For a pop celebrity, solipsism comes as easily as breathing. In that respect, Kanye West has few peers. His eighth studio album, Ye, was unveiled at an exclusive listening party in Jackson, Wyoming in the United States, and it comes with the usual Kanye caveats: Is this a cry for help? Is this a put-on? Is he trolling, well, everybody?
After a series of albums that rewired popular music, West’s recent works – Yeezus (2013), The Life Of Pablo (2016) and now Ye – have increasingly sounded like extensions of his onstage rants, Twitter outbursts and unfiltered waywardness with words in interviews.
The melding of real life and imaginative art made West an innovator, and his albums still sound like nobody else’s. But now his personal troubles have become the focal point, interior monologues dressed up with occasional musical flourishes.
Across an image of snow-capped mountains on the Ye album cover, there’s a very Kanye-like, bleakly humorous contradiction: “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome.” Mental disorders, drug addiction, financial turmoil, ill-chosen words about black slavery, misogyny, temptation, guilt – West couldn’t be more transparent about any of it on the new album, as tough on himself as he is on his rivals.
“I got dirt on my name, I got white on my beard, I had debt on my books, it’s been a shaky a** year,” West raps on No Mistakes. Ye isn’t so much a musical statement as a 23-minute, seven-track therapy session.
About half the album has West as a role player on tracks that suggest a theater scene, with a handful of voices playing characters (quite possibly all living inside West’s brain). The album moves from spoken-word monologues to more expansive musical settings that try to “take the top off (and) let the sun come in”.
I Thought About Killing You has West confessing his murderous and suicidal intentions against a blurry backdrop of electronically distorted voices. “Sometimes I think really, really bad things,” he says, a track all the more weird and chilling because it’s presented in such an offhanded way, as if West were thinking out loud over a half-finished backing track.
Yikes evokes a drug-induced hallucination: “Sometimes I scare myself.” It ends with West ranting, and then a scream.
Perversely, All Mine contains the album’s first genuine hook, by Chicago rapper Valee, even as West openly fantasies about cheating on his wife, Kim Kardashian. Wouldn’t Leave provides the flip side, and praises Kardashian for her loyalty.
There’s even a hint of tenderness in the refrains sung by Partynextdoor and Jeremih. It’s a theme extended on No Mistakes, with the melodic refrain supplied by Charlie Wilson and Kid Cudi. It’s West in major-chord mode, a throwback to the celebratory feel of We Major or All Of The Lights.
Ghost Town builds from a gospel intro containing a Blind Willie Johnson quote, with West telegraphing his vulnerability through shaky singing, but it’s young New Jersey rapper 070 Shake who walks away with the song. “Nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free,” she sings, echoing the wilfulness that underlies most everything West does.
He shares space with several young proteges (some signed to his GOOD Music label), and it’s a good thing – they bring some light into West’s cracked introspection. It’s DeJ Loaf’s refrain that serves as West’s conscience on Violent Crimes, a track that could be subtitled “Kanye repents!”.
“Men are savages, “monsters, pimps, players,” West blurts, but now, thanks to the birth of his two daughters, “I see women as something to nurture.” It’s a revelation born not out of grace but of fear – fear that his daughters may be subject to the same patriarchal mistreatment he himself indulged.
Yet the overriding theme, even as he comes clean about most of what his life has become, is one of defiance. Would his fans want him any other way? West promises a string of albums in the next few weeks that he will produce for other artists, including Kid Cudi, Nas and Teyana Taylor. With West, redemption is always one hit away.
Which brings us back to that lavish “listening party” in Wyoming. It was not an act of benevolence for his friends so much as a way to schmooze radio programmers so they’d play his records again. West may represent the new school of pop celebrities, but when it comes to the pop charts, he’s as old school as 20th century payola. – Greg Kot/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service