Leaked the day before he became a father, there’s a sense that Kanye West needed to get this brilliant nightmare of a record out of his system before the paparazzi began snatching soppy pictures of him snuggled up with his baby daughter and partner, reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Often angry and contradictory, always wildly narcissistic and control freakish, the producer and rapper confesses amid the violent, tormented, and XXX-rated rant of I’m in It: “Uh, got the kids and a wife life/ Uh, but can’t wake up from the nightlife.”
After the lavish, operatic detail of 2010s My Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the stadium crowd-pleasing of his Watch the Throne collaboration with Jay-Z, he’s stripped everything back for what he describes as a “super low-bit” sound that incorporates disorienting components of dance hall and techno along with his trademark chipmunk vocals, vintage soul samples and vocoder choruses.
Styles and genres smash into each other. At first listen it sounds messy, but the more you play it, the more inspired and essential each brutal interruption becomes. For example, on the first track On Sight West slams the breaks on an industrial-electro grind for a sudden, gloriously demented burst of the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family. Later on, it’s a kind of musical blasphemy to borrow Nina Simone’s incredible version of the 1939 anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, let alone breezily sing over it about how West can’t sit with his girlfriend at a basketball game. But he makes it work: addictively.
Throughout the tight, challenging 40 minutes of this album he samples everything from Brenda Lee to Marilyn Manson; Indian film scores to Hungarian rock. He was helped out by diverse producers from Rick Rubin to Daft Punk and guest appearances come from Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Through the sonic maze created by the cool, clever brain of West-as-producer pelts the sweating, ranting, mammal-brained character of West-as-rapper, blurting out offensively violent and misogynistic then righteously political lyrics by turns. He screams (a lot), pants, appalls and skewers. New Slaves sees him tackling racism with a ferocious urgency, although its message also gets confusing.
And it’s hard to know how seriously to be shocked by the sexual violence: this is a guy who recently invited Twitter followers to participate in a thoughtful debate on the appropriate use of profanities.
As the most exciting album I’ve heard in a long time, I recommend that strong-stomached music fans buy it. Lay out a little psychological plastic sheeting first, and you’ll soon find yourself bizarrely comfortable amid the blood spatter.