In his review of Yeezus, HipHopDX’s Justin Hunte extolled Kanye West for keeping with hip-hop’s tradition of daring experimentation: “Yeezus is jarring, uncomfortable, uncompromising and courageous–all the things that initially made hip-hop great”. In another glowing review, Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork lauded Yeezy’s “unlikely choices” and opined that “…cohesion and bold intent are at a premium on Yeezus, perhaps more than any other Kanye album. Each fluorescent strike of noise, incongruous tempo flip, and warped vocal is bolted into its right place…” New York Times music writer Jon Pareles called it a “one long, efficient, inventive kick in the head”. Of course, the record was polarizing–“Kanye is the greatest rapper of all time” and “Kanye is utterly and completely obnoxious” were equally common reactions from the public, though Yeezus was a critical darling. For someone who so unabashedly delights in his own esotericism, this is probably what ‘Ye expected, and perhaps what he wanted.
All of this is to say that music critics helped to bolster Kanye’s own perceptions about his own grandeur and creative largesse. Yeezus is sparse, inventive and at times, brilliant. But even with its rugged sonic landscapes and shameless indulgence, the album is lyrically unremarkable; Yeezus is a record which shocks and overwhelms rather than educates. That’s irrelevant, though; its place in hip-hop’s history book was cemented almost instantaneously by critics’ adulation.
Fast-forward five months. All of us are still talking about Yeezus. But who the hell is Denmark Vessey? On Tuesday, the Crown Nation emcee/producer and Detroit native dropped Cult Classic, his follow-up to the free LP Don’t Drink the Kool Aid. In stark contrast to the public’s eruption upon Yeezus‘s release, Cult Classic will most likely fail to reach any level of mainstream recognition; it will pass through relatively unnoticed, not with the bang of one of music’s biggest egos but with the whimper of a man who can’t feed himself through rap music alone.
Why all these comparisons? I get to be a music critic too, and Cult Classic is my Yeezus. It’s daring, fascinating, wildly intelligent and completely original. Denmark Vessey simply does not give a single f**k. He creates ingenious music under his own terms. What makes this album an achievement superior to ‘Ye’s album is its consistent lyrical content and a subversive, well-handled narrative arc.
Over the course of his previous release, Don’t Drink the Kool Aid, Denmark Vessey takes time to willingly indulge his
unique obsessions with religion on the fringes of American society. This much is obvious given the LP’s title. But Cult Classic represents this indulgence (church pun probably intended) to an extreme. The fictionalized story begins like this: Denmark wants to make it as a rapper, but his rhymes are falling upon deaf ears. Desperate for money and hungry for power, Denmark decides to seek his fortune by becoming a profiteering religious leader.
Many have sought to acquire fame and wealth through music–this is the foundation of hip-hop’s “rags-to-riches” history. But a rapper seeking wealth and fame through religion? Seems unlikely. But Denmark Vessey convinces through his method acting. He’s privy to the manipulative, rhetorical powers of religion and knowledgeable of the corruption which pervades it. This unusual obsession works startlingly well for Denmark because to him (and undoubtedly for the cult leaders he criticizes), religion is a causal link to money. “Can I get an ‘amen!’ on my ad-libs?” he asks in the album’s intro, suggesting that his success a rapper and success as a religious figure are similarly intertwined. By the halfway point of the album, he’s become cult leader Dr. Yessev and he wants you to join his herd.
By adopting the character of a money-hungry, selfish and often insouciant aspiring cult leader, Denmark Vessey creates a fantastic opportunity to satirize the fatal mistakes of groupthink. Cult Classic isn’t a broad critique of Christianity–it’s no accident that Denmark name-drops Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite and Creflo Dollar more often than he alludes to Jesus. “HoeinDaGaddaDaVida” can arguably be seen as such a critique, as Denmark re-configures the anecdote of Adam and Eve into a highly relevant street tale of pimping and the temptations of modernity (“Getting money, trickin’ Eve off/I put a jimmy on and then she took a leaf off”). More common though are moments like Dr. Yessev’s comical missteps in reciting scripture (“Do You Believe”) and his blatant theft from the collection plate (“Attack of the Skrilla Gettas”).
Cult Classic is full of imaginative double-entendre and wordplay, but it deserves such high marks most of all for its cohesion. Chicago producer Scud One handles the entirety of the album, backing Denmark’s uncanny narrative experiment with his own explorations in genre-poaching. But while Yeezus reaches for a multitude of different genres, Cult Classic favors foggy, dazed psychedelic rock and dated soul samples, as though Scud One took a lesson from Madlib. The distorted guitars of “Project Prog Rock” in particular could be comfortable in the soundtrack of Black Dynamite or Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. The instrumentation is spooky, haunting and insidious just like the cults Denmark lambasts.
All this combines to create a thoroughly captivating and wholly unique listening experience. You can’t listen to Cult Classic half-attentively; Denmark Vessey, leader of the Charismatics, demands your complete attention.