It’s been a mighty grim year to be a Kanye fan. For a lot of people, this guy is just a celebrity douchebag who dabbles in music on the side. But for the first time, it sounds like Kanye agrees with them. It always seemed like he cultivated that “jerk-off who never takes work off” image so he could hide his genius behind it – he felt safer there, with a smokescreen of bravado to hide the vulnerability and melancholy in his music. You didn’t have to dig deep to find it – it was all over songs like “Bound 2” or “We Major” or “All of the Lights.”
But he’s kept busy in 2018 playing the clown, trying way too hard for cheap controversy and making longtime adherents feel like suckers. He’s worked to stroke his new friends on the right, proudly posting a selfie wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap autographed by his close personal pal the president, or going on TMZ to share his thoughts about slavery. (“When you hear about slavery for 400 years – 400 years, that sounds like a choice.”) Fans have found it tougher to keep pretending his political rants are some kind of fluke impulse, rather than a totally consistent statement he’s been pushing for at least two years now. (Or longer, depending on how much political slack you happen to cut the misogyny on The Life of Pablo.)
His latest album isn’t the career-torpedoing disaster that many fans were bracing themselves for, but it sure didn’t turn out to be the heartwarming redemption story it angles to be. “It’s been a shaky-ass year,” Kanye complains early in Ye, and he isn’t kidding – he’s managed to compress the past 25 years of Morrissey’s career into a few months. Released five years almost to the day after his masterpiece, Yeezus, leaked and lit up the summer of 2013, Ye courts the comparison – it has half of Yeezus’ title, half its running time and half its confidence. It isn’t much of a musical experience, and it isn’t meant to be – just another artifact in the never-ending saga of Kanye Agonistes.
For a few years there, West was America’s most controversial mood-swinging drama queen. But then he lost the crown, and he hasn’t been taking it well. After his hospitalization in November 2016 – following an onstage plea for Jay-Z not to kill him – he emerged to throw his arms around the newly elected commander in chief, by far the most high-profile celebrity to do so, a belt he still holds, Roseanne or no Roseanne. Then he dropped out of sight for a while, which seemed like a wise move. It raised hopes that he was checking his head, maybe using Wyoming the way Bowie used Berlin, as an escape from the celebrity hellhole and a workshop to try new musical experiments. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case, going by the results. It’s a beleaguered public statement from a star who currently thinks being beleaguered is what makes him interesting.
If you put serious time into Ye, which is probably more than its author did, you find it isn’t as flaccid as it first sounds. The album runs 23 minutes, one-third the length of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, giving the impression that he’s punching below his weight, yet it still feels overlong. “Ghost Town” is the one that stands on its own, with his protégée 070 Shake wailing its anthemic rock chorus, even if it’s a little too evocative of past glories like “Runaway” and “Otis.” The way she sings “I feel kinda free” outshines everything else on the album. It’s a song with genuine heart – enough heart to make you wish Kanye could find a way out of his current creative trap.
But Ye begins clumsily with “I Thought About Killing You,” a beyond-obvious cartoon, and ends even more clumsily with “Violent Crimes.” The guy who went on Twitter a couple of years ago to issue the verdict “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!!” has now decided that he’s a father of daughters, which makes him an expert on whether women should do yoga or not. (Spoiler: They shouldn’t, because their bodies might give men ideas.) He left out the failed songs he released in April, the scatological would-be novelty “Lift Yourself” and the philosophical T.I. duet “Ye vs. the People.” But he’s got even drearier complaints on deck with “Yikes” and “Wouldn’t Leave.” “My wife calling, screaming, saying, ‘We ’bout to lose it all’” could pass for a relatable vignette in 2018, except the size of the violin gets a little tinier when the wife’s concern is that Kanye’s TMZ gaffes will affect the brand equity of a Ryan Seacrest-produced reality show. Where can he go from here? And for that matter, where can the rest of us go?
On The Life of Pablo, which used to be his weakest album, that old-school Kanye vulnerability was on display in the superb finale, “Fade,” where Kanye sampled a butch male voice chanting, “Your love is fading!” It came from the Motown classic “(I Know) I’m Losing You” – not the Temptations’ original or the Rod Stewart version, but the cover by Detroit rockers Rare Earth. It was a chilling way to echo the alienation he felt, a hostile tourist imprisoned in his own life, feeling it all fade out of him. The Life of Pablo was chaotic, insecure, yet often brilliant. Ye is more chaotic, less secure, with enough sporadic flashes of brilliance to make you hungry for much, much more. It could have been worse. But who thought that would ever be a standard Kanye West would settle for?