(Full disclosure: I know a few of the engineers and producers on “Ye”. Some of them on a first name, “we still text sometimes” basis. Those relationships will not taint this review. My friends know where I stand.)
Chicago’s most problematic rapper/producer/delusional-shoe-mogul/slavery-apologist, Kanye West, has returned to music with his eighth studio album. In the pantheon of Kanye West albums, it’s the eighth-best album he has released, along with being the shortest, and the most devoid of anything groundbreaking. Setting aside all of the problematic nonsense that Kanye West has done in the weeks, months, and years before “Ye” was ever released — this is an objectively mediocre album.
I have a policy on any music I review, that I’m going to attempt to divorce exterior noise from the music coming through my headphones. Setting aside all the nonsense Kanye has spewed on Twitter and TMZ interviews, what does “Ye” bring to the table, musically speaking?
The answer: Uhhhh, not much. It’s an unpolished, unfocused, and disjointed product. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have its high points, but those high points are contrasted by a rapper who has clearly lost whatever made him great earlier in his career.
Here’s how I test a rap album: I get in my car, turn on my 19 speaker stereo system, and crank that motherfucker. If it slaps, it slaps. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You can’t fake slap, nah’mean? In the past, Kanye West has delivered the kind of rap songs that you love to play when you have a passenger in front, and two people in the back. You want to roll down the windows on a breezy summer evening, and blast classics like “Good Life“, “Touch The Sky“, or even “All of the Lights” if you’re feeling a little dramatic.
“Ye” does not slap — not in the least. It’s so self-indulgent and narcissistic, it’s a bit like Kanye West demanded you look him in the eyes while he slowly masturbates. It’s an extremely uncomfortable album to consume, alternatively weaving its way through mental illness, and jumbled narratives, backed with production that seems rushed and executed by people who weren’t allow to do their jobs. This album sounds like micromanagement.
While reviewing this album, I found myself shuffling back and forth between his old albums, and this one, just so I could hear the transformation. It’s so stark and depressing, like watching Michael Jordan in his final weeks with the Wizards. I kept thinking to myself, “Why couldn’t you just retire on top? Why are you putting us through this?”
As a rapper, Kanye West is delivering a sub-par product, that doesn’t hold a candle to his past works — and I mean that from the songwriting, to the production, the mixing, the vocals… everything. This is a tough album to consume in whole, because the erosion of Kanye West has been so slow, you have to go back eight years, or perhaps even a decade, just to understand how his light has dimmed. Kanye West is no longer a beacon of hip hop, and he hasn’t been in a long time.
This is Kanye West’s pathetic decline, and collective apologies of over a decade, wrapped into an impossibly short, half-baked album.
Even the opening to “Ye” is self-indulgent to a surfeit, and that’s within the context of Kanye West being notoriously self-indulgent. “I Thought About Killing You” is the album’s first track, and it’s two and a half straight minutes of Kanye West rambling about surface-level, meaningless drivel. He opened up a 10th grade emo-band notebook of lyrics, and just read aloud some MySpace-era throwaway verses from a song that wouldn’t have been good at Northdale Highschool Battle of the Bands 2005. It’s just plain bad, and there’s no other nice way of putting it.
Before I move forward with this review, I think we should take a step back and think about music in the macro sense. For me, personally, I like music I can play in my ride and enjoy. Sure, I like to think about the lyrics, and I always appreciate complexity and depth, but there are limits to how artsy a project can be pushed without being polarizing. For instance, Bjork has always walked the tightrope of “artistic genius vs. genuinely insane”, and we appreciate her music because it usually falls into the listenable and enjoyable spectrum.
Drake rose from the dead on this album after being buried in blackface by Pusha-T, but only as a writing credit on “Yikes“, which may be the best song on this album. The intro serves as the refrain, and it’s catchy. Then Kanye starts rapping, and ruins something good. This was a song that could have been “listenable and enjoyable”, but ended up being over-wrought and tacky.
“Wouldn’t Leave” is another shining example of a rapper who is making his own music worse. The first 25 seconds are a beautiful start to what could be a great song, with lush instruments, and soulful singing… and then Kanye West hops on with some uninspired bars about recent events, recalling his remarks about slavery being a choice, and then asserting that he was having a good day when he made his remark about slavery.
Oh word, Kanye? That was a good day for you? I’d hate to find our what you’re saying on a bad day, because slavery apologia is already well beyond the pale.
Making bad music is the story of “Ye”. But that’s not the whole story.
I’m tired of entertaining the notion that Kanye West is a genius. There are many adjectives that describe the mendacious fuckhead known as Kanye West, but “genius” isn’t one of them. He’s just like any other person out there without the ability to think critically and triangulate his ideas for truth. Kanye West has surrounded himself with people like Candace Owens, the modern, younger, female Uncle Tom that black people never asked for, and certainly never needed.
In his attempts to promote his new album, Kanye West crossed a line that shouldn’t be crossed, especially in hip hop, where much of the audience is black: He aligned himself with neo-Nazis and pervasive racists. The “Make America Great Again” hat is what the Tiki Torch Terrorists wore in Charlottesville, Virginia — chanting “Blood and Soil”, a familiar Nazi refrain. The next day, a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd and murdered a young woman.
my MAGA hat is signed 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/DrDHJybS8V
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Days after tweeting out his signed MAGA hat, Kanye West made an appearance on TMZ, where he declared slavery a choice. Fortunately, Van Lathan was in the room to give him a verbal dressing down, in front of everyone. Kanye looked shocked that someone would talk back to him — as I’m sure most of the people around him in his day to day life just allow him to operate however he chooses. It wasn’t just what Lathan said that struck me — it was Kanye’s facial expression in response. That was the face of a man who isn’t used to anyone contradicting him.
This level of detachment is ultimately everywhere in his life, from his music, to his public statements. No one is around him to say, “Hey, Kanye, you’re promoting the most notorious racist in America right now. This is a very bad look.”
There are no voices in the studio to tell Kanye, “Hey dog, this shit is half-baked. Don’t release this.” So, “Ye” is the metaphorical ill-advised Tweet-storm, but in musical form. It’s bizarre and incomplete, perhaps with some idea behind it, but totally and completely devoid of substance. Like a tweet, it’s short, and needs more context.
The sad part is really the bigger picture: There is a younger generation that will never appreciate “peak Kanye” in the same way the “we” (the older people) did.
From 2004 to 2010, Kanye West had arguably the best run in rap history. For six years, Kanye West was the face of rap music. Like an athlete in his prime, Kanye West delivered hit singles and deep cuts on his albums. The live shows were fantastic, and he hadn’t yet descended into incoherent rambling on stage during every show.
If you’re a 20 year old rap fan today, you were six years old when “The College Dropout” was released. It’s hard to explain, in the pre-social media world, just how big that album felt. Without MySpace, long before Twitter, or even Facebook, Kanye West exploded into music, seemingly from nowhere, and his voice was authentic. He felt like one of us.
That’s why, for many of us, it’s hard to accept Kanye West today. He was so relatable, and felt like a guy you’d meet at a coffee shop, and talk about life with. It’s akin to being cool with someone 10 years ago, and now you watch them spin out of control on Twitter, spewing alt-Right talking points and outright lies. Kanye West has become the guy who gets on Facebook and declares immigrants are ruining our country.
How could someone go from bleeding-edge-woke to… well, racism abiding? How the fuck did we get here? How did Kanye West go from the biggest rap star on the planet to perona non grata? I was reluctant to even review this album, because the last thing I wanted to do was give him more press. I don’t want to support him, his career, or any money he makes. Kanye West isn’t just making awful music now — he also represents a deeply flawed viewpoint, and a fracture in my country.
Maybe Kanye West comes back. Maybe he steps away from the bullshit. Maybe he surrounds himself with his old team. Maybe he starts making listenable music again.
Until then, Kanye West is a shell of what he once was, and his new shell is wearing a red hat my generation associates with hatred and oppression. He’s not one of us anymore, and his music reflects that. We don’t need Kanye West, and we surely don’t need his voice.