On “The Games We Play”, the second track off his Kanye West-produced career-best third album DAYTONA, Pusha-T makes this claim: “With Ye back choppin’, the cars and the women come with options”. Having previously promised to produce five albums, all seven tracks long, in their entirety – Ye is indeed back choppin’. DAYTONA was the first to pass from his hands into the world – and we all know what effect it’s having on the ecosystem that is ‘the culture’ and the intensity of the conversations it’s inspiring. A week later, amid the feverish, baroque pageantry that accompanies a Kanye West production, ye, his eighth solo outing enters the ether. That context is always a tricky proposition with Kanye has been a forgone conclusion for a long time.
No other pop cultural figure is more hyperaware and concerned with the manipulative power latent in the headlines and, at the same time, more patently committed to seemingly reckless, unfiltered-in-the-most-extreme sense behaviour when the world’s cameras are aimed at him. Context has always been everything to Kanye but now, because of his self-proclaimed affinity for Trump and his “slavery is a choice” comments, it burns with an emphatic career-ending, Good Works-undoing, statue-toppling energy.
An album about to release a month from that debacle would seem like the best forum to address those views – but on ye, Kanye takes nothing back. Everyone braying for his blood gets nothing – except for an impeccably conceived, jugular-destined album that furnishes a real-time view of how one of music’s most consistently embattled and reliably next-level innovators is handling the deepest ebb in popularity he’s ever experienced. ye is the front-row seat to the kind of celebrity fall from grace that we’ve been conditioned to relish with self-righteous smugness.
Except, even with all its internal friction and the pall of darkness that suffuses it, ye‘s trajectory is an ascendant, transcendentally future-facing one. One of the biggest gripes that the critical community – the Kanye-cancellers – has with ye is its defiance. At no point in these 23 minutes does Kanye explain himself or address the clickbait-fomenting behaviour that’s landed him in this unholy mess. People were expecting an inspired mea culpa but what they got instead was a wholly different kind of personal testimony. So, they went in on him, as they did here: “Make ‘Ye’ Great Again” – bring back the Old Kanye.
ye is a deeply interrogative work. And one of its central questions is, Why does Kanye need to explain himself? He said some things, which he clarified in a haphazard fashion. The perils of celebrity ubiquity is a recurring concern in the Kanye canon but never has it been more confrontationally approached than it is here. The Taylor Swift saga catalysed the consciously apologetic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and commentators raced to brand it classic. Now, with other more grievious and resounding social blunders pinned to his name, he makes no overtures towards an apology and the blogs are outraged. In vast sectors of the Internet, the consensus is that this is Kanye’s worst album.
But without palatably contrite palliatives and with his back ostensibly against a wall, what does Kanye offer in lieu of a glimpse into its maker’s psyche? The answer is: Everything.
The single most important truth binding each disparate track into a collective whole is the fact that duality is the dynamic upon which its artistic world is rendered. In ye‘s less controversial predecessor, 2016’s The Life of Pablo, Kanye posed this non-rhetorical query, “Name one genius who ain’t crazy”. Two years later, on ye‘s second track “Yikes”, he addresses the recent revelation that he was diagnosed as bipolar last year with this non-rhetorical claim, ” That’s my bipolar shit, nigga, what?/ That’s my superpower, nigga, ain’t no disability / I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”. What’s particularly striking about ye is just how much its lines are animated by the tension between reeling self-loathing and cosmic vulnerability and a sneering sense of pride. “Yikes” is also the site on the record where Kanye shows the listener just how acutely self-aware he is of his circumstances and of his milieu: “Yeezy, Yeezy trollin’ OD, huh? / Turn TMZ to Smack DVD, huh? / Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too / I’ma pray for him ’cause he got #MeToo’d“. Barring his Trump affiliations, that line condenses the whole storm of drama enfolding his life into barbed bars that aren’t without shade for the hypocrisy of the times. #StayWoke, Russell Simmons. It’s a re-admission of his latest confessions – addiction to opioids and talking reckless on TMZ – paired with the Kanye ArroganceTM that he used to be celebrated for.
But it’s not all fuck-you posturing. In the opener “I Thought About Killing You”, one of the album’s main talking points, Kanye breaks down a breakdown – when multiple selves terrorise your psyche, suicide becomes a beyond-viable option. Its first half is a spoken-word reveal about Kanye’s tormented inner life, an album-wide theme that’s instrumental in the record going down as Kanye’s ‘mental health’ album. But, lest we forget, the first words on ye are, “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest”. And the moments of beauty here are stunning.
The Old Kanye had no wife or kids and therefore, a lot less to be frightened of. Kanye, today, is a married father of three. In October 2016, Kim Kardashian was gagged and robbed in her hotel room in Paris. So yes, Kanye has a lot to be fearful of now. Gratitude, tenderness and fear is the trifecta that evokes that love. On the effulgent “Wouldn’t Leave”, he depicts how his recent behaviour has ruptured the peace of his household: “My wife callin’, screamin’, say, “We ’bout to lose it all!”. But no matter what, she wouldn’t leave. “Violent Crimes” deals with the immediacy of his fears of the future – that his only daughter’s sexuality may be exploited by the savages out there. Some critics have taken him to task for his parochial sentiments but I dare you to consider if “patriarchy” is something parents fret over when the safety of their child is in question. That’s the thing with Kanye, he’s unfiltered and openhearted to a fault here – and he knows it. “Ghost Town”‘s sigh of frustration is knowing and true: “I’ve been tryin’ to make you love me / But everything I try just takes you further from me”. And that’s addressed to every non-Kanye person out there.
Then, there’s the music. Unlike any other Kanye full-length, ye doesn’t have a corrective, wheel-reinventing thrust. It’s not far off from the synth-speckled gospel-shimmer of TLOP but the variance of its songs affirms that it’s not totally beholden to any one sound or sensibility. Here, the devils and angels are in the little things. This is not a package of bangers and anthems. Nothing here is turn-up fuel. Rather, this is an impressionistic collage of florid microdetails that affirm their creator’s legacy.
Some notable spoilers: The way the closing screams underscore the drama of “I Thought About Killing You”; “Yikes”‘seam-splitting bass and ominous samples; the industrial scrape of “All Mine” that mirrors its coarse (the most punchlines of the album) lines; “Wouldn’t Leave”‘s sublime vocal harmonies courtesy of Jeremih, Ty Dolla $ign and PARTYNEXTDOOR; “No Mistake”‘s warning shot to Drake (probably) softened by the voice-of-God coo of Charlie Wilson; all of “Ghost Town”, which employs those sludgy Mike Dean synths and showcases what new GOOD Music signee 070 Shake brings to the table and “Violent Crimes”‘s plaintive, downcast gleam.
If the record has one structural flaw, it’s that it should’ve ended with “Ghost Town” and not “Violent Crimes”. A album of this gravity deserves a blockbuster ending.
That leaves us with two solid Kanye releases out of five.
Listen to ye below.