Explaining Yeezus is as hard as explaining a Rothko painting. When the detractors inevitably ask, “What’s so great about Yeezus?,” I’m at a sudden loss of words to easily express my adoration. At one point, you just have to viscerally feel its thunderous beauty. Usually, I expedite my defense by referencing the late Lou Reed’s essay defense of Yeezus. According to Reed, behind Kanye’s clamorous walls of industrial noise, there’s something fundamentally architectural. Yeezus may seem to be a balls-to-the-wall chaotic storm of sound, but Reed knows there is a tremendous amount of thought behind each crackle of thunder in this storm.
Reed, however, didn’t get it exactly right. There’s more power to the album than its pitch-perfect, razor-sharp design, though that definitely plays a part. They’re rare, but there are moments when a ray of light bursts through the raging storm, and you hear Kanye cry. It happens when he collapses onto the gilded dance floor of “Bound 2” to admit that he has “nobody to love.” It’s incredibly cathartic. When Kanye realizes it’s just him against one cruel, unsympathetic world, his withering voice resonates with the entirety of human tragedy, with the modern alienation of the soul — and this resonance is breathtaking.
Yeezus is not just architectural. Yeezus is beautiful because it is tragic.
Yes, I mean tragic in a literary, Shakespearean sense. When he’s raging about damned croissants, you’re not just hearing Kanye play himself. There’s a bit of Jay Gatsby. There’s a bit of Tony Montana. There’s even a bit of Macbeth, of Othello and that whole cast of Shakespearean heroes who were doomed by Fate.
Yeezus is the exact same story that’s been told again and again in our literary canon. It’s the story of a larger-than-life king or general (or Platinum-selling rapper) whose life buckles under the weight of its own grand intensity. In this album, Kanye is so full of ambition, greed and delirious excess. Kanye drives enough Benzes and fists enough women to think that he’s somehow the second coming: He’s wearing that Louis Vuitton crown of thorns. This is a textbook case of hubris. In this respect, the hyperaggressive grit of the album is completely necessary, because Kanye wants to make the ugliness of his ego so loud that it’s unbearable.
The tragic flaws that drive the greatness of a tragic hero will ultimately cause him to crash. Gatsby buys everything except the girl. Likewise, our story spirals out of control. Kanye is too busy smashing Corollas and leaving condoms on the bathroom floor to even consider one glaring problem: He is so alone.
When we’re at “Hold My Liquor,” things get painfully sad. Turns out he can’t hold his liquor after all. His sin catches up to him. He gets desperate. He is down on his knees, begging his gold-digging mistresses of the past for a place to stay for the night; they don’t even love him, not at all, but it’s the best he’s got. Eventually, even those needle-thin connections wear down because his ego doesn’t stop crowding people out. His voice starts to get suffocated among blaring horns and trampling beats, as if he’s losing his humanity. He’s killing off more people in his life than Hamlet.
At “Send it Up,” he soliloquizes on how haunting the past is: “Memories … always remember you.” It’s the exact same moment as Macbeth’s “Out, out brief candle” speech, because both tragic heroes realize their pillaring achievements can’t fix the crushing despair they are left to face. Kanye wakes up to his downfall, but he’s already finished. Now we’re at “Bound 2,” and he hits his lowest point in the club when he picks up the only girl left who isn’t repulsed. Is it Kim Kardashian? Possibly. Are his problems solved? God, no. He’s bound. Say goodbye to fulfillment, Yeezy. The mighty have fallen.
So there it is. At a fundamental level, Yeezus is a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s insanely innovative. When is the last time an album was tragic? Perhaps never. I’m not talking about Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” Getting dumped isn’t tragic. The story of a delusional, larger-than-life king figure who is brought to his knees? When even the best of us fall apart, that’s tragic. Kanye West has welcomed us to a new height of raw emotion and feeling that we millennials didn’t even know existed.
Kanye intends to move us with an intensity that has not trembled our souls for ages. Why else is he so confident that he is the nucleus of our culture? In one of his hilariously bombastic interviews this year, Kanye West confessed that he is our generation’s Bard: “I am the No. 1 most impactful artist of our generation, in the flesh. I am Shakespeare!”
You know what? He was on to something.