“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 work. He 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 slaves, that 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.