Artists often describe their albums as labors of love, but Kanye West’s records have been labors of labor, the fruits of endless studio sessions spent tweaking each sample and fine-tuning every drum hit for maximum effect. At the height of his perfectionism in 2010, West claimed to invest more than 5,000 hours into each song he produced, and though that math is a little sketchy—even assuming West never spent any time sleeping, tweeting, or Maybach shopping, that would still account for fewer than two songs per year—the sheer level of detail in his work left no doubt the guy was clocking some serious overtime. It must have been a shock for producer Rick Rubin, then, when just weeks before its release, he was called in to put finishing touches on Yeezus, West’s pipe bomb of a sixth album, only to realize how far from finished it was. “Many of the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet, and many of those still didn’t have lyrics,” Rubin recounted to the Wall Street Journal. “From what he played me, it sounded like several months’ more work had to be done.”
As it turns out, Rubin hadn’t been called in so much to help West complete the album as to tear it down, to reduce West’s unfinished tirades into even rougher, rawer distillations. Deadline pressure can be a powerful muse, but in this case it was an absolutely integral one: Yeezus could only have been produced under the gun. Delivered entirely from the gut, it’s West’s loudest and most impulsive album, especially in its system-shocking opening stretch of gnarled electro and pounding industrial rap. Even by the standards of an artist who reinvents himself with each release, it’s a drastic departure, so committed to its heavy new sound that it’s easy to picture West hearing Pretty Hate Machine for the first time and immediately racing to the studio to tear down his John Mayer posters. Yeezus will be remembered as a lot of things—as the Kanye West album with all the screaming; as the apex of rap’s unlikely fascination with Marilyn Manson; as the biggest record of 2013 with no singles—but perhaps most significantly, it’s West’s first willfully imperfect album, the one where he let the stitches show.
With his first albums, West distinguished himself as a master technician, gifted at fusing elaborate networks of samples, bridges, and refrains into seamless compositions. On Yeezus he unlearns all of that, speeding instead from one sound to the next in a series of smash cuts. It’s an album of interruptions. Dancehall samples don’t decorate these songs as much as they butt into them. Every sound is fighting for itself in a survival of the brashest. Even when the menacing “New Slaves” somersaults into a triumphantly soulful coda, complete with some freestyle falsetto from Frank Ocean, the underlying beat is staticky and blown out, its prettiness cruelly distorted.
This isn’t the first time West has released an audacious, anti-commercial gambit. Before its release, 808s & Heartbreak was also hyped as an impossible sell, described in terms that painted it as unappealing as possible: It was the album where West (who cannot sing) only sings, using Auto-Tune (which you hate). Rather than killing his career, though, 808s fortified it, affirming West’s relevance and sparking rap’s ongoing emo-robot craze. Yeezus might not prove as influential, but like 808s, it’s more pop-savvy than pre-release speculation led the Internet to believe. Despite its surface severity, it’s a lean, immediate record, its brevity a sharp contrast to 2010’s wandering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That predecessor could be overly serious at times, stalling whenever West wrestled with the non-realization that indulging his every whim and desire might not make him a good person, but Yeezus isn’t weighed down by those concerns. This time out West is having an unmitigated laugh at the expense of his own image. In the most meme-ready line on “I Am A God,” West uses his omnipotence to demand a croissant. The zingers and sacrilege keep flowing: In that same song he hangs with Jesus (they have a one-sided conversation about his considerable fortune), and a few tracks later, on “I’m In It,” he applies Martin Luther King’s hallowed “free at last” proclamation to a pair of revealed breasts, then describes himself as “a rap-lic priest, getting head by the nuns.” Where Dark Twisted Fantasy played out as a Breaking Bad-esque study on the coercive influence of power, Yeezus is pure, joyous farce.
Once the initial future shock of the record subsides—and it doesn’t take all that long, really—there’s plenty left to explore. Flanked by his usual inner circle of singers, including Charlie Wilson, Kid Cudi, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, West peppers the record with callbacks to his past works. The Daft Punk-assisted opener “On Sight” climaxes with the “I need you right now” cries of “Stronger,” West’s first Daft Punk dalliance, and the brisk closer “Bound 2” is an overt homage to West’s bright early production, reimagining College Dropout’s cheerful chipmunk soul through the blurting, minimalist lens of his new muses. “Harder, better, faster, stronger”: It was years ago that West first took to that mantra, but it’s on the visceral, unrelenting Yeezus that he fully internalizes it.