Kanye West ‘Ye’ – Review

3 Jun

In the background of one of Kanye West’s recent twitter videos, a tv was playing a clip of the wildly popular and somewhat controversial Canadian academic Jorden Peterson, lecturing on the importance of art. Peterson is best known for his instructive guidance videos and books, aimed primarily at young men, but he’s also something of an expert on narcasism and man’s capacity for evil. In one of his many lectures on the subject, Peterson theorises that everyone has great capacity for malevolence, and it’s only when we come to terms with that, admit it, reckon with it and understand it, that we can evolve in to truly good, and successful, human beings. Otherwise we’re doomed to a life of naivety and manipulation.

It sounds like an instruction that Kanye West may have taken to heart. ‘Ye’ (“I believe Ye is the most commonly used word in the bible, and in the bible it means YOU. So I’m you, I’m us, it’s us. The album is a reflection of who we are.”) opens with Kanye admitting ‘The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest. Today I seriously thought about killing you…and I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you so…just say it out loud to see how it feels…sometimes I think bad things, really, really bad things…’ The song continues on like this, as auto-tuned, harmonic mumblings swirl underneath – intense distillations of ideas Kanye has been nibbling at the edges of for years. On this album Kanye is laying his insecurities, anxieties and darkest desires bare for everyone to see. It’s a massive risk. He’s showing us his worst side, as well as him most vulnerable (no easy thing for him one suspects) and asking that we love him as much as he loves himself.

It’s an album largely about mental illness that declares on its cover ‘I hate being bi-polar. It’s awesome’. To my mind at least, ‘Ye’ inhabits some of the contradictions of being bi-polar: it’s at once impulsive, fanatic, impassioned, drained, sad and kind of haunting. It’s an album that sounds incredibly warm yet speaks so coldly. It feels monumental despite being such a slight thing. It’s generous with guest features (most of which are by talented, emotionally grounded young women) despite being such a self centred thesis. If the question is ‘who’s the real Kanye?’ then there are no clear answers on ‘Ye’, except, possibly, they’re all the real Kanye.

From a production standpoint ‘Ye’ is fairly similar to the Kanye produced ‘Daytona’, Pusha T’s recent comeback album. Both are seven tracks, and clock in at just over twenty minutes. Both feature well sourced and creatively manipulated soul samples, carefully articulated beats and minimal bars over spacious backdrops. It’s definitely a refined sound compared to the expansive and diverse ‘Life of Pablo’, and feels more restrained than even ‘Yeezus’ or ‘808s and heartbreaks’. It’s light on hooks (‘Yikes’ might sound like a single if the topics it discusses weren’t so alienating’) but rich in melody and gospel tinged choruses. In these senses it conveys a spirit of love and generosity, even as Kanye pulls away from the listener and doubles down on some of his divisive arguments without really elaborating on them.

Of course It’s impossible to hear ‘Ye’ divorced from the context of his recent behaviour. And he doesn’t want you to. In fact, he refers to his recent controversies frequently, if in no real depth. Those hoping that ‘Ye’ would provide insight or explanation will surely be disappointed, as will those who hoped he might brush over them all together. The most infamous of his recent comments was ‘slavery is a choice’. That provocative comment, here once again brought up on ‘Yikes’, was rightly criticised for being misinformed and unhelpful (despite being ripped from context, with Kanye’s more detailed justification, all but ignored). But this isn’t the first time Kanye has poked and prodded at the subject. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from 2013’s Yeezus, a song hailed at the time as being a Black Lives Matter anthem, was equally reductive and insensitive for different reasons. It strikes me as odd that some people are only just realising now that Kanye West is a troll. That Kanye says, and does, stupid things. That Kanye can be insensitive. When his vitriol was directed at George Bush (‘George Bush hates black people’) or Taylor Swift (‘I made that bitch famous’) it was brushed off. Now it’s all anyone can talk about.

If this is the first time you’ve found Kanye’s comments problematic, you really haven’t been listening hard enough. Both ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Life of Pablo’ were explicitly misogynistic and racist at points. There were elements of that before as well, but the genius of 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, for example, was in how Kanye wrestled with his ego; painting awful pictures and then stripping and analysing them. It was genuinely mature, conflicted stuff. There was none of that self aware drama on ‘Yeezus’ or ‘Life of Pablo’ and there’s little more of it on ‘Ye’. He just doesn’t seem interested in doing the hard yards necessary to layout nuanced, thoughtful arguments. There is a reason Kanye works so well on Twitter – it’s because he writes the most brilliant sound bites known to man. But that’s all they are, sound bites. Sound bites that don’t stand up to even the most simple scrutiny. And by the time he’s delivered one stinger (‘You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?’) it’s too late, he’s on to the next (‘if you get the ass with it that’s a 50 pop’). when his choice of topic was more trivial (‘Life of Pablo’ was totally apolitical) such an approach was tremendous fun. Here though it’s exhausting and divisive.

‘All Mine’ is the latest in a long line of Hip Hop tracks that demean and objectify women, simply for being women. The track seems to be a defence of infedelity; essentially a boy’s will be boys apology that is never even remotely convincing. It starts crudely with a verse by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Fuck it up, pussy good, I’m ‘a pipe her up, make her mine’, and hits new levels of depravity when Kanye himself throws down: ‘Let me hit it raw like fuck the outcome / ayy none of us would be here without cum’. This is Kanye at his insufferable worst. ‘All Mine’s vulgarity is brought in to starker contrast by its proximity to ‘Wouldn’t Leave’, where Kanye recounts the aftermath of the ‘slavery is a choice’ comment. There are odd moments of vulnerability here (‘told her she could leave me now but she didn’t leave’ is a really interesting line – has Kanye been deliberately self sabotaging his success and happiness because he feels unworthy?) but the interesting revelation is that Kim’s initial angry reaction to the comment seems to have been ‘you’ gon’ fuck the money up’. Yes, the song is short on genuine understanding and doesn’t present any of its protagonists in a flattering light.

Another song that’s troubling is album closer ‘Violent Crimes’, which explores how Kanye’s understanding of women has changed since he became a father (changed in the ten minutes between this and ‘All Mine’ you mean?), or at least, how he thinks it’s changed. Addressing his daughter, he says ‘now I see women as something to nurture not something to conquer’ before making a tasteless pun about a ménage et trios. Once again, the proximity between the saintly and the sexualised, in a song about his baby daughter, feels creepy, as later when he starts talking about ‘the curves under you dress’, and a boyfriend ‘whooping her ass’ (of course Kanye isn’t the first man to see man to see women as one of two extremes – the Madonna/whore complex is well documented). It’s a pretty weird song, one where I’m sure he means well, but the fact he thinks this is appropriate is as clear a sign as any that his self awareness is currently at an all time low. And once again, his inability to see beyond women’s bodies – extended even to his own daughter, even in a song where he is making big claims about being a changed man – is astonishing.

But before we address the myriad of problems in the music of Kanye West, how about we zoom out a bit and examine the wider cultural problems within Hip Hop. Singling out Kanye in the same week that Pusha T’s equally problematic ‘Daytona’, and AS$P Rocky’s ‘Testing’, received critical acclaim feels unfair. Jay Z has said worse. So have Drake and Eminem. Cardi B and Azelia Banks are no more nuanced or insightful. Even the relatively enlightened Kendrick Lamar’s first number one used ‘bitch’ as the main hook. And they’re just the big hitters; things get a whole lot darker the further you go further down the chain. I’m not excusing Kanye West, simply suggesting that the issues are far deeper than many would care it admit. And anyway, that may be a part of what ‘Ye’ is but that’s not all it is.

In all the noise and chatter, something that has been lost (but is reaffirmed on this album) is that first and foremost in his tweets Kanye has been calling for love and tolerance. ‘Ye’s working title was ‘Love Everyone’. The front cover was supposed to be a photo of the doctor held responsible for the death of Donda West, Kanye’s mother. Forgiveness. Love. Connection. These ideas may not always be explicit in the lyrics but they are present in other ways. I hear it in the way Kanye’s production synthesises his past styles in to one and brings different genres and historical sounds together. I hear it in the diverse collection of guest vocalists who contribute so much for a cause much bigger than themselves individually. I hear it in Kanye’s bruised, hurt vocal tones as he tries, once again, to hit notes always out of his reach, and doesn’t stop trying. ‘Sometimes I take all the shine, talk like I drank all the wine’. He’s still reaching for truth, for love and for freedom of expression. He’s still knocking at doors and breaking down barriers. Still talking about things we don’t want to talk about. When you invest so much in an artist it can be hard to see their work objectively but I would argue that the Kanye of 2018 is no different to the Kanye of 2013, perhaps even the Kanye of 2003. He’s brash, insensitive, funny, daring, inquisitive, emotional, controversial, narcissistic, capable of great genius and capable of the opposite. To slightly misquote the handwritten message on the front cover of Ye: I hate Kanye West. He’s awesome.

7/10

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