It was 20 years ago someone first referred to Jay-Z as “Jayhova” for his seemingly inhuman ability to freestyle, a moniker Mr. Shawn Carter took nearly a decade to take on — in a hit single, anyway. And that smash hit’s blueprint, as it were, was manufactured by an unsung rapper named Kanye West.
Welcome to the new abnormal. If Jay ruffled some feathers by comparing himself to the God of the Old Testament, Yeezy just trumped his old mentor once again in the art of outrageousness. The title of his latest joint is just so him — audacious to the point of heresy, stopping mere inches from full-on ridiculousness — and along with the statement inherent in not having a cover, it fits his new incarnation perfectly. Stripped down, reverent of nothing, angrily knocking over every chair in the club, Yeezus is West’s In Utero, Kid A, and There’s a Riot Going On all at once: completely self-absorbed, emotionally cold, and aggressively abrasive. Yet another successful reinvention (resurrection?), it showcases an artist completely submersed in his image, fascinated with the ripples his every move makes on pop culture. If he is insane, he’s taken to brandishing his insanity as a weapon, whether that means seating Charlie Wilson next to Brenda Lee, talking to his new namesake, fucking seemingly everyone’s wife, referencing characters on Martin, or stopping everything to yell “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” Like all the greatest trolls, it’s impossible to tell how much of it he takes seriously. Or where he is in there.
What else can you make of West’s new lyrical obsession with the African-American civil rights movement? On his world-beating collab with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, he wondered aloud about the black audience that ironically worshiped the impossibility of his achievements; here, he uses every symbol of that struggle, from “Strange Fruit” to the black power salute, as a metaphor for being trapped by capitalism, sex, and fame. Assisting him on about half the album, especially the stunning early run of songs, is none other than Daft Punk, riding their own triumphant comeback as godfathers of EDM, and their tracks, which favor noise over groove and repeatedly halt for Kanye’s dramatic shifts in mood, make him sound like some demented, petulant space-funk child-king. It’s a perfect fit for the irreverence present in the very titles of “Black Skinheads” and “I Am a God.”
The second half slows things down somewhat, a series of ominous — but not sad — 808s & Heartbreak-style ballads featuring some old obsessions (chipmunk soul, an autotuned Bon Iver) and some new ones: Ye is jacked in enough to know that Chicago’s “trap” and “drill” scenes are the epicenter of hood shit right now, and the big names are all at his party. Only West could hold it all together, and he does so as always from sheer strength of personality and force of will. Convinced he’s the last genius left in hip-hop, his commitment to his demons also makes him the most real rock star out there. At least the most real one with a Maybach.
Innovation: 90. It’s no accident that his dance beats are half Gary Glitter and half Trent Reznor.
Integrity: 98. MAXIMUM TROLLING.
Full Time Hobby
When Tunng first appeared on the scene in 2004, they represented the forefront of the electrofolk movement, viewed with some skepticism at the time as some sort of overprecious indie gimmick. Electronic folk music? The very idea confused legions of listeners who assumed the authenticity of one genre would be invalidated by the artificial nature of the other.
Of course, folk and electronica have since become the backbone of indie pop (not necessarily together), and now this shifting sextet, led as always by former softcore porn musician Mike Lindsay, now suffers from what might be called innovator’s curse: if you didn’t know all this history, you might confuse their 5th album, Turbines, the work of intriguing yet hardly innovative young upstarts.
That also means Tunng are better at this sort of thing than this decade’s legions of twee, and while their original duality has since been airbrushed into an organic whole, the six members (all here together at the same time, for the first time) have taken to reaching back in order to remind newbies who they are: the fidgety ghosts of their second and best album, Comments of the Inner Chorus, keep interrupting the more delicate grooves of their last, …And Then We Saw Land.
Their latest conceit — songs about a fictional village and its rather unique inhabitants — opens inauspiciously enough, with the gentle “Once,” but soon the group’s signature odd percussion, both analog and digital, joins their trademark massed yet hushed vocals. The -tronica in their folktronica is less prominent but somehow more self-conscious than ever, be it the shifting stomp of “Trip Trap,” the capricious prance of “Follow Follow,” or the gently desperate gallop of “The Village.” But “So Far From Here” is clearly Turbines’ centerpiece, not least because all those disparate breaks and repetitive skips actually embellish the nervous tension already woven into the song itself. Most of the rest of the time, the non-human elements are so becalmed as to be nearly unnecessary; Tunng has wisely decided to leave aesthetics behind for atmosphere, which bodes well for the future of their little musical village. All those new tourists haven’t ruined it yet.
Innovation: 78. Their occasional sonic prickliness keeps them from floating away entirely.
Integrity: 80. It’s not their fault they had a popular idea.