Kanye West has released the most important album of his career. For someone who has attracted enough bad press to bury a lesser artist, ye is his chance to offer clarity. Do people care? Some do. But that doesn't change the fact that this is the least amount of attention surrounding a Kanye album in his 15-year career. There’s no defense strong enough to forgive the outlandish statements he has made, but music allows an understanding. If he’s able to walk away from this release with the people’s forgiveness, that would be impressive. Being forgiven for what is considered unforgivable is a feat most artists will never achieve, but Kanye West isn’t ordinary.
The level of scrutiny West has rightfully been under makes the severity of 2009's SwiftGate appear minor in this new, scathing light. But West was able to follow-up the VMA backlash with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably his best album in a catalog full of great albums. As we approach his latest body of work, I wonder if a new album is what’s desired, or the necessary apology to receive forgiveness. Is it possible for Kanye West to be great in 2018? Has he reached the stature of Caine in the final monologue of Menace II Society: “I'd done too much to turn back, and I'd done too much to go on. I guess in the end, it all catches up with you.”
As a creative who is above the ordinary prestige of most artists, Kanye is an interesting case of celebrity, idols, and belief. It’s impossible to view him as anything but an anomaly, but he’s not above being critiqued and criticized for his many shortcomings. The question is, what will people do once the music has been served: forgive and forget, receive and discuss, or overlook and dismiss. I could be wrong in making this assumption, but after everything that has happened over the past month, Kanye can still achieve a second life—or drop a pivotal chance at a revival in the hearts of all the people who have given up on him.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules here are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Don't ruin my very peaceful birthday, Mr. West. It's all I ask.
1. "I Thought About Killing You"
Kanye is singing. The album has started. Auto-Tune, his weapon of choice. The singing stopped and it sounds more like spoken word. He’s playing with vocal effects. Whoa. What did he just say? Kanye just said he thinks about killing himself. Wow. I’m interested. Also deeply bothered. Who is he talking about? Kim? It has to be Kim. I really want to know what she thinks about this song. It’s the heaviest intro Kanye has ever recorded in terms of honesty. I love the play on Auto-Tune melodies between the spoken word. “Sometimes I think of really bad things.” I love the vocal switches. Man this is heavy. “I know, I know” is being said in the background. Like a robotic sample. He’s rapping now. There’s quietness to the song. Very stripped, but not stripped of colors. There’s a clarity about this Kanye that I feel has been missing in his recent releases. So personal. New drums and they're hitting. It’s almost like the production is performing the tricks instead of the punchlines. Little Rascals reference. Not the craziest verse, but not bad. Damn. I don’t even know if the song just changed. The entire vibe just shifted. From personal to braggadocious. Wait, was that a bar about Rhymefest? He said we go back to when Ye had braids. That’s not about someone recently. The minimalism with a knock. The Fritos line was not necessarily.
The beat just changed. I'm not sure if the song is changing or not. I like this, though. I don’t know where the hooks and bridges are supposed to be placed. The buildup sounds very nostalgic of 808s/Dark Twisted era. “Sometime I scare myself.” This is very… awkward. So transparent. The “ha” flow, word to Juvie. Kanye on DMT is so scary. That’s not light in terms of drug usage. Ye just said he’s been trolling. Said he turned TMZ to Smack DVD. There’s so many pull-out quotes even if they aren’t crazy bars. Damn! He just gave Russell Simmons a #METOO bar. I haven’t heard a single rapper touch on Simmons since that news broke. Not directly, anyway. Social media is about to be a forest fire. This sounds like some futuristic trap music. “You know how many girls I took to the titty shop.” Uh… Okay. The nod to Wiz. I don’t know, man. I like the energy behind these bars. He sounds way more alive than on some of his more recent appearances. I’m already liking it more than Pablo. There’s a lot of passion in his voice. But what he’s saying is making me worried. This song is about his mental health. Taking a shot of Hennessy. Aggressive second verse. “N*ggas tryin to test my Ghandi.” He just hit the "I Am a God" yell after saying he’s a superhero. After claiming to be bipolar. Man, I wonder what’s happening in the DJBooth Slack. What’s happening on Twitter? How are we supposed to confront someone who calls their bipolar disorder a superpower?
3. "All Mine" ft. Valee & Ty Dolla $ign
Jeremih? Someone is singing. I like the melody. That’s Ty Dolla $ign! He sounds great. This is sounding like a hit. I can hear the promise. The Kerry Washington line! I wonder if that’s about Snoop saying Kanye needs to be around more black women. Ye is rapping. I like the flow. Some of these lines are solid but others are really immature. It’s a weird record about women from a married man. Do Kanye and Kim have an open relationship? I hope he wasn’t serious about the raw sex line. I didn’t need that “cum” bar, either. The drums are cool. This is stadium music made by a minimalist. I can see people going crazy to this live; Ye’s energy and the tricks will get reactions. I’m conflicted. Not a skip, but not sure if I will enjoy this one in the coming months. Three songs in and I have no real clue as to the album’s direction.
4. "Wouldn't Leave" ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign
This has really been a strange experience. This sounds like a gospel song. Who is this singing? A great voice. Kanye is rapping. He just mentioned the slavery comment. Kim called him after screaming. Who is this on the hook? Sounds like Jeremih again. Wow! This is good. Musically. No, that’s definitely Jeremih. Eh, I need a track listing with the features included. The previous singer is someone else. Doesn’t matter, this is soft, gospel rap music. This is the music I could see Chance The Rapper making after his first midlife crisis. Sounds like an early favorite. Ye’s second verse is very nostalgic. I hate how good this is. “I live for now, I don’t know what happens after this.” Choir just came in and lifted my spirit to the ceiling fan. I’m literally spinning right now. The singing is warmer than the Henny sitting in my stomach. Kanye loves Kim. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be left with here. This is way more pure than “Bound 2.” He’s talking. This is an open book album without opening the pages too far. I really have a soft spot in my heart for Kanye when he sounds this pure. He’s talking about down women and tributes the song to them. Piano melody to take us away.
5. "No Mistakes" ft. Kid Cudi & Charlie Wilson
Low buildup. Who is that singing? Charlie Wilson? Sorta like Charlie. This is soulful. Very soft. Did he say he has white in his beard? Is that white supposed to be what Pusha T was selling? Sheesh. Oh shit. MAN! I hate how good this is. There’s some nice raps upon the sweetest production. Pure musical sugar. But the rapping… I’m still not sold. I really don’t know how this guy is able to build albums with so much madness. “The true soul of Ice Cube.” Who is he talking about? I’m assuming this is another song about Kim. I guess it’s almost like an apology album in a way. At least the last few records. Yeah. That’s Charlie. I know when my uncle comes calling. Short record. It feels like it could’ve been more fleshed out to be effective.
6. "Ghost Town" ft. John Legend, 070 Shake & Kid Cudi
A sample just came in. Pusha wasn’t lying about Ye getting back to chopping. If this album production didn’t end I wouldn’t be upset. THIS SOUNDS LIKE SOME DARK TWISTED FANTASY MUSIC. OMG. The electric guitar. He’s doing this mumble-singing. My heart is open. The tears are falling. Cudi is singing. Ye just came in. Any doubts I had about their joint album being a hot pile of mess is out the window. ”Talk like I drank all the wine.” Who knew Kanye and Cudi would bring soul singing back? Who is that? A woman’s voice. Who is this? She’s killing the record. I’m seeing angels in the outfield. “We still the kids we used to be.” I like that line a lot. GOT DAMMIT KANYE CAN MAKE MUSIC. Put together records. Does this save him? I really don’t know. This is like trying to put a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. Pusha T made an entire kid appear; that was a magic trick. But producing beautiful music doesn’t escape the hellfire he’s raised. This is two rainbows across a cloudless blue sky kind of beauty. Are there rainbows in the Sunken Place?
7. "Violent Crimes" ft. Ty Dolla $ign, DeJ Loaf & Nicki Minaj
“Falling, dreaming, talking,” someone singing. I don’t know who this is. I’m exhausted by confusion. I spent the past 48 hours thinking Kanye would let me down and this guy appears with an album that’s not a complete letdown but also not mindblowing. Who is this singing? She has a great voice. I need a track listing with features listed! The piano chords are so soft. There’s definitely a gospel influence that was missing on Pablo. He’s talking about women. Is he talking about North? Interesting. I don’t know how I feel about the message. It’s starting to get awkward. Having a daughter has made Ye an open-minded man, but I don’t think I can get behind the song’s message. I love the melodies. The hooks. But man, the verses are difficult. Is that Nicki? Someone just phoned in. Very strange. It had this super cinematic outro, and then suddenly ended with a Nicki voice note.
ye (first listen) final thoughts:
Well, that was something.
It’s an album, the seven songs Kanye promised, but they weren’t tied to expectations. Because of his journey through the hells of the press, I expected the album to focus more on the comments Kanye has made over the last few months, but that’s not the case. There’s not a single line about Donald Trump and only one line referencing the slavery comments. Unless my ears have misled me, Kanye’s marriage and mental health is the focus of ye, the title Chris Rock announced right before premiering the full-length project on Thursday evening.
Kanye presented a body of work that feels personal, but without giving a complete glimpse into the diary of his life. There’s very little clarity provided, which could prove to be a deal-breaker if listeners expected an album to justify the remarks that made Kanye’s return to social media chaotic. With such a short body of work, the seven-song album theme hurts our hunger for answers. Not a hunger for more music, but the need for clarity.
The music on ye has a beauty that's initially refreshing. Instead of bringing order with lyrics, Kanye focused on straying with the disorder of a soulfully minimalistic sonic palette. The album is easy on the ears in ways that feel familiar, like a fusion of the barebone sound of Yeezus paired with the musical thoughtfulness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The highlight of ye is the production and the guests. Each and every artist who appears sounds pristine. Unfortunately, this is an album that focuses on Kanye, and it falls flat in terms of making any sense of what the prolific artist is trying to express.
There’s a sense of incompleteness here that makes me wonder if the current schedule of five G.O.O.D. Music album releases meant that Kanye could give his undivided attention to his own work. Or is he just incapable of articulating what he wants to say on wax? Kanye sounds passionate about rapping, but for that passion to be manifested into anything fully constructed, he needed to employ more direction.
The more I attempt to process this album, the more confused I am by what Kanye wished for us to take away from these records. Is it about his mental health? Is this meant to excuse his behavior? That would be too easy, but ye doesn’t challenge our perception to see beyond what's magnified, and that’s very little.
Instead of providing context, ye only creates further confusion. Instead of attempting to connect during a moment of public disapproval, he avoided addressing his harsher critiques. I will not take away the album's enjoyable moments, because there are plenty. ye is pleasant as it is puzzling. Creating art intended to be easy on the ears doesn’t escape what surrounds the artist. ye isn’t a masterpiece from a genius, but it’s not the disorderly finger painting of a child. It’s somewhere in the middle—a beautiful mess.
Which might be a metaphor for who Kanye West is in 2018, a man who is pure as he is pernicious, confusing as he is brilliant, chaotic as he is conscious. He may be sincere in what he’s confronting, but it’s a little too late in more ways than one. The question is, has the world run out of patience for such a man, and will this be the final straw of a long relationship of strained tolerance? Let time be the teller.