Has any major pop star, of any era, required the level of indulgence that Kanye West demands? He’s a brilliant producer, an ingenious curator, and arguably the most consequential pop star of the last decade, but liking Kanye has always meant making peace with the arrogant, petulant, sometimes infuriating character in the foreground. For a while, this compromise was almost part of his appeal, with every fresh Kanye outrage followed by a new burst of innovation that reminded you why you bothered with him in the first place. At best, his unvarnished loutishness just seemed like another facet of his messy humanity; at worst, he was a constant screw-up with a knack for extravagant make-up gifts. But after his alienating support of Donald Trump and stunningly asinine recent musings on slavery, plenty of his longtime fans have been rather publicly pondering if the great Kanye compromise is still worth it. Judging from a dozen listens through his eighth solo album, “Ye,” we’ve been right to wonder.
“Ye” is West’s shortest release, and the second in a scheduled quintet of seven-song albums on which he serves as producer (Pusha-T’s magnificently venomous “Daytona” arrived last week, with Nas, Teyana Taylor and a West-Kid Cudi collaboration still on the way). But in spite of its sitcom episode-length, it demands more patience than just about anything he’s offered before. Not the outright disaster that some might have feared, but far from the return to form that might have helped heal his battered reputation, “Ye” sees the onetime innovator stuck in a holding pattern, too far gone to notice just how much the landscape has shifted beneath him.
West’s peak years saw him alter the sonic topography of pop music with just about every release, and while it’s hard to imagine anything from “Ye” having similar impact, at least nothing here suggests his gifts for beatmaking have deteriorated. A far cry from the meticulousness of his mid-career work, much of the album appears to have been created with a first thought-best thought philosophy, sometimes to its credit. “Yikes” and “No Mistakes” see West operating in vintage mode: Unearthing semi-obscure samples, flipping them into effortlessly infectious loops, and then stepping away before he has time to overthink things. But there are times where “Ye” simply seems unfinished — not surprising, considering how many different albums he’s producing at the same time — with some inelegant transitions and a few vocal tracks that sound suspiciously like placeholders. If West decides to reprise his “Life of Pablo” policy of continuing to tweak the album even after its release, here’s hoping he gives a little more attention to “Ghost Town,” which offers an overabundance of promising musical ideas that could have used more time to marinate. Filled to the brim with overdriven electric guitars, gospel organs, and notably unpolished vocals from Kid Cudi and emerging New Jersey singer 070 Shake, it’s the type of composition that 2010-era Kanye would have cleaned up into a radio-conquering hit, though its rough edges and free-associative structure do have their own charms.
Unfortunately, the production is only one side of the coin, and West’s accompanying lyrics are among the weakest, and most unpleasant, that he’s ever committed to wax.
That unpleasantness, at least, seems intentional. While West has obliquely alluded to mental health issues for years, “Ye” puts those struggles front and center, right down to the album cover – apparently devised en route to the album’s Wyoming listening party – with its handwritten scrawl, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” (sic). The album’s emotional trajectory is fairly obvious, beginning with West at his lowest (“Sometimes I think bad things… Really, really, really bad things,” he deadpans on the album-opening “I Thought About Killing You,” his pitch shifting ever downward to a woozy, demonic register) and gradually moving through a litany of the rapper’s most base impulses toward the album-ending moments of clarity. Whether his claim that bipolarity is “my superpower” is meant to be taken on its face or as an example of the sort of thinking that comes with a manic episode, “Ye” pulls few punches, and offers perhaps the deepest immersion into the warring factions of West’s psyche that we’re likely to see.
But while there’s no doubting West’s willingness to give a tour of his own darkest corners here, it’s not always an enlightening trip. 2013’s “Yeezus,” which this album resembles thematically if rarely sonically, was a fascinating portrait of a troubled mind — it wore its contradictions on its sleeve, perpetually straddling the line between outrage-stoking and self-aware piss-taking, clearly the product of an astute intelligence even at its most loathsome. On “Ye,” only the provocations remain, with depth and wit in short supply.
As with every recent West release, there are plenty of groaner dad jokes and forced pop culture references (“If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, it’s gonna be an enormous scandal”), sudden moments of humility (“I got dirt on my name, I got white on my beard/ I had debt on my books, it’s been a shaky-ass year”), and volleys of calculated trolling (with references to #MeToo, Stormy Daniels, and the travails of his infamous in-laws) that are too half-assed to deserve the full-throated indignation they were likely intended to provoke. What’s new here, however, is the relative absence of that je ne sais quoi magic that once turned even West’s shakiest lines into stupid-clever quotables. “I don’t take advice from people less successful than me,” West blurts out midway through the album, but surely it wouldn’t have taken a Warren Buffett to see that Kanye needed to have another pass at the embarrassing sex track “All Mine,” with rhymes like: “Let’s have a threesome with you and the blunt/ I love your titties ‘cause they prove I can focus on two things at once.” The lyric is crass, sure, but that’s not the problem – “I’m in It” featured a similar mammary-related one-liner that was several magnitudes more outrageous – the problem is that it’s utterly witless, and so clumsily worded that West makes hash of his own flow just to fit it all into the bar.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that his evolution into a part-time MAGA hat model doesn’t affect the way this album is received, but West’s politics are only a symptom of a larger problem. What’s really the issue here is empathy, and the desperate degree to which West demands it of others while demonstrating a stark inability to return the favor. Two tracks on “Ye” see West turn his eye toward family: On “Wouldn’t Leave” he lauds wife Kim Kardashian’s faithfulness during his brand-threatening Twitter outbursts, and on closer “Violent Crimes” he takes stock of his own philandering past as the father of young daughters. Both tracks are ostensibly introspective, but it doesn’t take long to notice that Kanye remains entirely self-obsessed even here; his concern is never for how his behavior affects his loved ones, but how their responses to his behavior might affect him. It’s also difficult to hear West complain about his family-man anxieties apparently without recalling that the president he so blithely supports is ripping immigrant children from their parents as they flee from desperate poverty and violence — exactly the sort of inhumanity that the man who wrote “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” would have once tackled on record, and which he now seems uninterested in contemplating.
On “Wouldn’t Leave,” West offers the album’s only explicit reference to his recent controversies, rapping: “I said ‘slavery’s a choice,’ they said, ‘How, Ye’?/ Imagine if they would’ve caught me on a wild day.” While the line offers zero insight into his actual political views, it might provide a window into his thinking. Maybe what West actually thinks about slavery, or anything else, is beside the point — maybe what matters is that we pay attention to him, and he’s willing to cross even more lines if that’s what it takes. If this is all another chapter in his long saga of outrages he’s daring fans to indulge (an extreme extension of Kanye the Award Show Interrupter and Kanye the Giver of Long Onstage Rants) maybe it’s time to say “enough.” In the words of a great rapper: It’s not funny anymore, try different jokes.