The many disoriented Kanye West fans searching for clarity in his music are unlikely to find answers in “Ye,” the slapdash new album he released at midnight on Friday. West, who has jarred audiences this year with a dizzying torrent of tweets and declarations of allegiance with right-wing provocateurs, has managed to incite even more disquiet on this seven-song record, which lasts just twenty-four minutes and bears a handwritten scrawl on its cover: “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.” He opens with a spoken-word tone poem about murdering a loved one, and a clichéd disclaimer: “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.” Later, he likens bipolar disorder to a “superpower”; he imagines the future objectification of his four-year-old daughter’s body; he raps about taking super-strength psychedelic drugs. And he alludes, with a flip aside, to the day last month when he told a reporter on “TMZ Live” that four hundred years of slavery “sounds like a choice”: “Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.” At the listening party he held in Wyoming on Thursday night, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian—who, just one day prior, had met with President Trump to discuss prison reform—stood by him listening to line after boorish line about his sexual escapades with her and with other women. (“I could have Naomi Campbell, and still might want me a Stormy Daniels,” he raps on “All Mine.”) If there is any insight to be drawn from this album, it is that West remains immune to the the taming forces of family, industry, or the public eye.
This insatiable thirst for provocation is, of course, nothing new for Kanye. At its best, it has been a source of profound power in his career. (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”) At its worst, it has been an ignorable side effect of ingenious art. (Recall the innumerable clunky and vulgar lines about women’s body parts.) In the past year, though, the tenor of West’s antics has forced a retroactive reckoning with the freewheeling tendencies we once championed. Is the beloved Westian stream-of-consciousness—which, in his recent Tweet storms, has yielded platitudes that are eerily similar to those spouted by too-powerful tech executives and cult leaders—just an unmedicated, out-of-touch outburst? In denying racial oppression and aligning himself with Donald Trump—a fellow-firebrand whose highest currencies are notoriety and unpredictability—West has tested the limits of his shock-jock tactics. The West of today speaks about political thought as though it were merely a trend in music or fashion that must be deemed fresh or stale. His view appears to be that liberal rhetoric is passé, while that of the alt-right is new and bracing, like his music has always aspired to be.
Compared to this destructive restlessness in the public sphere, “Ye” is a curiously safe-sounding album. It’s as though West has flipped through a swatch book of old beats and sewn them together, jumping between the rich soul samples of his early career and the bracing industrial lurches and screeches of “Yeezus,” his 2013 masterpiece. Sonically, “Ye” is about synthesis rather than evolution. If there is a stroke of innovation here, it is in the album’s brevity. In the past decade, West has swung between poles of concision and excess, beginning with 2007’s “808s and Heartbreaks,” which took a focussed, auteurist turn to a frosty, morose fusion of hip-hop and R. & B. His last album, 2016’s “The Life of Pablo,” was a maximalist feast, a genre-bending sound collage featuring twenty tracks, and dozens of features and samples. “Ye” is part of a series of seven-track albums being released by artists on his GOOD Music label this summer, including Pusha T’s new record “Daytona.” The format provides a much-needed counterpoint to a recent bloat in the industry, particularly in hip-hop, where streaming-friendly artists have overloaded their tracklists in the hopes of gaming the charts. Perhaps West’s seven-song statement will spark a shift in conceptions of what an album should be. And yet, in light of the blizzard of controversy surrounding West in recent months, I finish “Ye” each time aching for more: more exposition, more storytelling, more perspective. The album is a blurry Polaroid, when what is needed is a crystal-clear, panoramic window upon a torturous year.
It is still apparent, on “Ye,” that there is no one better at generating mood and pulling off tone shifts within a single song. West’s ear for beats is unparalleled; with a drop of a drumline and a sample of a vocal screech on the song’s opening, he jolts from meditative to belligerent in an instant. And as West ages, he only grows more skilled at corralling the scattershot musical trends of the moment and shaping them into something profound. The album’s best song, “Ghost Town,” is part soul, part pop-punk, and the finest example of hip-hop’s current fascination with rock music—a fuzzy guitar hook buttressed by a soul sample and recontextualized on a rap album. Its final section features Shake 070, a young rapper whose androgynous, pubescent voice is used to create a bridge between the joyous and the morbid: “I put my hand on the stove to see if I still bleed / And nothing hurts anymore,” the young woman sings, exuberant, almost Jackson 5-like. This song, like so many of West’s best, connects the dots between the various eras of his career, and wields young talent as a powerful instrument. And despite West’s recent attempts at disassociating from his own blackness, he has not surrendered his ability to draw vital through-lines across black American music, and to effortlessly modernize its history.
Amid the unrepentance and swagger, there is one rare and illuminating flash of a more conciliatory Kanye on “Ye.” On “Wouldn’t Leave,” a noodling first draft of an R. & B. song featuring two other vocalists, he attempts to atone for the chaos and shame he has caused recently in the life of his wife. But the lines, tossed off at the end of the song, feel more like an awkward, forced concession than a moment of genuine catharsis. “For every down female that stuck with they dude through the best times, through the worst times/ This is for you,” he says, as though Kris Jenner were holding a gun to his head in the recording booth. Even then, West can’t help himself. In the song’s refrain, he taunts his wife like he has taunted his listeners: I know you wouldn’t leave. Art is a shaky vehicle for absolution, particularly with West in the driver’s seat.