This is one of those ‘controversial’ albums whose quality has been debated vigorously ever since it first came out, and the debate shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. To be specific, the professional critics loved this album, as they do most of Kanye West’s output (it was the most common choice for best album of 2013 according to Metacritic’s aggregation of published lists), but the casual fans and amateur critics were much more divided on it, and it certainly didn’t do as well on the Pop charts as Kanye’s earlier albums.
Certainly the music itself…the production work…is up to the same brilliant standard as it was on all of Kanye’s albums up to that point. Some of his fans were turned off by the heavy Industrial influences on much of the album, but while the sound was definitely a new one for Kanye, and significantly less accessible than his previous style, he still pulls it off superbly. The only real potential Pop hit on the album is the closing track, a collage of classic R&B samples called “Bound 2” (and indeed, it was the only song off this album to crack the Top Forty), but the entire album sounds absolutely fantastic as music.
The problem, and the real reason this album was received so much less well by the fans than by the critics, is the lyrics. Frankly, Kanye is a second-tier lyricist at the best of times (he really owes his legendary status to his production prowess, not his skills as an actual rapper), but on this album he completely ceases to filter his own insanity to any degree whatsoever, resulting in what may be the most gloriously insane album since Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future.
Granted, the practice of recording your own nervous breakdown is a fine tradition stretching back at least as far as John Lennon, but usually there’s some visible impetus in the songwriter’s life to write something like that: Lennon wrote Plastic Ono Band after the breakup of the Beatles, Michael Jackson wrote HIStory after his first accusations of child abuse, and so on. Kanye, on the other hand, as far as anyone can tell, is like this all the time, and it’s not entirely clear why it came through so much more clearly on this album than on his previous ones, but it did. The result is incredibly misguided and often downright offensive, but there is a certain entertainment value at just how over-the-top and utterly insane it is.
The album is full of unbalanced rants about racial prejudice with titles like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”, but these ultimately seem to have less to do with Black rights in general, and more to do with Kanye’s perception of himself as a victim. Just to drive this point home, in “Blood on the Leaves”, he appropriates the chorus of the historic song about lynchings “Strange Fruit” for a song about gold-digging women trying to get pregnant so they can extort rappers for child support, a subject that would probably seem at least mildly offensive even without the wildly inappropriate sample.
In fact, Kanye in general shows very little sensitivity to any disadvantaged group that he does not actually belong to…witness for example the highly insensitive line about Parkinson’s Disease from “On Sight”. He isn’t even above cracking disrespectful jokes about the political causes he claims to be fighting for here, as witness the Civil Rights historical references laced into the absolutely filthy sex jam “I’m In It” (e.g. ‘Your titties, free at last/Great God Almighty, they free at last’). In fact, Kanye does so little self-editing and has so little regard for anyone else’s sensibilities on this album that he literally has a song called “I Am a God” where he proclaims just that. Even when the lyrics aren’t angry, they’re still usually bizarre, as witness the exceptionally goofy word choices on “Bound 2” (‘Damn, what would Jeromey-romey-romey-rome think?’).
I understand why the critics admired this album so much…it has a certain perverse integrity to it, and between the phenomenal production and the sheer spectacle of Kanye’s insanity, it’s never hard to listen to…but I also see why the fans were underwhelmed by it: it’s definitely the weakest of Kanye’s albums up to that point (though his next two, The Life of Pablo and Ye, would devolve much further in terms of quality). Still, whatever your primary reasons for it might turn out to be, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy this album, and whatever reservations I may have about it, on those grounds I feel obligated to at least recommend it to my readers. It’s not perfect, but it’s most definitely worth hearing.