Lately, my brother Drew and I talk a lot on two subjects: the NBA and hip-hop. We analyze the Pistons’ draft day maneuvers over text message:
-WHAT? HOW COULD THEY NOT DRAFT TREY BURKE??-
-Caldwell-Pope? Just what we need, another athletic wing player.-
Or we discuss whatever album has recently dropped:
-Have you heard Born Sinner yet? What do you think?-
-Boring. Good, but too samey.-
Drew’s favorite questions to ask usually pertain to the meaning of a certain rap album or song. He’ll ask something like “What is that song about?” or “What do you think he’s trying to get across in the album as a whole?” I love these questions because it forces me to re-evaluate even the most trunk-bumpin’ tracks—harmless window-down summer jamz become tales of conquest or comeuppance, testaments to where an artist has been, where he is now, and what he intends to do now that he’s in that position. Hint: it often involves money and/or recreational drug use.
But Kanye West has us both stumped. I remember when Yeezus was released on June 18. Drew and I were texting back and forth about the other hip-hop releases that day (J. Cole’s Born Sinner and Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off), and then Drew asked what I thought of Yeezus.
-I have absolutely no idea. It’s crazy.-
-I don’t know, it’s just crazy!-
-Well, what do you think it means?-
Good question Drew, good question.
I’ve now had a little over a month to digest Yeezus, and it’s still crazy. I realize how unhelpful that word is, but that’s the thing: whenever I’m asked what I make of Yeezus I can’t respond with much else more than “it’s crazy” or “it’s just wild, man.” Every time I respond like this I want to punch myself in the face—good, Brad, great contribution to the discussion. Still, I’ve not come up with anything more coherent or descriptive, in part because the album is crazy, a conglomeration of harsh electronics, Justin Vernon croonings, and sulfur-spit lyrics addressing…something(s). Crazy seems the only appropriate adjective, the only answer to Drew’s favorite question: What do you think it means? It means crazy.
Right now I’m reading Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. One hundred and eighty deliberately paced pages in and I’m not sure why I’m reading the book, other than my overall fascination with ancient Egypt and our society’s glorification of all things pyramid. But as often happens when an album saturates my consciousness, connections between Yeezus and ancient Egypt are popping up all over the place. There’s a section of the book where Wilkinson reviews the purpose of the Old Kingdom pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Khufu in particular. Obviously, it’s a giant tomb, but what else? Many Egyptologists suggest Khufu’s gargantuan resting place simply continued the “ideology of divine kingship” (70), a joint security covenant between people and pharaoh that said as long as the pyramids stand, so does order reign. Wilkinson, though, favors a slightly more despotic understanding, claiming, “the uncomfortable answer is that [the Great Pyramid] was the ultimate projection of absolute power” (71), a looming power grab that (literally) cast a huge shadow.
So is Yeezus the Great Pyramid of Kanye, a colossal proclamation of his fame and power? On cuts like “I am a God” it certainly seems that way—I mean, Spotify credits “God” as a contributing artist on the track. And, to top it off, Kanye himself tried to carve his own name into ancient Egyptian mythology on 2010’s hit “Monster,” albeit in decidedly crass fashion (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh…” I’ll leave the rest for you to look up if you wish).
Yet, “I am a God” is not the only song on Yeezus, and ridiculous lines like “I was talkin’ to Jesus / He said, ‘Wassup, Yeezus?’” are not the album’s only lyrics. Elsewhere we hear caustic deconstructions of corporate America, attacks on record company big wigs, and angry condemnations of our not-so-post-racial society. If Yeezus is a projection of power, it is one trying to wrest power away from those that have had power for so long in the good ol’ U. S. of A. Sure, Kanye might be downright contradictory on Yeezus—he’s spitefully throwing away Maybach keys (a symbol of wealth and opulence) one minute and demanding his masseuse hurry up with his damn massage the next—but at the very least he’s making us think about our culture’s power structures and where we fit or don’t fit within them.
Yes, Yeezus is crazy. And preposterous. And arrogant. And morally repulsive. And offensive. And crazy. But at times it is the kind of crazy that unsettles, that shakes us to our core, that forces us to ask ourselves what we think power is, what it means, and what it means for us to serve an all-powerful God to whom power means a bloodied cross. It’s just crazy.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.