A few months before Yeezus was released in June of 2013, Kanye West did a string of European tour dates that helped facilitate a minor shift in his public perception. In February of that year at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, he paused his set to share a half-rapped criticism of the way corporations strong-armed their logos onto artists’ stages, how he’d never won a Grammy against a white artist, and his disapproval of Justin Timberlake’s Jay-Z-featuring “Suit & Tie.” A couple nights later, he told a crowd in Paris that he was a new version of Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, and Walt Disney. West tweaked and elaborated on those declarations in just about every press appearance he made between then and the following year. Mentions of being a god, minute-long screams, and pleas for financial backing fostered an almost-consensus assessment amongst fans that he was making some sort of horrible left turn. The trading of his previously lush, grandiose music for the stripped-down, more chaotic production of Yeezus also gave credence to that hunch.
By the time Kanye started to tease that his follow up to Yeezus was coming in 2016, the casual conversations between fans on Twitter regularly centered around the prospect of the new album resolving questions that his outbursts and unpopular opinions left unanswered. There started to be a collective appetite for updates on the artist’s mental health and a desire for—like most of his music throughout his career—access to his innermost thoughts and emotions. The majority of The Life of Pablo didn’t quite grant that, though there were flashes of him opening up those parts of himself. On the brooding “FML” Kanye urged that “You ain’t never seen nothin’ crazier than / This nigga when he off his Lexapro.” He’d alluded to using the antidepressant before a year earlier on Vic Mensa’s “U Mad,” but never in his own music. Album cut “No More Parties In LA” also has mention of him seeing a psychiatrist. The album didn’t give a comprehensive breakdown of his mental well-being, but later in the year he was hospitalized for what we now know as some sort of breakdown, which he’s redefined as a “breakthrough.”
Over the past month, amid abhorrent endorsements of Donald Trump, far right ideologies, and ahistorical stances on slavery, Kanye West has answered more questions concerning his struggles with his mental health than ever before. And on his newly-released album, ye, West expands on those offerings in ways that are often uncomfortable to hear. Now that those presumably unfiltered experiences are out in the world, do we really need—or want—to prod for more?
Since April, Kanye has gone on Twitter tirades in which he’s praised the views of people like the right-leaning commentator Candace Owens, professed his love for Donald Trump, and in the process, gained support of Donald Trump Jr. and Roseanne Barr, who was just fired by ABC for being too racist. It wasn’t Kanye’s first time revealing himself to be a Trump supporter. He met with the guy in December of 2016 just after saying that he would have voted for Trump if he bothered to vote at all. His unsuccessful escape route from of all this has been labeling himself and others who dare to buck collective consciousness as “free thinking.” It’s been irresponsible at bare minimum, considering that his implications of “free thinking” line up with the blatant racism and xenophobia Trump weaponized to win the presidential election. The term has also been West’s go-to deflection of criticism. He failed even harder in a May appearance on TMZ meant to justify his behavior, saying that American slavery lasted so long because those in bondage chose to remain that way. In the midst of the shit storm, he also mentioned at TMZ and in an interview with Charlamagne Tha God that he’d been on medication to keep himself sharp after experiencing a breakdown and a loss of confidence for the first time in his life. His eighth studio album ye expands on it more than we’ve ever experienced as listeners and, in ways, feels more tragic considering what he’s shared over the past two months.
The artwork for ye is a photo of Wyoming mountains that West apparently took on his way to last night’s campfire release party. Neon green letters that read “I hate being bipolar it’s awesome” are stamped onto the image. It’s the first explicit mention of an actual bipolar diagnosis, though Kanye has made vague references to mental illness in the past. That introduction to the music adds an eerie filter to the listening experience, as it sets a central theme from the jump. The album’s kicker “I Thought About Killing You” details suicidal thoughts: “Today I seriously thought about killing you / I contemplated, premeditated murder/ And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so…,” he says. On “Yikes,” he says “sometimes I scare myself” and makes a tone deaf mention of Russell Simmons getting “#MeToo’d,” in a way that implies that he feels Simmons has been victimized. At other points of the album, Kanye flexes his self-appointed free thinking hinting that his judgement of slavery is mild compared to what might happen on a “wild day.”
There are great musical moments on ye, but more than ever before, those moments seem to come from West’s collaborators more than himself. The production is predictably provoking in its meshing of gospel melodies, soul, and hip-hop. Charlie Wilson’s contribution to “No Mistakes” is as enriching as the rest of their work together. “Ghost Town” is one of the album’s best and features G.O.O.D. newcomer 070 Shake and soothing Kid Cudi harmonies, adding excitement to the anticipation of their forthcoming joint album. “Violent Crimes” is a beautifully composed track with contributions from Shake and a last second appearance from Nicki Minaj. On “No Mistakes,” Kanye takes a few entertaining jabs at Drake, promising that there’s “no love lust, but the gloves off.”
The paradox of being a Kanye West fan is that the candor we once celebrated and encouraged is now being used to share ideas and thoughts that are harmful to marginalized groups and people, and in some cases, factually incorrect. It doesn’t help that he’s using right-wing politics to justify doing so in an attempt to make him exempt from reproach. On “Wouldn’t Leave” Kanye salutes “down females” for sticking by men who fuck up. On “Yikes” he makes light of his bipolarism and calls in a super power, after mentioning in interviews that he doesn’t see therapists. There’s also a weird tone to “Violent Crimes,” which is framed as a tribute to his daughter North but veers off into a markedly off take. The song’s rhetoric echoes the “as a father of a daughter” shtick that’s become a commonly lazy reason from men online as to why they suddenly care about issues related to sexual misconduct. Kanye could even look at allegations against Russell Simmons as a direct counter to that logic.
Kanye West’s ye in its infancy is shaping up to be his most challenging project to grapple with to date. And what’s most challenging about it may not be interpreting what he’s saying more than coming to terms with it. Kanye West is a brilliant artist who is a Donald Trump supporter who believes slavery was a choice and that men can act with zero responsibility throughout life and suddenly change when they have a daughter. These ideas are not hidden in metaphors. Kanye speaks them plainly on and off the album. And now that he has opened up about his bipolarism in the candid nature that fans seemed to want all along, what do we do with that information? Wait for him to update us again in case his politics change? Or are we satisfied now?
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