Two weeks ago I didn’t want to hear a new Kanye West album.
I’ve been a fan since I ordered an imported copy of ‘The College Dropout’ online in February 2004 because it was yet to be released in the UK, and have never not been excited ahead of one of his musical releases.
When I saw the photo of Kanye rocking a MAGA hat on Twitter, I’d decided that I’d still be able to listen to an album as long as it wasn’t deliberately and embarrassingly instigating controversy for the sake of it. But by the time he was idiotically declaring slavery “a choice” - not to mention ‘Ye. Vs The People’ and ‘Lift Yourself’ - I didn’t think I could stomach a new album.
Last week, Kanye reminded us of his gifts as a producer - which were never really in question - when he chopped up a batch of impeccable beats for Pusha T’s excellent ‘DAYTONA’ album. The record was the first in a series of five albums, each seven tracks in length, that West is working on at a ranch in Jackson Hole, a valley that lies between the Teton Mountain Range and the Gros Ventre Range in Wyoming.
West’s verse on the album’s ‘What Would Meek Do?’ initially stood out as it’s weakest point: against Pusha T’s precisely deployed, timeless lyricism, it felt scrappy and too caught up in the news cycle. Yet, in the week since, it’s been disarming to find lines like, “You see he be out of touch, he cannot relate, His hallway too long, bitch too bad, Got a surrogate, his kid get two dads,” spinning around my brain.
This kind of writing is something that I struggled to get my head around when ‘The Life Of Pablo’ first dropped. The focus on mythology-building and our interest in Kanye’s celebrity, over skill and wordplay - or in many cases just staying on beat - didn’t sit right with me for the first few months. It felt like he’d lost all regard for his craft. By most artist’s standards, this was poor work: but with Kanye’s fractured reflections on humanity and creativity, the pictures he paints - from bleached assholes to being “Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin” - end up becoming pop culture quotables to which I’d eventually succumb.
With his eighth album ‘ye’, which captures Kanye during one of his most controversial periods, we get plenty more of this kind of writing. Thanks to the priming we’ve received from ‘The Life Of Pablo’, ‘ye’ is more enjoyable from first listen than its predecessor. This is the least reinvention that we’ve experienced between Kanye albums since ‘The College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’, and feels almost like an extension of something we’ve already grown to love.
In an interview with Charlamagne Tha God, Kanye described his new LP - which at the time was set to be called ‘LOVE EVERYONE’ - as being in the same territory as ‘The Life Of Pablo’s Ty Dolla $ign-assisted single ‘Real Friends’. While he reportedly went back to the drawing board since that conversation, the statement still feels accurate with his family values at the core of three songs in particular: ‘Wouldn’t Leave’ and ‘No Mistakes’ celebrate his relationship with his wife, closer ‘Violent Crimes’ reflects on fatherhood. All three share sonic similarities to ‘Real Friends’ and Ty Dolla $ign’s vocals appears on two of them.
Lido’s 15 minute edit of ‘The Life Of Pablo’ was the piece that brought me around to liking his last album, and Kanye’s tight seven track regime fares really well here. ‘ye’ manages to sound as big as ever, despite it’s 24 minute run time. It’s ideal for how quickly we consume new music in the streaming era, allowed the time to fully engage with the entire LP on almost every listen before we end up with a new album to wrap our heads around next week (most likely Kanye’s ‘KIDS SEE GHOST’ LP with KiD CuDi). If anything, ‘ye’ actually strays away from its core themes at times and could be edited even further.
Like with ‘The Life Of Pablo’ there is a lot of contradiction across the album. Sometimes this is an artistic reflection of the bi-polar disorder that he references on the album’s cover (he received a relatively late diagnosis last year at the age of 39) although sometimes these can feel rushed and lazy. Opening track, ‘I Thought About Killing You’, explores the taboo of killing a loved one, as Kanye vocalises invasive thoughts, challenging listeners to feel out controversies by saying them out loud, “Weigh all the options, Nothing is off the table.” But by the closer, ‘Violent Crimes’, he’s lazily praying that his daughter be stripped of her femininity to avoid objectification, rather than attacking systemic misogyny that he instead promotes on ‘All Mine’ and ‘Yikes’ where he declares: “See this is why all the bitches fuck with ‘Ye”.
The most interesting theme that runs through ‘ye’ is the notion that freedom comes from embracing our imperfections, rather than expecting them to disappear. From the opening track, Kanye admits that at 40 he’s still not been able to shake his “Deebo ways” referring to Chris Tucker and Ice Cube’s bullying nemesis in the 1995 movie ‘Friday’. And the point is really hammered home with ‘ye’s crowning moment ‘Ghost Town’, in which KiD CuDi sings about failed attempts to try and make people love him, and 070 Shake steals the show with her outro, exclaiming that: “Nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of free.”
In some ways, the aim of ‘ye’ - which also translates as ‘you’, and is one of the most commonly used words in the King James bible at 3058 appearances - is for Kanye West to be a mirror that we can hold up to ourselves. While lines like “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too, Well I’ma pray for him cause he got #MeToo’d” appear misguided, they also suggest that people like Russell Simmons, and every one of us who’ve ever commented on Kanye, should remember our own flaws first. He’s so specific in his writing, that this often fails, but as a broader idea and particularly with tracks like ‘Ghost Town’ there is some real substance to this.
Things are rarely as clear cut as the Internet’s hive mind likes to believe. As Kanye explained in a short interview with L.A. radio personality Big Boy, at the album listening party in Wyoming, he’s basically like a family member to us all by now. “They might disagree with me on certain shit,” he admitted of his listeners. “But I’m they family, I’ve been here for 15 years.” While we might not always agree with the political views of our parents, or share the same misogynistic perspectives as our friends, there’s no denying that these people can still make positive contributions to our lives. Humans can’t be “cancelled”, and Kanye’s depiction of humanity here is another strong addition to his discography.
That being said, we shouldn’t pardon his recklessness on social media, his support of Trump and offensive statement about slavery just because we like his new album. “I don’t believe in negative or positive, I just believe in energy,” Kanye told Big Boy. While this kind of statement comes from a position of privilege, ‘ye’ is a reminder to accept that while we attempt to choose a definitive side, most things exist in a grey area. ‘ye’ is neither the positive, uplifting LP that many are painting it to be on social media, but nor is it the negative pro-Trump manifesto that we’d feared it could be: it’s a piece of art about mental health, family and celebrity, it’s a mirror, and it’s a conversation starter to help us explore - and hopefully come to terms with - our flaws and imperfections.
‘ye’ is by no means Kanye West’s finest moment, but it’s a reminder not to count him out just yet.
Words: Grant Brydon
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