by Miles Raymer
Today Kanye West releases his sixth solo album, Yeezus -- a record with an improbably terrible pun for a title that does little to describe the aggressive nature of its contents.
While ostensibly a rap record, aside from a couple of brief, straightforward appearances by Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King L, it doesn't sound much like one.
In a recent uncharacteristically revealing interview with The New York Times, he described himself as a "black new wave artist" and described Yeezus as being inspired by the Chicago "drill" scene that produced the aforementioned guests, as well as the sounds of vintage Chicago house music, but those could very well be red herrings deployed by an artist who's careful to not reveal too much about the sources of his inspiration, because it doesn't sound much like any of those either.
What Yeezus most closely resembles is the industrial music of the 1990s, during the phase of the alternative rock boom when the genre had its greatest pop-cultural influence. Industrial's best remembered for imbuing electronic music, long considered the domain of effete nerds and Europeans, with enough aggression to appeal to metalheads and punks.
Yeezus's most obvious connection with the genre is by its surfeit of noisy keyboards and distorted drum machines. The album opens with a droning synthesizer tone modulated until the signal starts throwing off harshly treble-heavy spikes and begins to clip, as if it were overloading a digital audio processor, and over the next 40 minutes we're treated to a broad variety of ways to abuse electronically produced sounds.
But the connection between Yeezus and industrial music runs considerably deeper than Kanye's choices in synth patches. While its most memorable (and most widely mocked) pop-culture moments have to do with its quintessentially '90s cyberpunk fashion sense, industrial music was also responsible for exploring existential alienation through our relationship with technology, an idea that looks especially prescient through the lens of the Google Glass era, in which we find ourselves separated from each other and the world around us by a thin but increasingly resilient gadget-enabled membrane.
One of the ways industrial musicians most effectively explored their techno-dystopian worldview was by putting the machines they used up front. Industrial music is full of oppressively machine-tight drums detoured through distortion units, synthesizers that sound like they're malfunctioning, low-resolution samplers that add a pixelated digital aura to the most analog sounds.
Yeezus is built on these kinds of techniques. "I Am a God" opens with a sample of the dancehall singer Capleton that glitches out at the end like a CD skipping or (more likely these days) a corrupted MP3 downloaded off the Internet. The anxiety-ridden quasi-ballad "Hold My Liquor" features vocals by Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) run through so much Auto-Tune and modulation that his words are blurred to a point on the border of incomprehensibility, and Chief Keef's contribution is blatantly copy-pasted from one chorus to the next with the same ostentatious exhale to remind you that, yeah, this was all done in Pro Tools. Even songs like "Blood on the Leaves" and "Bound 2" that don't sound at all industrial put their sampler-based origins right up in your face.
Like its maker, Yeezus is a messy, complicated creature, but if there's one essential theme to the album, it's that we're living in what pop culture promised us was supposed to be a utopian future, but it's just as rotten as the past. Where a black man can become rich and famous and still be hated for the color of his skin. Where prisons are not only still around, but have been transformed into modes of profit by relentlessly amoral capitalists. Where relationships unspool on television in quasi-real time. It's a world propped up by technology that we think of as infallible, when it's just as likely to break down as a human is.