Kanye West’s new album didn’t leak online over the weekend. It gushed out into the pop ecosystem like a million barrels of renegade crude — ominous, mesmerizing and of great consequence.
“Yeezus” is the rapper’s sixth album and his riskiest since, “808s & Heartbreak,” the 2008 left turn that proved West to be one of the most powerful steering forces in contemporary pop. But where “808s” was forlorn and mysteriously triumphal, “Yeezus” is churlish and peculiarly magnetic. As the phantom choir explains in the middle of “On Sight,” the album’s prickly opening salvo, “He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.”
West is unquestionably doing whatever he wants here. And whether or not we actually need these 10 mongrel pop songs, it’s thrilling to watch the man discover new ways to stick out his neck. “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” he growls on “I Am a God,” describing the rope-a-dope methodology that’s made him today’s most complex pop star. (Fittingly, it’s the winning line from a song about a perennial self-loather being on a first name basis with Jesus Christ.)
“Yeezus” has already been branded as West’s ugliest album, but he’ll always be a populist at heart, incapable of releasing anything truly repulsive. For all of the charred melodies and serrated rhythms on “Yeezus,” this is still luscious electronic music sculpted into elegant shapes that only signal threat. French dance music duo Daft Punk and studio sage Rick Rubin were both called on to collaborate, helping West evoke hip-hop’s icy, electro roots while echoing the sly, synthetic snarls of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.
There’s still plenty of ugliness scribbled on West’s lyric sheet. He plumbs the depths of his id like a knife scraping the bottom of the peanut butter jar. He turns civil rights-era mantras into gross pillow talk that no human should ever utter in real life. He promises to get the club “shaking like Parkinson’s.”
“Black Skinhead” crams all of this attitude into one dystopian, Gary Glitter-ish jock jam that would be perfect for the stadium scene finale of “Akira,” the legendary Japanese anime film that West adores. “I keep it 300 like the Romans,” he spits during the refrain, a boast that blurs fantasy and reality, Hollywood retina candy and Chicago gang violence. (“300″ is slang for Chicago’s Black Disciples street gang, as well as the title of a 2007 action flick in which ancient soldiers bathe one another in CGI blood.)
Despite a handful of arresting quirks and kinks, the lyrics on “Yeezus” are West’s least refined and probably his least compelling. But they don’t feel lazy so much as drunk on bitterness. After engineering something as magisterial as his 2010 opus “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” this is West at his most wasted, stumbling through rubble.
It’s all over in about 40 minutes, instantly provoking questions about legacy. The last time West took a risk this great, with “808s & Heartbreak,” he taught hip-hop about the potency of vulnerability and ended up paving a four-lane highway for Drake, Kid Cudi, the Weeknd and Future. Will “Yeezus” teach a rising generation of rap stars to melt poison from their frozen hearts?
And how will the auteur himself reconcile the unholy mess he’s been making? “Yeezus” might blow our collective hair back for the summer, but West has to live with these tunes for the rest of his life. His girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, delivered a daughter Saturday. How do cynicism and self-obsession jibe with being a dad?
In addition to keeping us thinking about him, West’s music always keeps us thinking about the future. He’s a visionary who’s managed to tweak the serial rhythms that dictate so much of our pop culture diet. He doesn’t do cliffhangers. He jumps off.
We gasp, gawk and wonder, “Where will he land?”