‘ye’ is archetypal and iconic in its own way – but it makes for kind of a dreary listen, a word usually applied last to anything Kanye West produces.
June 1st, 2018: Kanye West holds a lavish release / first listening party at a ranch in Wyoming, for his new album ye. The invitees are comprised of A-list celebrities, journalists, and influencers. Chris Rock gives a grandiose speech, introducing the album as such: “Remember this: Rap music, hip-hop music is the first art form created by free black men. Hip-Hop is the first art form created by free black men. No black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West”.
The pre-release commotion for this album consisted of the usual – indulgent Kanye rants during the odd interview or two and the fans analysing them in more meta-textual layers than required by a PhD in performance art. Also the less usual – two promotional singles (hilarious reaction videos to the poopity-scoop one can be found here), neither of which appeared on the album, “Kanye West and genius”-centred think pieces, and what can only be described as Twitter shitstorms that followed some more… controversial and slightly out-of-touch statements he made.
ye itself is only about 24 minutes long, took about a month to write and record after Kanye allegedly scrapped and re-did most of it to centre around a different “theme”, and is the second album in a series of 7-song albums, all produced by Kanye. The first one being the new (and excellent) Pusha-T DAYTONA record. One might infer from all of this, that Kanye might be
a) Stretching himself slightly too thin; or
b) Actually losing his mind (which, in all fairness, the album touches upon quite significantly)
and they would be right.
KANYE WEST AND CONTEXT
It has been a shaky-ass couple of months for Kanye. After re-appearing on social media following his withdrawal from the public eye between 2017-2018, he flooded his Twitter feed with a stream of consciousness that neared the border of shitposting.
“You have the best ideas. Other people’s opinions are usually more distractive than informative. Follow your own vision.”
“Don’t follow crowds. Follow the innate feelings inside of you. Do what you feel not what you think.”
Not that Kanye wasn’t always aggressively individualistic. His fountain spout of consumable self-help tweets for the faint of spirit wouldn’t necessarily invoke discussions of his mental health (not more than usually anyway), if not followed by declarations of support for Trump, MAGA hat-wearing, and statements which implied 400 years of slavery was a choice on the part of the black community. In our globally inter-connected society, filled with humans who are evolutionarily conditioned to be social creatures, Kanye stands alone, contrarian for the sake of a misconceived notion of “free thinking”.
Taking a step back from heated debates and hurt feelings, you can hazily discern where Kanye is pulling his ideas from. In a mindset where everything is there to be subverted, everything is there for him to steer it elsewhere, everything is fair game for “never been done before”. Political leaning is another Yeezy seasonal fashion line to extend, another declaration of individualistic thinking, another narrative in which he can insert himself as the messiah. Place all of this under the world-view distorting spectacles of a fevered mind and you have the scoopity-poop Kanye of 2018.
This is the particular snapshot of Kanye West that released ye, which, amongst other things, tries to address the myriad of controversy that unfolded over the last few weeks, as well as sees him try and explore (a generously used word) his own mental issues. Like every Kanye album before, ye comes pre-loaded with all of its context, that surrounds both the current cultural landscape and Kanye’s life specifically. What differentiates it from, say, the context of albums like 808s & Heartbreak (the ending of a long-term relationship and death of a loved one) or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the consistent tabloid scandals), is that this time around the context feels at least ten times more politically and emotionally loaded taken by itself. One would think that this would lead to a correspondingly extra-charged album. But ye somehow manages to be a Kanye equivalent of a dead battery.
The album opens with ‘I Thought About Killing You’. Over hushed synths and vocal harmonies, Kanye strives to provide the mental-space context for his recent outbursts: “Today, I seriously thought about killing you / I contemplated, premeditated murder / And think about killing myself / And I love myself way more than I love you, so…”. Curiously, for the person tweeting “trend is always late”, the indulgence in psychotic thought-patterns seems to fit into the recent emo/SoundCloud rapper explosion quite neatly. Disregarding that, the album continues onto ‘Yikes’, which also deals with the fallout from his statements and his alleged bipolar disorder.
In true Kanye fashion, however, in the end he manages to come back to framing these obvious character flaws as something to be celebrated, a “superpower”, and something that allows him to break free from whatever social norms he imagines are being forced upon him. His ideal world seems to be context-less – no negative implications, no consequences, “free thinking”. But to reckon with context is inherent in making “slavery is a choice” statements and wearing MAGA hats, as well as in writing an album on the back of a controversy those same statements stirred up. The context is usually what made Kanye albums great, larger than life even, and on ye his need to eschew it seems to be the one thing stifling him.
KANYE WEST AND LYRICISM
Lyrically, Kanye has always been all over the place. The same guy releases ‘Jesus Walks’, and ‘Drunk And Hot Girls’ a few years later. In the past, however, his more cringe-worthy statements could at worst be overlooked in favour of the excellent production, or at best come off as funny and ironically quotable in their awfulness. Somehow ye, in refusing grandiose musical gestures for the most part, manages to position Kanye’s worst lyrical habits front and centre.
The aforementioned ‘Yikes’ for example, has a perfectly serviceable flow, a simplistic yet catchy beat, and even decent lyrics by Kanye standards. Then comes the line so out of place Kanye has to mangle his own flow to make it work: “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too / I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d / Thinkin’ what if that happened to me too”.
This exemplifies the main problem that encompasses most of the horribly penned lines on ye. Throwing in recent cultural references, without any thought, any regard for a larger narrative than Kanye’s own world. More as a means to an end of an unfunny punchline that any commentary. Here, the #MeToo movement is only as relevant as it concerns Kanye himself and his fear of being on the receiving end. Most likely, this can be attributed to the month-long production cycle of the release, and Kanye’s seeming reasoning that relevant name drops equate to relevance by association. It doesn’t really excuse it, however, when you remember that Kanye is capable of writing songs like ‘New Slaves’ and ‘POWER’.
Other examples include casual references to the ongoing dispute between Drake and Pusha-T, but only insofar as they name drop Kanye, without saying anything about the subject of the dispute, or rap disputes in general. And then, of course, the casual misogyny. ‘All Mine’, a song dealing with infidelity, is the worst example of this.
Exhibit A: “I love your titties, ‘cause they prove / I can focus on two things at once”
Exhibit B: “Let me hit it raw, like fuck the outcome / Ayy, none of us’d be here without cum”
Kanye has never been one to write about women in the most flattering way. His lyrics on the topic of the fairer sex have always adhered neatly to the ingenious Twitter challenge of ‘describing yourself the way a male writer would’. On ye they feel even more out of place and worse than usual, by virtue of not only not being tacked onto grandiose musical statements, but being positioned in an album that wants to deal with genuine introspection. Picture Kim Kardashian politely listening to these lines, standing beside him at the launch party.
West seemingly tries to rectify this problem by following up a song like ‘All Mine’ with ‘Wouldn’t Leave’. His ode to the women who stick by their man, with a ‘ride or die’ mentality, through the best of times and the worst. Truthfully, one of the more genuine and better moments on the album, with a slick production and lyrics that manage to land for the most part. But after three previous tracks of Kanye going off the handle, it somehow comes across less like a genuine admission of fault or an apology, and more like a quick ‘thanks’-wave out the car window as the car goes flying off a cliff.
The slightly-disturbing listening-experience award for writing about women this time around though has to go to the closing ‘Violent Crimes’, an aptly named song in which Kanye muses about his daughter growing up and being sexualised by men. It’s his tiresome “having a daughter made me see women as people” moment. “Don’t do no yoga, don’t do pilates / Just play piano and stick to karate” – the implications of him discouraging his daughter from doing certain activities that men might sexualise her, rather than referring to the men themselves is a whole rage-fuelled essay unto itself. Thankfully, the song shows at least a smidgeon of self-awareness in Kanye coming to terms with his own treatment of women in the past, as well as the cycles of control and abuse women often fall into: “If you whoop her ass, she move in with him / The he whoop her ass, you go through it again”.
KANYE WEST AND THE PRODUCER AUTEUR
For years West has proclaimed, with unparalleled assurance, his own artistic genius, audaciously insisting on himself as a trend-setter and influencer until everyone got behind him. Which wasn’t that hard to do, as his work was almost always backed by similarly unparalleled beats, genuine innovation, and an ear for samples that has yet to be matched.
Always on the cutting edge of pop music, even his relative commercial failures like 808s & Heartbreak were repositioned as genius in retrospect. Which is why it is so upsetting that even if ye isn’t necessarily musically regressive, it doesn’t break any new ground for Kanye. There’s re-worked gospel loops similar to those of The Life Of Pablo, hints of industrial beats that would fit on Yeezus, and the occasional auto-tune vocal hook that’s reminiscent of 808s.
READ MORE: Kanye West // ‘Graduation’ at 10 years old
A lot of it sounds decidedly low-energy and like Kanye, having only a month to assemble this whole thing together in time for a self-imposed deadline, pulled most of it from dusty notebooks full of leftovers from previous works. In the worst of moments, the record sounds just unfinished. Stans can claim minimalism for ‘All Mine’ all they want, but aside from the industrialised samples slightly propelling the beat forward in the final third of the two-and-a-half-minute song, there’s not much holding it together. A single kick drum on three different pitches and two samples doth not a proper song make. Coming from Kanye, it just feels lazy.
It’s almost even more frustrating when good musical ideas emerge, because you can tell that they could have been so much better with more time and effort, and perhaps if not adhered to the “first thought – best thought” mentality Kanye seems to hold now. ‘Yikes’ would be perfectly serviceable, if not marred by less than stellar lyrics, and completely devoid of any interesting musical changes. As it stands now, it listens as a draft version for something possibly much better.
The clearest glimpse we get of Kanye West the “genius innovator producer” on the album, and its definitive highlight, is ‘Ghost Town’. The song mixes gospel organs, ingeniously harmonised vocals – including a highlight guest appearance from a recent signee to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label, 070 Shake, who contributes her slightly androgynous vocals to maximum emotional effect – and a full-blown distorted rock guitar. In true Kanye fashion, it apes, and yet stands at the apex of hip-hop’s recent trend of emulating rock music tropes and re-contextualising them in rap. 070 Shake’s verse that deals with complete numbness and the self-destructive behaviour it results in (“I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed, yeah / And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free”) is also about as profound as this album comes to touching upon genuine mental health issues. And it’s as close as Kanye comes to his peak performance.
KANYE WEST AND KANYE WEST
Kanye seems to be in constant battle with himself. For the entirety of his career, that audacity and the actual near-performance art lifestyle he leads has been less a turn-off and more a selling point to his numerous fans.
He’ll haphazardly release an unfiltered statement. Release another statement explaining the statement that came before. Release an ode about free thinking, or dragon blood, or whatever else he pictures as being auteur-like and innovative, rather than just divorced from reality. Then release an album that pulls inspiration and revels in the controversy he himself stirred up. He pictures himself as genius, at the worst of times, a literal God at the best. Which perhaps leads him to release an album in the same way he’ll tweet a tweet. First thought – best thought. Do it. You’re an auteur and anything you say goes. He doesn’t take advice from people “less successful than him”. It used to feel like Kanye had something to prove, now it feels more like he’s preaching something he came up with yesterday while down some medically induced rabbit-hole. Archetypal and iconic in its own way, sure, yet ye makes for kind of dreary listen, which is the word usually applied last to anything Kanye produced. (6/10) (Ellie Wolf)
Listen to ye by Kanye West here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 070 Shake, 2018, album, Ellie Wolf, GOOD Music, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, ye
Currently studying Mathematics and Music at Leeds University. Generally a fan of all things musical, cultural, and pretentious. Values aesthetic way too much.
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