America, divided along racial and political lines and led by its own Herod, faces an invisible plague and a public reckoning against its history of violence. It’s against this Biblical backdrop that Kanye West imagines the next apocalyptic event, in one of his most focused and arresting tracks for years.
Wash Us in the Blood sees the rapper call for a blood rain to deliver black America from evil. We’re at the point, perhaps, where normal water won’t wash; an emergency where we need something stronger. That sense of alarm is amplified by the two-note siren motif, a flattened-out version of the feedback sound on The Life of Pablo’s Feedback or Yeezus’s Send It Up, another of his warnings that puts the listener on alert. It gets your blood up.
Blood, of course, pulsed through another landmark Kanye track, Blood on the Leaves from Yeezus, which remains one of the most controversial and audacious moments in his catalogue for its seeming equation of violence and lynching (via its Strange Fruit sample) with the chaos of celebrity and scrutinised marriage. It had such operatic audacity and brilliant production that Kanye arguably carried it off, though many are still not convinced.
But his blood motif is now more honed, perhaps coming in the wake of Jesus Is King, his gospel-influenced album in 2019. This was a slightly underrated release, with robust melodies (particularly on Use This Gospel) and flashes of the old sly Kanye wit (excusing the high prices of his clothing with the reasoning that he didn’t want to end up on reality show Dancing with the Stars), though it certainly had its longueurs too. But by taking the clarity of faith earned from that project, and circling it back to the industrial techno of his masterpiece Yeezus, Kanye could be finding some of his greatest potency for forthcoming album God’s Country (that surely ironic title hints at potentially lacerating contents).
Most obviously, he evokes the plagues of blood in the books of Exodus and Revelation. “Rain down on us,” Kanye pleads, “wash us in the blood.” Antagonistic racists might interpret this as calling for violent insurrection, but this isn’t someone revelling in gore, Slayer-style, but asking for deliverance from it via Jesus’s sacrifice. In the repetition and invoking of God, there’s a touch of the spirituals that, via blues, gospel, soul and more, sit at the root of Kanye’s musical DNA.
Those spirituals were, of course, forged in the horrors of slavery, and in Wash Us in the Blood, Jesus’s blood mixes with that spilled on Earth, too. “Whole life being thugs / No choice, selling drugs / Genocide, what it does / Slavery, what it does,” he concludes: violence and crime, even inside the black community, is a legacy of the trauma done to it since the very beginnings of America. The disproportionate incarceration of black people is also mentioned, and guest rapper Travis Scott criticises the death penalty: “Thirty states still execute / thou shalt not kill”. The video by artist Arthur Jafa amplifies the interrogation of race and policing, with fleeting clips of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – the latter heartbreakingly happy and dancing – along with black people struggling to breathe.
Where might deliverance come from, other than God? In even a small and fleeting way, it could be on the dancefloor. “South side, let it bang”, he commands at the outset, presumably to the black community of his native Chicago: this is ultimately a club anthem, perhaps his most straightforwardly so since The Life of Pablo’s Chicago house track Fade. The top lines are techno-derived, pulsing at a high speed 4/4, but are offset against a breakbeat, while a steady hand-drum line keeps the tension sustained. This is absolutely masterful drum programming, and the bass tones are like blood pumping in your brain.
Jafa’s video meanwhile has people letting off fireworks and pulling dangerous donuts in sports cars, the intimation being that these heightened states can also be a vent for stress. It closes, though, on footage of Kanye’s Sunday Service choir practicing, and his daughter North West dancing in the purely expressive, embodied way that we forget (or resist) as adults. Become like little children – perhaps this is one route to salvation.
“They don’t want Kanye to be Kanye,” he says at one point – a self-regarding use of the third person, yes, though he obviously has form in this – and warns: “They want me to calm down … they tryna sign a calm Ye.” No one wants him to suffer another debilitating mental health episode, and his inability to calm his feelings and clearly articulate them has led to damaging overstatements in recent years, like saying slavery was a choice. As shown by his recent defence of voting for Donald Trump – essentially, because he can – he values freedom for freedom’s sake, and that do-anything impulse has led to some unfocused, middling material recently.
Wash Us in the Blood, though, has Kanye channelling his emancipated mind towards the sharpest point. He is at his most powerful when he doesn’t try to be calm, but corrals his anger. There’s a wider lesson there, perhaps, as the US faces its own moment of revelation.