important Lines sounds slapdash at best and amateurish at worse. The spokenness of it means the track sinks or swims on the words and how he lashes them, and you can’t fault his instinct for punctum — “I would have been blacked out on your ass” is one hell of a last drowning gasp for air. But if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor, there’s a lot of treading water to that point. If an interesting trip inside Kanye’s head is your idea of a good song, more power to you, but someone’s got to say “not completely” occasionally.
Anthony Easton: First things first: It’s good to know that the ’90s are well and truly back, if Kanye making this sound like Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and at least as menacing than the new NIN. It actually sounds more like NIN than any of the horror rap/witchcore that has come through in the last little while. It’s even more Argento than the Tyler-quoting album. Here is the interesting thing: if Goblin was mainstream two years ago, and if the ’90s revival has been playing with the culture for a year before that, and if spot-the-sample is a very old game, then what does Kanye’s role as a style settler even mean anymore? He knows that he’s playing the game of black male spectacle: “At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong/Middle America packed in/Came to see me in my black skin.” But is Middle America even viewing Kanye’s black skin as dangerous anymore? I mean, it’s viewing Trayvon Martin as dangerous, and fuck, do a large portion of them view Obama’s as really dangerous, and inter-racial responses are still at a depressing level, but you know, Obama is drone bombing people of colour back to the stone age, and the casual racist who killed Martin isn’t listening to Kanye, and the moral panic about him wasn’t as severe as it used to be. Does him playing with this game become the kind of “coon shit” that he’s warning about? Can I ask any of these without being terribly racist myself?