Wednesday, June 6, 2018

album review: 'ye' by kanye west

I remember when it felt like a new Kanye West album was an event. I mean, hate him or love him and there's ample room for both sides of that conversation, he was a good enough producer at least to monopolize the conversation, and he took enough chances to at least generate some interesting music that felt fiercely relevant to the cultural conversation.

It doesn't feel like that with ye - and Kanye tried to make it feel like that, with the overloaded spectacle of piling up album releases one after the other with deadlines that seem impossible and production that can't help but feel incredibly rushed. And as much as I dig DAYTONA by Pusha-T, I knew that was a fluke, because Pusha-T is a great rapper who only really needed the fat trimmed away. With Kanye putting out a seven song record, the list of things that could go wrong seems to stretch on for miles - badly chosen features, incompetent rapping, sloppy vocal arrangements, inconsistent production, and that's before we get into some of the provocative commentary that have revealed a talented artist holds some painfully undercooked, ill-informed, or just flat out stupid opinions that too many people have validated for too long. It led to many people saying Kanye was cancelled, but I knew that was never going to last, so I just refused on principle to give his material more attention when I had more interesting projects up first on the docket. But this is what the people wanted, so what did we get out of ye?

Well, I'll say this: if you're enamored with the cult of Kanye West, you were going to praise this regardless of what I or anyone else says - and I think to some extent that is part of the problem, because Kanye and those seeking to enable him know that too, a feedback loop of people convinced of Kanye's genius and infatuated with his provocative personality that they can't see the ouroboros for the trees. And that's really what it feels like if you're looking in from the outside, because instead of the transcendent and personal experience Kanye promises, I hear what could be a personal and compelling story stripped of the insight and reflection that is promised for something far smaller and shallower, what many of us who haven't bought into the cult have suspected was true of Kanye all along.

And before we get into the review proper, I want to establish a few things, specifically surrounding Kanye's claims that he has bipolar disorder. It's brought up on 'Yikes', it's been evident in the massive contradictions strewn across his career, so I will completely buy into it being a factor of how his thoughts are presented. Keep in mind that Kanye is far from the first artist to explore mental disorders in hip-hop - from The Geto Boys to Eminem, from Cage to DMX, from Joe Budden to Sage Francis and B. Dolan, let's not rewrite history to say that Kanye is treading new ground here in its content - and as such, I'm going to be treating Kanye as a rational actor in creating this art. He's a forty year old man with a pretty extensive discography of material, and while the disorder might colour his intentions and impulses, he still has to act upon them - hell, Kanye himself describes his bipolar as a superpower, so regardless of the mental hell it can be for some with a lot less privilege and enablers, if it has empowered Kanye in his art, I think it's important to put it in context. But that means as a rational actor in his work, he doesn't get a free pass when you start digging into contradictions or bad choices made in his art - again, you can understand the intentions without excusing the results.

So yes, we are starting with the content here - and considering how barebones so much of the production feels, it makes sense to place Kanye's words at the very center, especially as he's deliberately trying to provoke a reaction, continuously prod at the limits of what people around him will excuse and tolerate, especially his family. The opening song 'I Thought About Killing You' might start with the inherent contradiction of how he could kill someone he loves, but considering he loves himself way more than he loves this person - likely his wife - and he thinks about killing himself all the time, it's not that far afield. Of course, this sort of thought pattern utterly ignores the fact that inflicting harm on one's self is very different than hurting other people and conflating them in the context of mental disorders is extraordinarily reckless to say the least, but outside of referencing how closely intertwined love and hate might be, Kanye is more interested in provoking the audience's reaction, prodding them a little closer to considering the same thoughts he has. Again, this is not new - holding up the dark mirror to the audience was something Eminem did in vivid fashion both on The Marshall Mathers LP and Relapse, in the latter case just ripping away the possible glamour of those impulses to show the ugly human truth of feeding into them - and to some extent it seems like Kanye is aware of possible consequences... but here's where the narrative shifts. Because unlike Eminem's hall of mirrors or DMX's self-aware certainty of his bleak end, or how B. Dolan's The Failure is far more grounded surrounding the real world consequences of mental torment, especially on the artistic process, Kanye does not face serious repercussions - and there's a part of him that knows it. It's why on a song about murder-suicide he mentions calling up 'the Muslims', or how a song later he expresses the most concern about possibly getting 'me too'd' like Russell Simmons or targeted by those who would seek to silence him, or how on 'All Mine' he seems to relish the scandal sparked by fucking a long line of celebrities... and yet a song later it's made clear that Kim Kardashian was never going to leave him despite all of his TMZ statements and 'OD trolling', where Kanye is intentionally looking for that reaction.

And here's the problem: there is a measure of truth to what Kanye is showing here, because people who suffer from depression or bipolar can bait or push against their loved ones in order to drive them away because of self-loathing or feelings of not being worthy or even just to spur a reaction. It's not an excuse for Kanye's behavior, but an explanation - but thanks to Kim's refusal to leave, perhaps out of genuine love, perhaps out of the truth that Kanye is her greatest window to black culture, it becomes an excuse. It becomes the free pass for Kanye to do and say whatever he wants and face no serious consequences - why else is 'Ghost Town' so focused on returning to that childlike experience with no responsibility, to put a hand on the stove and not bleed? It's also why Kanye hits his most sobering moment on the closing track 'Violent Crimes', because in taking a page out of Nas and Jay-Z's books he reflects on his daughters growing up and encountering guys just like him - a fact he conveniently forgets when it's time to fantasize about nailing all those women who are not his wife on 'All Mine' and 'Yikes', but that's more reflective on how Kanye only values women when they directly touch his life, and sometimes barely even then. But the much larger loaded asterisk that's attached to all of this record is that Kanye can only get away with any of this because his wife has proven repeatedly willing to bail him out because of her vast wealth and the feedback loop he has with his fanbase, the sort of self-aware, bigger-picture observation that Kanye now seems incapable of making - after all, he doesn't take advice from people less successful than himself. So putting aside the dangerous enablement - not helped by Kanye using 'Wouldn't Leave' to lionize this point-of-view for women in his outro because it's not like he is going to change any time soon - and how in the larger context of art more fans will blindly accept it compared to the wild tweets, because look how quickly he got uncancelled, there are a lot of ugly conflations with regards to mental health Kanye makes in his subtext that don't apply in anything close to reality, and what's disturbing is that it's clear he's thought none of it through. 

But really, that's about the message and themes, the intentions - we now need to talk about execution, and where I actually have praise for earlier Kanye records. Say what you want about Yeezus, when Kanye was playing into negative stereotypes he did so with the backdrop of imposing and wild production. Say what you will about The Life Of Pablo, for as much as it leaned into similar provocative instincts, there was a feeling of instability that this could well be the breaking point in the slapdash mixing and wild shifts in sound. But with ye, the implication of zero consequences utterly kills any sense of tension to songs like 'Yikes' or 'I Thought Of Killing You' - and when you consider the back half of the latter track is punctuated with those pulsating drums and screams, the fact I felt no greater weight or impact is a serious issue! Part of this is tied back to how Kanye doesn't have the focus to stop the occasional awful line from coming through - 'Don't get your tooth chipped like Frito-Lay', 'I love your titties 'cause they prove I can focus on two things at once', 'None of us would be here without cum', or the aforementiond stove line, but the larger factor is that the production just doesn't serve Kanye all that well. Credit where it's due, I won't deny that Kanye delivers some of his most consistent flows in some time across this project in terms of lyrical construction, but in comparison to Pusha-T's more streamined, single-minded focus, the much more scattered feel means that elements wind up clashing in awkward ways, from the choppy autotuned sample from Francis & The Lights behind the opening song punctuated with rattling whooshes that I could swear are from Super Smash Brothers and come back in 'Yikes' against the warping curdled rumbles. Then there's the sharp, barren bass of 'All Mine' that had some jagged bombast with the samples on the second verse, but we're stuck with Jeremih's husky hook, but at least he doesn't sound like he's singing through a bad head cold like 070 Shake does on 'Ghost Town' - sorry folks, that outro did not win me over as much as everyone else, I actually enjoyed the soul sample juxtaposed against the surging guitars way more before the overblown percussion and spacey effects cut in. And even then I'd probably prefer that compared to the Young Thug impression PARTYNEXTDOOR keeps trying - hell, when you have Charlie Wilson teaming up with Kid Cudi on 'No Mistakes' for a pretty great hook, you wonder why on earth Kanye keeps putting him on! But even on that song and with 'Violent Crimes' it feels like Kanye is not letting any grooves materialize or letting good melodic elements build momentum. 

And look, I get how that's 'part of the appeal' of Kanye these days - a whirl of clashing, lumpy elements hurled into a vaguely melodic void or against a sample for Kanye to bray over top of it, but the most pronounced feeling I get with this project is that it feels rushed and undercooked, lacking the greater forethought to consider the ideas and implications Kanye espouses, a lot of manic flash and bombast but a foundation that feels increasingly insubstantial. At least on previous Kanye records I could find songs where the clashing elements built to a strong hook or cool lyrical idea, but ye is all the evidence in the world that he doesn't have to deliver that and he'll still be successful. And frankly, I don't feel like enabling that anymore - extremely light 5/10, recommended only to the fans and only tentatively there, let's move on.

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