Last week, Kanye West dropped his eighth album, the succinctly-titled ye. Tuning into the live stream from his outdoor listening party in Wyoming, we were treated to lengthy footage of a crackling campfire, occasionally cutting to a nearby frame of horses in a field, nibbling on grass nonchalantly. Nice scenery and all, but no music, much to the confusion of viewers worldwide. The suspiciously quiet live stream looked like a wealthy aunt's weekend retreat, rather than an album launch for the biggest rapper on the planet.
While Kanye and a horde of family, friends, and media eventually descended into the frame to premiere ye, it was an oddly serene place for its reveal; a peaceful, postcard-worthy backdrop that lay in stark contrast to the furious noise that has surrounded the rapper in recent times. It's been a field day for critics of Kanye, who have their pitchforks firmly raised after a long list of controversies and headline-snatching Tweets, including his meeting with President Donald Trump and his eyebrow-raising "slavery was a choice" comments. Indeed, his latest row of questionable behaviour is enough to make his onstage interruption of Taylor Swift look like a charitable act.
But while the negative press surrounding that infamous VMAs stunt gave way to his grandiose masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, Kanye hasn't given us the same brilliance on ye. It's by no means a bad album; but while MBDTF was a swirling affirmation of his undeniable genius, ye will leave more people sitting undecidedly on the fence, especially in the midst of omnipresent public scrutiny. Still, ye is a raw and intensely personal listen that Kanye fans will find rewarding.
"I hate being bi-polar it's awesome" is hastily scrawled across the album artwork, which according to Kim Kardashian, was shot on the way to the Wyoming listening event. The album's focus on mental health and drug addiction is prominent from the opening track "I Thought About Killing You", which begins with spoken word. "The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest," Kanye says, before candidly discussing his suicidal temptations. Parts of Kanye's voice are pitched down to a slow lurch, and later, the beat switches to incorporate a shrill scream into the production. "Yikes" is the album's most direct rap banger, with a beat that looms ominously in the background, riding a sense of unpredictability that comes to fruition in the manic outro. "That's my bipolar shit... That's my superpower, n***a, ain't no disability," Kanye asserts. It's a rapid shift from the understated hum of the first track's spoken word segment, two soundscapes that personify the highs and lows of his mental state.
"All Mine" features Valee's falsetto hook that tip-toes hurriedly into the album's highlight reel, joined by the X-Rated rasp of R&B star Ty Dolla Sign and a catchy, minimalist bounce. Meanwhile, Kanye delivers pornographic, dad joke-worthy punchlines like, "Let me hit it raw, like f**k the outcome/None of us would be here without cum." It's either so bad that it's good, or so bad that it's just plain bad; depending on who you ask. We're leaning towards the latter. "Wouldn't Leave" is a more wholesome approach to romance, where Kanye praises Kim's commitment after the immense fallout from his "slavery" comments. The choir, keys and buttery vocals from Jeremih and PARTYNEXTDOOR all embrace each other to radiate a warm tenderness, but in the outro, Kanye explains that the song is "for every down female that stuck with they dude, through the best times, through the worst times." By connecting the dots and explaining the track's objective so overtly, the unnecessary outro erodes some of the magic, making it feel like something that would soundtrack a make-out scene in a corny romantic comedy.
For those yearning for the Kanye of old, the soulful "No Mistakes" is a joyful treat. With its heart-eyed hook from Charlie Wilson, chirpy keys and finely-sliced Slick Rick samples, the track feels like a sunny stroll down a familiar sidewalk, but we only get one verse from Kanye before it comes to a premature halt. The disappointment is lessened as we merge into album highlight "Ghost Town". Fuzzy guitars from Mike Dean hover throughout, and whole song reeks of messy intoxication in an alluring way; Kid Cudi's off-kilter hook and Kanye's half-rapped, half-sung verse are rustic and considered at the same time. 070Shake (who stole the spotlight on Pusha-T's "Santeria") closes the track in captivating fashion; "I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed/Yeah, and nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free," she sings with an cathartic sense of liberation, creating the album's show-stopping, stadium-worthy moment.
ye closes with "Violent Crimes", a rap lullaby where Kanye discusses his daughters growing up, stating that his mistreatment of women may come back to haunt him - "Father forgive me, I'm scared of the karma/'Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer." It's a sappy end that holds the most poignantly memorable lyrics from ye, highlighting Kanye at his most conflicted: A family man whose empire is built largely on womanising, even as recently as four songs ago, where he states his preference for "girls that's basic."
It's no secret that these glaring contradictions make Kanye the most fascinating star in entertainment. On ye, he manifests these into an album that begins by dwelling in the darkest corners of his mind, before taking flight into more hopeful territory that focuses on his family. There aren't any terrible tracks on ye, but it simply isn't as memorable or masterful as his previous efforts. While the seven-track, short-length format (promised for all five Wyoming-produced G.O.O.D. Music projects) benefited DAYTONA because of Pusha-T's intense focus on tightly-wound cocaine raps, many of the ideas on ye feel rushed, and the album suffers from a lingering sense of incompleteness. There are plenty of topical names and events that are referenced on ye, but many of these controversies are only name-dropped and never discussed, leaving us in a lukewarm state. Listening to ye, Kanye's recent revelation that he "completely redid" the project after last month's disastrous "slavery" comments, really comes as no surprise.
Still, the sounds on ye are emotive and every track has something to enjoy, even if its peaks are relatively short-lived and less distinct, with "Ghost Town" towering convincingly above its colleagues. The album is best viewed as a snapshot in time, offering a worthy front-on view into the restless mind of a rap legend. ye might not be the classic that we needed, and he needed more than ever; but Kanye is revealing enough to have us appreciate the insight and bop our heads along the way.
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