Dr. Kanye West begins Yeezus with the deeply unsettling “On Sight,” a jumble of noises constituting what is the most chaotic and least melodic song on an album predicated on chaos. This opening song is comprised of aggressively minimalistic techno sounds with intermittent soul samples providing brief respites from the onslaught of noise, thus creating a platform for the cognitive dissonance that is a major theme throughout this album, an inherent contradiction resulting from the uncanny elements of Yeezus, where Kanye combines that which is familiar with that which is not, creating a uniquely repulsive, yet beautiful experience that simultaneously draws us in and pushes us away. This paper explores Yeezus from a psychoanalytical perspective utilizing the Freudian concepts of “narcissism” and the “uncanny.”
Freud defines narcissism as, “the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated—who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities.” Kanye West is, by popular consensus, the modern-day embodiment of narcissism. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Yeezus, where he makes such bold proclamations as, “I am a God,” in an identically-titled track. He consistently refers to himself in the album as a god and star, as well as a genius.
Although it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon of condemning Dr. West for making such braggadocian statements, it is necessary to take into account that he is saying this as a black man in America, a rapper no less, whose genius is constantly being downplayed and whose accomplishments are frequently being negated for no other reason than his status as a black rapper in a white, racist and repressive society. The intense narcissism exhibited by the middle and upper-class Victorian women who were Freud’s patients is likely a result of the sexual repression imposed upon them, which forced them to concentrate their libido on themselves as a means to achieve both sexual gratification and validation of their self-identity. So too, Kanye is narcissistic as a response to the lack of validation and recognition he receives for his work in order to affirm his identity and self-worth in a culture that downplays his worth and refuses to acknowledge his genius.
Freud defines “the uncanny” as, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” He goes on to explain that “the uncanny,” while related to what is frightening, “to what arouses dread and horror,” is not identical with the active field of the frightening, but rather constitutes a subfield of that experience, namely, that in which, “the familiar can become uncanny and frightening.” Later in Freud’s essay he explains that such circumstances exist when this “something which is familiar and old established in the mind,” becomes alienated from it, “through the process of repression.”
A recurring motif in Yeezus is the use of uncanny primal, sub-human sounds, which are littered throughout. On “Black Skinhead,” an already very raw and emotional song, Kanye’s shrieks and hollers function as intermittent climaxes of emotion. These screams are familiar to the human unconscious as they are manifestations of primitively innate Id impulses. They are, however, unfamiliar on a conscious level, where we do not understand their primordial nature. The very controversial track, “I Am A God,” ends with an assortment of distorted screams by Dr. West, which once again feel almost human in a familiar way, yet distant and unfamiliar at the same time. Both songs employ these screams to create an intentionally uncanny sensation for the listener.
The use of unintelligible lyrics is prevalent throughout Yeezus in several different forms. Both “I Am A God” and “I’m In It” utilize Jamaican dancehall samples, which feature English that is nearly impossible to understand. Although the lyrics are recognizable as English, the content of the lyrics is not something that can easily be deciphered. Similarly, on “Blood On The Leaves” and “Guilt Trip” there are moments where the words are intentionally distorted beyond recognition. Our familiarity with the sound of words only adds to the strange feeling produced by not being able to understand them. The ending of “New Slaves” also uses this incoherent singing to create an uncanny feeling of familiarity intertwined with the unfamiliar in an intriguingly repelling way.
Throughout his article on “the uncanny,” Freud uses the German word unheimlich to denote this concept. In a key passage, Freud quotes a long extract from the German philosopher Schelling, who repeatedly uses the term unheimlich and concludes: “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained… secret and hidden but has come to light.” Freud then explains:
“What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word ‘heimlich’ exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, ‘unheimlich.’ What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich… Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”
“Hold My Liquor” explores this dialectical conflict of being both concealed and visible, as Kanye West struggles between his attempt to hold everything in and his desire to let it all out. The liquor referenced in the song serves as a metaphor for his outspokenness and his attempted self-censorship. For most of the song, he maintains the concealed and visible aspects of himself hand-in-hand, both being a reality for him and neither negating the other. This examination of the contradictory nature of the uncanny ultimately ends in the breaking through of his outspokenness as he is no longer able to “hold his liquor,” making him totally transparent and vulnerable, a refutation of the uncanny.
Dr. West attempts to relate to his listeners throughout the album, but to no avail. His uncanny attempts to be relatable actually make him even more “un-relatable” and inaccessable to his fans. He opens a window into his life for his fans to look into, yet it ultimately distances them from him, despite his best efforts to establish a connection.
The ending of “Black Skinhead” involves Kanye uttering “God!” in disgust, over-and-over again, as a way of expressing his dejection with the racist, capitalist society in which he lives, a sentiment which most of his fans share and which should have brought him closer to them, but instead it shows just how out of touch he is, as he can never relate to the oppressed individual’s disillusionment in the system due to the fact that he is a part of the system, having succeeded and thrived in it.
In “I Am A God,” he rebels against the world, essentially writing it as a big “fuck you” to everyone and everything. This is also a sentiment echoed by many people today, yet the way he actually rebels through talking about his tremendous capitalist success is once again unrelatable and even alienating to almost everyone.
“Fuck your Hampton house/I fucked your Hampton spouse” is the beginning to what may be the most quoted snippet from Yeezus. This excerpt from “New Slaves,” rather than being a critique of capitalism and the fact that some people are tremendously wealthy and others tremendously poor for no good reason, is actually Kanye’s way of demanding assimilation with “old money.” What he does not understand is that if it were a legitimate attack against “old money,” the attitude would be shared by others, but because it was only an attack against “old money’s” refusal to include him in its circle, it only comes between him and his listeners.
In “Blood On The Leaves,” Kanye West raps about his relationships and rich debauchery over a sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song depicting the lynching of a black man, in an effort to draw a parallel between the two experiences. Simone’s singing is something very real to which many people can relate. Kanye tries to create something equally real, but his tale of popping “Molly,” snorting cocaine, paying alimony, and keeping his “sidechick” away from his “wifey” is not relatable to all.
A significant theme in Yeezus is Dr. West’s uncanny critique of American bourgeois society. He criticizes capitalism, but does so from the perspective of a successful capitalist with no interest in eradicating it, which, by nature, makes it uncanny, as he provides a familiar opinion with an unfamiliar twist which makes it rather unnerving. “New Slaves” is a pseudo-revolutionary anthem, with the “new slaves” referring to black people who have fallen victim to consumerism. He is, however, one of the foremost proponents of consumerism, successful in thanks to it. He has no interest in radically transforming society so as to eliminate consumerism, because that doesn’t match his individual capitalist interests, which makes his anti-consumer message eerily uncanny. In “Black Skinhead” as well, he is criticizing a system which he is a part of and is trying to climb up in. His anti-establishment lyrics are uncanny specifically due to the fact that he is still part of the establishment, no matter how excluded he is for being a black rapper.
Kanye West’s Yeezus perfectly embodies several key theories of psychoanalysis, both intentionally and unintentionally. Kanye opens himself up, revealing the extent of his manic narcissism, a necessary response to his constantly being undermined by society for being an African-American rapper. He includes intentionally uncanny elements all around, designed to create an uncomfortable feeling within the listener. Yeezus’s uncanniness actually extends beyond the intentional, as it also shows just how out of touch with reality he is every time he attempts to prove how in touch he is.
Written by Victor Grossman-Perez