Kanye West – Ye

“Everything I did or thought was aimed at creating music that would make people happy and also keep them away from me, and because I was successful, my weirdness was accepted.” That’s a quote from Brian Wilson, the infamously troubled leader of the Beach Boys. For the handful of years that his band was on top, Wilson faced immense pressure from his label to keep cranking out hits. And from his bandmate Mike Love, who just wanted to keep making “Surfin’ U.S.A.” over and over again. And from his own desire to be revered, to be spoken of in the same breath as Gershwin, Spector, McCartney. This pressure, coupled with unresolved childhood trauma and drugs, triggered Wilson’s mental illness. He finally broke down in 1967, in the middle of the sessions for his greatest workHe never reached those artistic heights again.

I’m guessing Kanye West can relate. Ever since that night in 2009 when he crashed Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, the artist has had to compensate for his “weirdness.” Every uncomfortable interview and narcissistic tweetstorm would be chum for an American public with a voracious appetite for celebrity failures. But then he’d drop another masterpiece, and we’d lose the scent. We’d focus on his production choices instead of his personal ones. He could be spinning out of control, yet still control the narrative.

It’s amazing that it lasted this long. It would have made sense if West bottomed out after 2010’s astounding, leave-it-all-out-on-the-field My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But three years later came the stripped-down primal scream of Yeezus. And in 2016, the sprawling sinner’s gospel of The Life of Pablo. Which brings us to Ye, the artist’s eighth solo LP. And his first attempt at breaking the cycle.

Like all five of the albums West is releasing this summer, Ye is seven songs long, recorded in a remote studio in Wyoming. A loose, murky affair, it’s a clear aesthetic shift for the producer, a notorious perfectionist. (Merely weeks earlier, West was flexing his still-peerless ability to turn old soul tunes into luxurious summer hip-hop on Pusha-T’s Daytona.) For the first time, it feels like he walked into the studio and just shared what was on his mind, off the cuff, awkward vibes be damned. It’s as much of a performance as it is a purge.

“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” muses the artist during the extended spoken-word opening of “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s a mission statement on a record that explores what it’s like to be a bi-polar celebrity, the highs and lows, the likes and blocks, the emotional cycles and media cycles. That song title is more than just a provocation, with West sharing that because he’s thought about killing himself, it only stands to reason that he’s thought about killing you too. As he admits, “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he pitch bends his voice downward, a chilling moment of truth.

“Yikes” contains Ye’s most traditionally catchy hook, as he does some of the most convincing singing of his career over a chopped-up vocal sample from the underground ’70s psychedelic funk group Black Savage. But it’s a song about opioid addiction, and it’s appropriately haunting. “Sometimes I scare myself,” West croons on the chorus, which I absolutely can’t get out of my head.

The other major highlight is “Ghost Town,” a soaring, guest-heavy melodic sunburst reminiscent of The Life of Pablo’s gospel opener “Ultralight Beam.” Kid Cudi sings about unrequited love; Kanye sings about “taking all the shine,” and newcomer 070 Shake brings down the house with her extended outro, sung with pure, deliberate joy – “I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be.”

Notice I’m not talking much about rapping here. West has always been unafraid to bust out a cheesy play on words, but on Ye, he’s lost a lot of the conviction that could make those moments charming. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington / That’s gonna be an enormous scandal,” is typical of this newfound laziness. Then there’s “Don’t get your tooth chipped like Frito-Lay.” On the closing “Violent Crimes,” West finds his fervor for bars again – but its queasy father-daughter narrative does him no favors. “Curves under your dress / I know it’s pervs all on the net / All in the comments, you wanna vomit,” he raps. He may be opening his eyes to our culture of toxic masculinity. But he’s a long way from woke.

Hey, maybe he’s just more comfortable singing these days. Because that, along with his sparse, rain-spattered production choices, make Ye a rewarding listen. It’s a small album, not just in length, but in the space it inhabits – the internal world of one very famous and conflicted man. It is the absolute definition of what a self-titled album should be.

What it’s not is an event. In the headwinds of West’s latest stint in the news – the Trump support, the “dragon energy,” the victim blaming of slavesthat song where he raps “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” – it folds like a tent.

Perhaps he wants it that way. Perhaps he made a quiet album about mental illness and addiction because he’s tired of summoning the flood every few years. Perhaps he’s done making music to keep people happy, and away from him. Kanye West has made his Pet Sounds, and his Smile, several times over. He’s earned the right to just surf.

What’s In My Discman, June 2012

In two days, I’ll be catching The Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary Tour stop at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. DLPAC is normally a stressful, unsatisfying place to see a show – if you want to get thousands of people to start throwing punches, give them a whole mess of rollercoaster rides and $11 beers. But fuck if I don’t give a damn this time. Seeing Brian Wilson on stage with the remaining original Beach Boys, cherry-picking tunes from one of the most beautiful and haunting back catalogs in pop music history, is sure to make every other possible annoyance fade away, like a sandcastle in the tide. Naturally, I’ve been listening to Beach Boys albums like crazy this month, something I do when the warm weather hits every year anyways. Here are the three records that’ve been getting the most spins. (And thank you to my stunning, loving wife, who gave me these tickets for my birthday, and will be by my side Friday night, even though she couldn’t care less about the old farts on stage.)

The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012)

It was easy to be skeptical about this project, a seemingly rushed-together LP released to coincide with the tour I’ll be experiencing on Friday. But while aspects of That’s Why God Made The Radio do feel a bit half-baked, and a few tracks get cornily self-referential, it is most definitely more than a lowest common denominator cash-grab. It’s also the perfect example of the clashing artistic visions of Brian Wilson and Mike Love. If you were in any way confused why the two haven’t worked together in a while, listen to the gorgeously morbid three-song suite the closes the album, where Wilson sings “Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.” Then listen to “Spring Vacation,” a dopey good-time pop song in which Love sings “Driving around, living the dream/I’m cruising the town, I’m living the scene.” Brian’s still the fragile genius, all about introspection and the interplay of darkness and light; Mike’s still the aging rock star, all about Hawaiian shirts, cool cars and (I imagine) creepy leers. I don’t mean to put a line in the sand here – Wilson’s Jersey Shore-referencing “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is an embarrassing attempt at relevance, and Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is rather sweet in its simplistic pleas. But the biggest wins are Wilson’s – the incredibly pretty, “Our Prayer”-ish opener, the title track with its wonderful, cascading chorus, and that jaw-dropping trilogy at the end (was any Beach Boys fan expecting such a perfect coda?). So if TWGMTR is wildly inconsistent, it’s still an accurate representation of where the Beach Boys are in 2012 – a band that might not be on the same page, but one that still sings like angels through it all.

The Beach Boys – 15 Big Ones/Love You (1976-1977)

Some of the biggest artists of the ’60s have dealt with their various mid-life crises by making albums filled with the songs of their youth – and like David Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll before it, 15 Big Ones is a fun listen, if not a particularly life-altering one. As the first LP since Pet Sounds to feature the credit “produced by Brian Wilson” on the gatefold, the album must have been a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it’s actually aged pretty well, with originals like the cheerful, organ-peppered “It’s OK,” the breezy “Had to Phone Ya” and the bluesy “Back Home” fitting the old-time rock ‘n’ roll vibe while still giving Wilson room to scratch that harmonic itch. There are some throwaways here (e.g. a grating, dated-sounding “Chapel of Love,” a sluggish “Blueberry Hill”), but the lushly produced, reverent take on The Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life” ranks up there with the Boys’ best ’70s work. And who’s going to complain about these vocalists tackling “In the Still of the Night”?

Love You, the second of this two-album set (thank you Capitol Records) was the last Brian Wilson-produced Beach Boys album before this year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. And while it’s a ramshackle shadow of his glorious ’60s work, it’s an oddly compelling little masterpiece all the same, and my favorite of all the ’70s Beach Boys albums I’ve heard (Carl & the Passions and Holland have still managed to evade my ears). Wilson’s songwriting is straight-up goofy in places, and at times painfully childlike, but it adds to Love You’s ragged blend of synthesizers and doo-wop harmonies – “Johnny Carson” is the weirdest Beach Boys song ever, a straight-faced ode to the celebrity whose verses have a strangely ominous melody. And “Solar System” is a 2nd grade astronomy lesson sung by a blissed-out organist – but because it features Brian’s voice at its hoarsest, it’s also a bit of pop innocence that’s streaked with something sadder. Then there’s the heartbreakers – “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a crushing duet between Wilson and his indifferent-sounding wife Marilyn, and “Love Is A Woman,” where Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine compel us to treat women nicely over a Fats Domino-ish arrangement. When Wilson sings, “Tell her she smells good tonight,” it’s so awkward, and so perfectly earnest, I can’t help but get chills.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

I’m not really sure what the critics think about this one, but I’ll be bold enough to come right out and say it – Pet Sounds is good. Honestly, it would be a waste of all of our precious time to blather on about the swirling, magnificently dense arrangements, the bittersweet love songs to beat all bittersweet love songs, the force of nature that is the band’s vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys have always been obsessed with the trappings of summer, but I think Brian Wilson was more obsessed with the brutally temporary nature of that season – before you know it, school’s back in session, the leaves are falling, and you’re starting to wonder if you were made for these times. Pet Sounds was summer for the Beach Boys, a time when their talents were in full blossom, their ingenious leader was as confident and prolific as he ever would be, and their songs were on the charts. Then they blinked an eye, and it was September.