As the story goes, Kanye West created the cover of his new album Ye—an iPhone snap of a Wyoming horizon with the message “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” Snapchat-caption-scrawled overtop—on the way to the listening session where it debuted, hours before it was made available to the public. West had previously suggested that the album’s cover would feature a photograph of his mother’s plastic surgeon, but the chosen image is more fitting: Ye is an album of dualities, splits, and intentional contradictions, and it also has a slapdash, unfinished quality about it, like a 10-page paper written in a shaky hand on the bumpy morning bus ride to school.
This is nothing new for Kanye West. Rick Rubin infamously said that vocals for five of the songs on West’s 2013 landmark Yeezus were added just two days before the final deadline (“Don’t worry,” West promised Rubin, “I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter”). The days leading up to the release of his previous album, 2016’s The Life of Pablo, were so transparently chaotic that just 10 days before it was released, West’s wife, Kim Kardashian-West, posed a Twitter poll to her millions of followers asking them what they thought the album should be called. In both of those instances, though, the 11th-hour gambits somehow paid off: The buzzsaw production of Yeezus still feels forward-thinking five years after its release; The Life of Pablo was praised as a quintessentially modern “living artwork,” which West continued to tweak even after its initial release to streaming platforms. The unfinished quality of Pablo felt like it had sprung from an exciting overflow of good ideas. That same quality, on the comparatively minor seven-song Ye, feels like the result of a drought of them.
At 23 minutes, it feels generous to call Ye an album at all, especially considering that it is the work of the same artist who once gave us a record as justifiably grand as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And yet as brief as it is, there is still some dead air on Ye: West says in seven songs what he easily could have said in four. Ye is not the disaster that some people may have been expecting given, well … you know, and the record even has moments of brilliance (“Ghost Town” is this record’s “Ultralight Beam,” and the recent G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake is its Chance the Rapper). But taken as a whole, the few sublime moments of Ye are a frustrating tease: They suggest that West could have made a good—maybe even great—record, had he taken more time with it, infused it with more feeling, and clarified or deepened exactly what he was trying to say. Ye is a cake that has been prematurely taken out of the oven and then immediately, hastily decorated with icing. By the time it’s been presented to us, it’s fallen so completely into itself that it’s become impossible to figure out the shape it once was supposed to have or what has been written on it. The whole thing has just caved into a sweet, sadly small muck.
Ostensibly there is an arc. The first three songs on Ye are the confessions of Mr. Hyde (“Sometimes I think bad things / Really, really, really bad things”), the final four evoke Dr. Jekyll returning home to present his wife with a bouquet of roses, or perhaps an Edible Arrangement, to apologize for the things he’s done the previous night. It’s sweet, I guess, if you don’t think about it too hard. But under even the slightest scrutiny, the songs that are meant to be the romantic center of Ye feel myopic, thin, and deeply unrelatable, try as he might to add “everyman” caveats to the end of a song like “Wouldn’t Leave” (“For any guy that ever fucked up / Ever embarrassed they girl”). You know that feeling when you go on a nationally televised tabloid news magazine and say that slavery was a choice, and then you have to talk your wife through a panic attack over the phone because she thinks that this comment will negatively impact your multimillion-dollar fortune? Great, here is the wedding song you have been waiting for.
Ye’s finale is “Violent Crimes,” which, despite what the title might suggest, is an open-hearted song about learning to respect women, or at least, his daughter Nori, who will turn 5 later this month. (A better title might have been “As a Father of Daughters,” although it never fails to baffle me that some men cannot understand that women are human beings until they have a daughter; pray for the fathers of sons, or at least the women in their lives.) Like “Wouldn’t Leave,” it has a saccharine surface but its depths are sour, or maybe just hollow. “Don’t do no yoga, don’t do pilates, just play piano and stick to karate,” West raps, “I pray your body’s draped more like mine and not like mommy’s.” I’m not sure I buy the transformation West wants us to believe has actually taken place across this record, to “see[ing] women as somethin’ to nurture, not somethin’ to conquer,” because in the end he is still just reducing his daughter to a body that is either “worthy” of pursuit or not based on its appearance. (It’s not just icky, it’s also a logical fallacy.) The track ends with a voicemail from Nicki Minaj, humbled that West would say he wanted his daughter to grow up to be a “monster … like Nicki.” There’s something bittersweet about her presence on the track, and yet quintessentially Ye: It just makes you nostalgic for the old Kanye, who could make a song as consequential and (for Minaj) star-making as “Monster.”
As production goes, Ye is usually content to nod to West’s past sounds rather than to push the boundaries toward a cohesive new era. “Ghost Town,” though effective, pulls from a similar toolbox as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; save for the timely lyrics and the revelation of mental illness at the end, “Yikes” easily could have appeared on 808s and Heartbreak. Like the first half of Ye, “Yikes” is a song that purports to plumb the depths of West’s shadow. The record begins even more starkly with “I Thought About Killing You,” a song that, on repeated listens, I’ve found increasingly difficult to get through. “That’s my bipolar shit,” he says at the end of “Yikes,” “I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!” In a recent interview with Charlemagne, West claimed that something he wanted to do on this record was “change the stigma of crazy.” But Ye also has the uncomfortable whiff of trying to commodify, simplify, and capitalize off of untreated mental illness, in a time when depressive rap is troublingly in vogue. “I Thought About Killing You” is, in its own way, classic Kanye West braggadocio, if what he’s boasting about this time is how much closer he is to the edge than his contemporaries. Nothing about it feels good.
West has always been a generous collaborator, and thankfully that quality is present here: In addition to that warm, soulful cameo from 070 Shake, Valee gives the id-confessional “All Mine” a memorable assist, Charlie Wilson characteristically brings the feels, and Kid Cudi makes his mark as a kind of teaser for his promised collaborative album with West as Kids See Ghost, which is slated to be released next week. Even when he would populate his records with carefully curated guests, though, Kanye usually still managed to feel like the gravitational center of the music. That magnetism is missing from the best songs on Ye: “Ghost Town” feels like an instant classic not because of his verse so much as in spite of it. Still, that song’s production and its kindergarten-devotional vibe is the most inspired moment on Ye, a tantalizing indication of what might have been, or perhaps what will be on future records from Cudi, Shake, and the younger artists to whom he’s passing the baton.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about a scene in one of Kanye West’s favorite movies, Step Brothers. It’s at the end of a montage in which a tuxedo-clad pair of 40-year-old adolescents played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly go out into the world looking for jobs, and deeply offend each recruiter who interviews them until they finally end up in a sporting goods store. They have a natural rapport with the manager, played by Seth Rogen; they all seem to share a sense of humor, a taste in things, a common outlook on the world. And then, right when they are about to be hired, John C. Reilly’s character farts. Like really faaaaaaaaaaaaarts, loud and rancid and for an uncomfortably long duration of time. Rogen’s grinning face curdles. “I can taste it, on my tongue,” he says. “It stinks. This is a small room. OK, now the tuxedos seem kind of fucked up.”
A month before the release of Ye, Kanye West returned to the public eye after a long absence. You know the story by now: He has aligned himself with politicians who espouse hate toward minority groups, he has given a platform to conspiracy theorists, he has confused the idea of “free thought” with a freedom to not think much at all. West has of course always been a provocateur, and in his decade-plus run of creative boundary-pushing, critics and fans who admire him have chalked many of his missteps up to the price of “genius.” But the unavoidable rankness of West’s recent statements have had an air of flatulence, the kind that prompted quite a few of his listeners to take an uncomfortable look back over his legacy and conclude that now, even the tuxedos seem kind of fucked up.
Before Ye, plenty of West’s admirers were preparing themselves for the mental gymnastics of having to justify why a person they didn’t agree with could still make great art. The music on Ye is not nearly vital enough to prompt that conversation. Perhaps that is why, in the midst of a depleting and exhausting time in pop culture, Ye’s smallness and its self-evident lack of greatness feel like an odd kind of relief.