Kanye West has become more powerful than anyone could have imagined. After seeing the man in the flesh two nights in a row last week—once at his triumphant, perhaps summer-defining headlining set at Governors Ball, and then at his bizarre, often disorienting Yeezus album listening party on Monday—I’m convinced the guy is not of this or any other world. He’s part Predator. His brain hovers on a different frequency.
At the listening party, held in a Chelsea loading dock, West’s introductory speech to Yeezus included a spiel about how he was “New Wave,” and an explanation of how at $300, his Air Yeezy sneakers weren’t egregiously expensive, but instead a nod to the proletariat (the shoe would have cost over $1,000 had he not fought to keep the price down). Part of true genius is being comfortable with revisionist history, of course, so when he said, “This album is about giving. This album is about giving . . . NO FUCKS AT ALL!” before shoulder-slamming the crowd with the bass of Yeezus‘s opening track, the actual number of fucks Kanye clearly gives (several) seemed to not matter at all.
There’s a reason behind everything Kanye West does. It is no coincidence that West held an ostensibly private listening party in a three-sided loading dock—a concrete cube missing one of its walls becomes a gigantic speaker when you start slinging around next-level loud vibrations inside of it. Here was West engaging in performance art farce, breaking the fourth wall of celebrity in the most overt and obvious way: holding a secret album listening session with a meticulously groomed guest list in a place anyone could stand outside of and hear the album anyway.
Inside the deafening loading dock, the scene could only be described as Deep Swag. Celebrities (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, DJ Khaled, et al.) peppered the area, as did models and the type of fashion-drunk dudes who manage to make wearing a skirt look menacing. Everyone was important, or trying to look like they were. Further adding to the distraction of the crowd were an open bar and a series of projections, some psychedelic and abstract, others—such as an image of a town being blown up—jarring and harrowing.
As for how Yeezus actually sounds, the best I could say after the party is “loud.” Kanye claims a Joy Division influence, as well as such touchstones as house and drill, the whirring, menacing sound of Chicago street rap. Though they played the 10-track album twice in the West’s self-styled sonic hell-chamber, anyone who left the dock with a concrete opinion on the record is clearly lying, both to you and themselves. We’re dealing with an album too caustic, too thematically complex, too endlessly analyzable to render judgment upon after two spins. It’s not Thriller.
Lots of people are going to hate it, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s punk, but in an expensive way. It’s no wonder Daft Punk, with their much-ballyhooed album-by-committee-of-the-most-talented-musicians-in-history approach to album-making, lent out their services to West for a few Yeezus tracks. (Other notable collaborators include Rick Rubin, Chief Keef, King Louie, and Kid Cudi.)
That you can’t fully comprehend Yeezus after two listens is the point. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, in many ways, West beating the world over its head with his brilliance. After one listen, you were supposed to be in awe of his greatness. This time around, West doesn’t mind confusing his listeners. As someone who doesn’t mind getting experimental, political, and explicitly racial with his music, West is by far our most important rap star, the one whose legacy will endure a century from now. He’s less safe and more relevant than Jay-Z, smarter and more pointed than Lil Wayne, and less introverted—though no less brilliant—than Drake.
If you cut through the cacophony of the private listening party, two things became certain: Kanye West is a genius, and Kanye West really, really, really likes Yeezus. This was evident from his reaction to his own music as he bounced and bobbed along to the sounds he created, rapping along at times and head-banging at others. It was clear that he was having a good time, too. It was rare that West wasn’t flashing a grin.
At 36, he’s older than most of our pop stars. He’s short, too, and solid, like he could have played catcher for the Chicago Cubs. Never the Sox though, as Kanye’s the perennial underdog. Veins bulge out of his head, as if he’s intensely focused on the task at hand, even if that task is just standing around and vibing to his record. He is a man who, after years of ups and downs, is finally finding his center.