Few modern performers have prompted a more reflective look at the complicated relationship between an artist and his or her fans than Kanye West. Long before he declared himself a MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter who believes that slavery was a choice, West tested the boundaries of audiences’ appetite for his creative genius with behavior that was unpredictable, erratic, and often offensive. But now his new album, Ye, is out, prompting consideration whether his frequently shameful self-promotion was “worth it” in exchange for seven new songs from one of the most important and influential musicians of the last two decades. As a frequent defender of Kanye and mostly die-hard lover of his music, I’m not so sure.
To back up a bit, I didn’t (or don’t) have strong feelings about his recent return to social media, except to say that a lot of what he said was stupid, and it feels like he needs someone with a slightly more grounded perspective than the Kardashians to sit him down for a long, thoughtful conversation. For many years now, West’s music has occupied a space I’d call “super-aspirational” - reflective of such a level of extreme affluence that typical hip-hop characterizations of wealth seem modest or underwhelming by comparison - so the notion that he has lost touch with humanity isn’t something that emerged, purely, with his marriage to Kim. But the Kardashians are demonstrably a family that values visibility above all else, the worth (and self-worth) derived from clicks, shares and attention, and their own ability to convert life lived constantly in the public eye into financial success has, I think, unhealthily encouraged West (at least in the absence of a contrasting point of view) to accept and believe that all attention is good, even if it’s bad.
But no matter your opinion on his extracurricular activities - far be it from me to suggest that there is a single right one - West is making some of the most interesting music of his career; unfortunately, just not for himself. Pusha T’s Daytona, released one week prior to Ye, is a study in laserlike focus, anchored by Pusha’s ice-cold precision and given cinematic edge by West’s production. It’s hard to imagine that the rapper could have better musical collaborators than The Neptunes, who created some of the most stark, experimental and indelible soundscapes in the genre’s history on Clipse’s criminally underappreciated Hell Hath No Fury, but West harnesses Pusha’s flinty delivery and matches it with sample-driven beats as discordant and unforgiving as the lyrics they accompany.
All of which brings me to Ye, a mixed bag of good music and uneven lyrics that feels perfectly suitable for West’s confessions about being bi-polar, but that doesn’t mean it’s consistently worth listening to. For what it’s worth, I have loved so much of his late-period output, especially Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, both of which are equally schizophrenic in their own way but ultimately much more concentrated artistic expressions (Yeezus an unflinching exercise in musical and ethnic self-examination, and Pablo a journey of spiritual discovery whose protagonist succumbs to the temptations of the flesh). What Ye does in the same way as its predecessors is offer an absolutely unfiltered, in-medias-res portrait of West’s mindset at the time he was making it; rarely has an artist seemed to consistently feel quite so free to be so honest with his audience. But when the output is just seven songs and they’re overstuffed with guest stars, it feels like that honesty needs, again, an outside perspective, or maybe just an editor.
The opener, “I Thought About Killing You,” is probably the best example of West’s instincts to overshare on Ye. It’s hard to know which of West’s statements of fear, anger, cruelty or introspection are unvarnished candor and which are decidedly more performative - and how helpful they might potentially be to a listener struggling with their own mental health issues - but “Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels/ Weigh all the options, nothing's off the table,” with regard to the title’s threat (presumably to Kim), doesn’t outwardly seem like a particularly healthy or constructive example of honesty, much less self-care. Suffice it to say it’s an ominous way to open an album, especially given how much of the rest of it he spends talking about an apothecary’s worth of mind-altering pharmaceuticals, some prescription and some not.
That leads into “Yikes,” a meandering track specifically about drugs and hallucinogens that chugs along to a beat reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's “Heartless;” but even though he references Prince and Michael Jackson, and alludes to his own addictions, West never really says much. It seems as if he thinks that acknowledging the presence of these things in his life is the same as addressing them - which feels like a much more dangerous lesson for listeners to take away from his mental health admissions than the ostensible recognition that some celebrities are screwed up, just like us! Two songs later on “Wouldn’t Leave,” he refers to his notorious TMZ interview with the same sort of unexamined plainness, but at least has the courtesy to offer alongside it a broad thank-you to all of the women who put up with their partners’ unpredictable, sometimes destructive choices. And it’s sort of in this shift of focus that West has encapsulated what makes it so hard to sympathize with him: he wants the world to accept his choices, and his behavior, rather than doing any real work to look inward at whether or not it’s appropriate, and if not, what damage that does to others.
I mean, West’s “I’m a free thinker” attitude is nothing short of straw-man bullshit, co-opted from Trump, conservatives and political correctness fear-mongers who, at the core of their beliefs, think that being held accountable for an offense is worse than actually offending someone. To be fair, West lives in a rarified echelon of society, monetarily and culturally, where the levels of permissiveness are much different than in ours (not that they should be). But the idea that he wants to be able to think and say whatever he wants without having to even acknowledge their impact or repercussions - much less answer for them - is nothing new; it’s a byproduct of people never having to spend any time thinking about the feelings or well-being of others, particularly in a broader, more abstractly compassionate way, and to read reviews and other analysis of this album and his behavior characterizing him as “sensitive” for simply mentioning he said that “slavery is a choice” is to give him a pass for being actively and intentionally uneducated, and then sharing that ignorance as if it’s freshly-acquired knowledge.
Otherwise, West’s guests do almost all of the heavy lifting on what, let’s be honest, barely counts as an EP. (This is the sort of experimental jag that a band would release in between albums in the ‘90s when their label didn’t like certain songs’ commercial potential, or when they’d achieved enough creative freedom but didn’t want to jeopardize the cohesion and flow of a full-length release.) Admittedly there are few “singers” whose voices I like less than Kid Cudi, but his mopey chorus on “Ghost Town” is uniquely terrible, even for him (thankfully you can barely hear him next to Charlie Wilson on “No Mistakes”). 070 Shake, meanwhile, practically redeems “Ghost Town” single-handedly with her climactic verse, and sets up “Violent Crimes” with a great introductory performance. Instrumentally, West’s gift at creating sonic collages works in the album’s favor more than it probably deserves - unless you’re paying attention, it’s frequently hard to tell where one track ends and the next begins - but for a guy who has created an expansive stable of label-mates and collaborators with whom he’s worked in concert on track after track in the past, it’s disappointing to see him effectively sidelined on his own release while the likes of Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign dominate songs that are about him and exploring his obsessions and preoccupations.
But then again, maybe that’s for the best. Maybe we don’t need to hear from Kanye right now. (I can’t believe that I’m even writing that, honestly.) Though he is still vitally important as a musician and a cultural force, Ye is not the project that brings his brand of increasing unpredictability into focus in the way that, well, if not fans want, then they may desperately need. (That said, it remains to be seen how much of this “MAGA” business is just an act; a recent Twitter thread by this person lays out a compelling argument that his behavior is, well, maybe not excusable, but attributable to the influence of a number of insider-y performance artists.) Precisely how he could craft such an album of bangers for Pusha and one week later dump this disappointing companion piece is almost incomprehensible, but it feels worse that it’s populated with so many regressive and uninsightful attitudes, all to be explained away as a byproduct of being bipolar.
Of course, if West wants to bemoan adverse reactions to his work and dismiss criticism as the mercurial attitudes of wishy-washy fans or more broadly as obstacles to his “free thinking,” that’s his right. But the thing that his followers have done, both with and in part because of West, is grow up, not just consuming his music, but learning from it, which is why songs like “Runaway” have become part of the cultural firmament - they’re lessons to be heeded, for us and (hopefully) for him, deceptively packaged in earth-shaking beats and irresistible hooks. The unfortunate difference now, though, is that Kanye is basically still raising a toast to douchebags and assholes, eight years after he should at least be trying to be neither, which is why Ye ultimately falls so short: it offers way too little after he taught us to expect so much more.