When Kanye West issued his eighth studio album, ye, on Friday, he did so amid a tempest of fury and confusion. The weeks leading to its release were marked by brash, dangerous claims by the rapper on Twitter and a brief appearance on TMZ where he likened slavery to “a choice.” Overnight his presence on the social platform assumed an Orwellian tint: wearing a MAGA hat, West preached free thought and love, and vocalized his support for Donald Trump and conservative commentator Candice Owens. Even for an artist who has happily stoked controversy in the past, this time seemed different, perhaps irreparable.
The saving grace, the hoped-for absolution, fans believed, would arrive in album form. “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” West says on “I Thought About Killing You,” ye’s opening track. It’s an odd, if vague, bit of poetry that best characterizes West’s public testimonies of late—the beautiful and the dark have blurred into an unrecognizable specter of the rapper-provocateur. And though the music on ye is cocksure and often dazzling, the album leaves much of West’s recent hectoring unresolved. “I say slavery a choice/ They say, ‘how, Ye?’/ Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day,” he offers as a kind of response on “Wouldn’t Leave.” For the first time in his career, it has become impossible to divorce the art from the troubled mind of its artist. The echo of Kanye West’s ignorance has become too loud to dismiss.
Here, as in all of West’s work, his yearning for self-optimization takes priority. The album was always his ideal canvas, the place best suited to disperse his brilliant, raging ideas. From the sprawl and cinematic whimsy of Graduation to The Life of Pablo’s episodic realism, West hungers to be remade, retooled, reborn—but who does he yearn to be on ye? Who does he want us to believe he’s become? West is a man consumed with search: for identity, for meaning, always for something more and something eye-opening. In the past, he has typically sought those solutions outside of himself, an incessant tinkerer who thrives in collaboration. The music on ye, though, sounds born of isolation; what may end up becoming the most inward-looking album in West’s staggering oeuvre since 808s & Heartbreak, it is a portrait of the self as fragmented and damaged—of a man having, in part, failed his family, his fans, himself.
Ye’s most prevailing narrative is its technical sparsity. Composed of seven songs, and totaling 23 minutes in run time, it arrives as the second offering in a planned batch of EP-length releases from his label, GOOD Music, that have adopted an intentionally lean track arrangement. (Pusha T’s similarly efficient Daytona dropped late last month; albums from Teyana Taylor, Nas, and a joint effort from West and Kid Cudi are set to follow). The production, like all of West’s prodigious enterprises, is genre-resistant—a trunk of gooey soul samples, neon futurism, winking self-aggrandizement, with flashes of sincerity and humor. Just as before, West is a nimble tailor, using old (Charlie Wilson, Ty Dolla $ign, Mike Dean) and new collaborators (Valee, SoundCloud favorite 070 Shake) to custom fit his grand design. Through it all, his appetite for stadium-worthy maximums has not withered. “No half-truths, just naked minds,” he reminds us.
Still, the cracks are evident, and glaringly so. In a strange way, ye feels like West’s most human project—which is to say it is his most openly flawed. Humans are imperfect creatures, and human failure emerges immediately as the album’s central thesis: how to grapple with it, rise from it, be altered by it. The jagged, nocturnal synths of “Yikes” find West confronting drug addiction, working to make peace with the thorns of his mental state. (From the beginning, West shines a light on his unstable health; the album’s cover photo is a handwritten message that reads, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.”) Later on “Violent Crimes,” in a song to his daughter North, West wrestles with his past treatment of women. “Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer,” he confesses. You want to believe him, and I do, even if the admission comes too late. The hazy panorama of West’s life—who he was before and how he works to sculpt himself into something new—has always carried gravity in his music, and ye is no different.
Yet, ye does one thing that no previous album has: cast West as anti-hero. He was the eager-to-prove sophomore on Late Registration; the painstaking maestro on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; with Yeezus, he assumed the role of mad scientist—trimming his aesthetic to its skeletal core. Since Friday, I’ve looped through the album about a half a dozen times, hoping to unearth some strand of enlightenment, but the experiment now feels elusive and futile. West has again shifted his focus; this time, he’s speaking directly to his family. He’s turned from fans, forgoing substantive answers about his public misgivings, unbothered as to whether or not people find calm with who he’s becoming. And that’s just it—it’s that image of him listeners don’t recognize, one they’ve never quite seen in this shape before. Having fallen short in the eyes of his wife and his children. It’s a scary sight. Kanye West hasn’t just become the villain in our story—he has in his own, as well.