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Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.

Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.

The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.

Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.

Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)

Buy Yeezus from Amazon

Album Review: Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy OST [Disney]

Daft Punk haven’t released a new album of original material since 2005’s “Human After All”. That’s not to say they haven’t been busy though. They’ve continued to perform mindblowing live shows on occasion and even released a live album in 2007. Oh, and we can’t forget the movie they made, “Electroma”, which they wrote and appeared in but did not create the soundtrack. The film wasn’t the first they’d made, and it probably won’t be the last. One of the themes that Daft Punk seem to be exploring in their various projects are the close relationships between the visual and auditory. It’s a big part of what makes their live shows so kinetic and engaging. That’s why it makes perfect sense that the duo would actually craft a movie soundtrack someday. It was just a matter of finding the right film to work on. The ideal situation finally presented itself a couple years back as Disney was preparing to make a sequel to the 1982 cult classic “Tron”. With the technology available today, recreating the futuristic video game world for “Tron: Legacy” seems like an inspired idea. Apparently Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo is a huge fan of the original film as well, so the duo cut a deal with Disney to provide a full album’s worth of new music that would serve as the official soundtrack.

Had the makers of “Tron: Legacy” chosen to use old Daft Punk music to soundtrack the film, it’d probably turn out just fine. Daft Punk is one of the best electronica groups in music today, and songs like “Around the World” and “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” sound very futuristic in and of themselves. Still, the prospect of entirely new Daft Punk is too good to pass up, particularly with the attention it’d bring, so it made the anticipation for the film itself that much higher. Fans of the duo have been clamoring for any material they can find from the soundtrack, and bits of excitement came in the form of the movie’s trailer, which features the song “Derezzed”. Amazon has since begun to offer 30 second preview snippets of the album, and NPR just put up a lengthy interview with the film’s music supervisor that has a few songs from the soundtrack available for streaming as well. These little bits and pieces are certainly getting more attention than, say, Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” soundtrack or Clint Mansell’s “Black Swan” soundtrack, both of which are hotly tipped for Oscar nominations. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did attract attention for their soundtrack work on “The Social Network” this year, and that was largely because of how different it sounded compared to your average Nine Inch Nails song. But assuming you’ve paid enough attention to catch at least a small clip of the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack, you’ll easily recognize that while it may be Daft Punk behind the music, there’s a whole big 85-piece orchestra backing them up. Two synthesizers and a drum machine just isn’t going to cut it anymore, as interesting as that might have been. So with all those extra moving pieces as part of every song, any hope that this might be a fun and danceable soundtrack like their normal albums gets thrown out pretty quickly.

Opening with “Overture”, the orchestra swells and there’s this whole grand, triumphant moment that comes across like the excitement that all the “Tron” nerds will be experiencing once that movie title is revealed on the screen. Things get decidedly more electronic after that, with Jeff Bridges doing a spoken word thing as he describes “The Grid”. The beat is downtempo, but synths come in with a little symphonic assist and the 90 second track gets a sharp Daft Punk stamp on it. The same can be said for “The Son of Flynn”, which has plenty of skittering electro-parts while a horn section quietly rises in the background. That’s sort of the way things go for the entire record; often the orchestra holds down and dominates a track with plenty of cellos and violins that race along like a light cycle on the track. Synths and other electronica elements play a significant role in most tracks too, tending to lend the entire soundtrack a very dark, epic and futuristic vibe. A dance record this is not (“Derezzed” being about the only exception), but it’s not a typical soundtrack either. Daft Punk make sure their presence is known, even if it involves a squelch here or a drum machine there. To put it another way, if you subtract the duo from every track, you end up with an extremely normal and somewhat boring collection of instrumentals that still work. As it stands though, the Daft Punk bits added will serve to compliment the film perfectly and turn this from a merely good soundtrack to an extremely good if not great one.

Where the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack will work best is obviously within the context of the film. Given that it’s not in theatres yet, though the soundtrack isn’t out until next week anyways, just listening to it completely separated from the visual elements is really fascinating. To be able to pin certain tracks to certain scenes will only increase each track’s value as time goes by. And based on some of the track names, you can guess bits of plot information or what scene it belongs in. Will “Disc Wars” be playing when some characters throw those light-up frisbees at one another? You can probably put money on it. Whether or not you choose to put money on the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack can be a challenging decision to make. As great as Daft Punk can be, and they prove it again here, this isn’t the sort of record you’re going to want to throw on for casual listening or at a party. A better thought would be to make a call on picking this up based on your past instrumental soundtrack experience. Does something like John Williams’ “Star Wars” soundtrack get your blood moving in the right sort of way? Perhaps you prefer a more traditional pop song, something with words and actual singing. Or maybe Daft Punk’s dance-filled records like “Homework” and “Human After All” are more your style. This album has a high possibility of disappointing you if you’re on board solely because you’ve loved everything the French duo has done in the past. It’s been 5 years since the last record and some of us are starving to hear something, anything, new from Daft Punk, but this isn’t quite what was expected. The ray of hope is that considering the complicated and epic nature of these tracks, you’ll probably never see the majority of them performed live. This soundtrack then functions as more of a one-off, and maybe a more traditional dance-filled electronica Daft Punk album isn’t too far down the line. It’s nice to know that these guys can make a pretty killer soundtrack, but perhaps next time the orchestra and enslavement to a storyline can take a break for something truly worthy of the legacy that this duo has had going for them the last decade.

Stream 21 minutes of the soundtrack at Myspace

Preorder the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack from Amazon

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