On the first day of what history may come to recognize as the last great and sensical year of earth (1 January, 2015), Kanye West quietly released a sparse, agonizingly delicate collaboration with Paul McCartney called "Only One". The track was West's first official single in almost two years (and McCartney's first Top 40 hit in the United States in 25) and it served an expectation baiting purpose: 'Yeezy Season' – the term used by West's fans to define the period in which he releases vast catalogues of new music – was approaching.
The release of "FourFiveSeconds" (a collaboration with Rihanna that also featured the subtle ornamentation of McCartney) and "All Day" two months later seemed to confirm this theory. To even the most untrained eyes, it was undeniable that the release of this musical triptych formed part of a roll-out for West's forthcoming seventh album. He'd even tweeted a name for the record: So Help Me God. And perhaps in an act of bold self-affirmation of its brilliance, he tattooed its artwork on his right arm too. Then… nothing. Amidst the odd leaked snippet and rumor, the album vanished (The Life of Pablo would become his seventh album, released one year later). Or at least it almost did. Because the roll-out for So Help Me God left behind one parting gift: the unreleased track "I Feel Like That", which is arguably the most important song in Kanye West's back catalogue.
Picture, in your head, the depth and lavishness of Kanye West's vault of unreleased music. Envision, a golden, emerald encrusted mausoleum where collaboration albums with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell Williams are laid to rest next to the 40 songs West has recorded with Young Thug and the 40 songs he has recorded with Kendrick Lamar. A version of "Chain Heavy" featuring M.I.A is buried there, as is a hard-drive containing the film West directed and screened to a select few in a patented seven screen cinema in Cannes. But placed right above all of these treasures is the USB stick containing the final, mastered version of "I Feel Like That". This is his greatest unreleased triumph.
Thankfully (for both reasoning of law and the respect of privacy) there is no need to infiltrate the catacombs of West's prolific and unreleased output to hear "I Feel Like That". In fact, some of you may have heard it already. Despite never being released to streaming services, the track was tacked to the end of a music video West and Steve McQueen created for "All Day"; an artful, nine-minute video that initially screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before a bootlegged version made its way onto the internet.
The video (which you can watch above) begins with West collapsed on the floor of what looks like a once dilapidated and now refreshed warehouse, panting for breath. The heavy, exhuming pattern of his breathing could be mistaken for an athlete, perhaps in the moment when a race has been completed and physical restoration is necessary. Then he starts to talk and it's clear what he's experiencing is less of a recovery from physical activity, and more a demonstration of what it feels like attempting to breathe through mental exhaustion.
In the first verse alone, West recounts a pristine list of symptoms for a range of panic, anxiety and mental disorders: "Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness?"; "The idea that someone else can control your thoughts?"; "Trouble remembering things, feeling easily annoyed and irritated?"; "Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public?"; "Poor appetite, heart or chest pains?"; "Thoughts of ending your life?".
As the track continues, making its way through a second and third verse, West asks more questions: "Do you feel lonely, even when you're with people?"; "Do you have trouble falling asleep?"; "Do you feel like people dislike you?". It's not clear at first whether these are questions West is directing toward the listener, or himself. But then the chorus begins and a great, confident moment of self-affirmation strolls into view: "I feel like that…", he repeats. "I feel like that… all the time".
Sometimes, perhaps even all the time, Kanye West is no different from you and I, feeling alienated in a room full of people, unable to breath, with cold and clammy hands. Certainly, as someone who wears anxiety, intense self-doubt, apathy, and the polar sides to those feelings like an inexpensive and transparent brand of underwear, this is a song that makes me feel less alone, understood even when my ears are closed to the outside world. But inasmuch as the track is emotionally relevant to fans who understand the malaise West is referencing, its importance is in its ability to trickle a stream of understanding forward and into the wider fields of culture.
"I Feel Like That" never made its way onto So Help Me God, because So Help Me God was scrapped and The Life of Pablo was released in its place. On the track "F.M.L." from that record, and on another recent collaboration with Vic Mensa called "U Mad", West specifically mentions the anti-depressant drug Lexapro. The triumvirate of albums that pushed West beyond the archetypal mould of pop artist (808s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus) also see him navigate the emotional maze surrounding depression, anxiety, paranoia – and the frustrations mounted to these feelings – with an impressive sense of fluidity. But in no other song has he been as explicit about mental health than in "I Feel Like That".
"I Feel Like That" is seasoned with a sense of candidness that can be found in other more recent rap releases, like Kendrick Lamar's "i", Isaiah Rashad's Cilvia Demo, Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, or Kid Cudi's Man On The Moon, yet it takes the objective of being open to a new, unbiased and frank level. The message in "I Feel Like That" is unashamed and direct: do you feel mentally exhausted? Well, guess what? So do I. I feel like that all the time.
In the wake of insensitive conjectures about West's own mental health, "I Feel Like That" is an act of blowing opinion open and wearing it candidly. More so, it turns the myriad of symptoms surrounding mental health into a bold, unabashed artistic monument. That one of this generation's most visible artists, let alone a rapper, recorded this track is symbolic of the pathways that have started to open up in the global conversation regarding mental health – which, after all, makes it a shame that "I Feel Like That" did not see an official release.
Of course, there are numerous songs in Kanye West's discography that are just as important as this track, if not more, and for a multitude of different reasons. But there is something about the way "I Feel Like That" provokes thought that feels paramount to music's potential to inform or affect one's world view. It presents the idea that these feelings – of alienation; of self-doubt; of panic; of loneliness; of being unable to breath or eat or sleep or even think – aren't just normal, but are emotions that can be approached plain and direct rather than being skirted around. "I Feel Like That" achieves a look into the mind of another or a necessary insight into the listener's own. It stands firmly at the pinnacle of why music can be so powerful.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.