“Oh, I got dirt on my name,” raps Kanye West. “I got white on my beard / I had debt on my books / It’s been a shaky-ass year.” And immediately, he offers perhaps the biggest reason why: “Let me make this clear / So all y’all see / I don’t take advice from people less successful than me.” Bless this mess, and bless all of us for still pinning so many of our hopes and dreams — artistic, moral, political — to it, and to him.
The song is called “No Mistakes,” the fifth of seven on Ye, West’s new EP-size album, delivered to an exhausted and trepidatious world at the stroke of midnight on Friday, initially via a janky livestream of his luxe-rustic listening party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Make no mistake, girl, I still love you,” booms god-tier R&B giant Uncle Charlie Wilson on the song’s hook; “Believe it or not, the lord still shines on you,” raps a ghostly Slick Rick on the looped sample of 1988’s “Hey Young World,” an excellent chop of another god-tier guy. The vibe is triumphantly bombastic but still rough-draft raw, joyous but still combative. “Ain’t no love lost / But the gloves off,” West adds. He gets into the details elsewhere. But you, the exhausted and trepidatious listener, hardly need to be reminded.
The short version is that Ye is nowhere near terrible enough that you can safely write him off as a god-tier artistic force, but nowhere near transcendent or thoughtful enough to win back any of the long-suffering fans who blanched at West’s MAGA-hat-brandishing antics and have since threatened to write him off as a moral or political force. (Dealing with West’s calamity these days, even the short versions are long versions.) Another way to put it is that there’s a song here called “Yikes,” along with two or three other songs, shaky-ass for one reason or another, that definitely could’ve also been called “Yikes.”
One of them is instead titled “All Mine,” with a tremendously nimble falsetto hook from young GOOD Music luminary and amateur koi-pond enthusiast Valee, paired with some of the most stupendously awful sex-rapping of West’s career. “All these thots on Christian Mingle / Almost what got Tristan single,” he offers, and yeah, OK, that’s hilarious, sure. But from there we fly right off a cliff, where “I love your titties ’cause they prove / I can focus on two things at once” collides in midair with “Let me fuck it raw like fuck the outcome / Ayy, none of us would be here without cum.” Get the fuck out of town.
Another yikes-in-spirit track is the dreamy album opener “I Thought About Killing You,” which does indeed spend half its run time on a long, harsh, spoken-word West ramble that threatens to devolve into pure horrorcore: “Today I seriously thought about killing you / I contemplated / Premeditated murder / And I think about killing myself / And I love myself way more than I love you, so.” His voice pitch-shifts down to a ghastly digital baritone: “Sometimes I think really bad things / Really, really, really bad things.” The beat finally drops, and hardens, and we get flashes of the Old Kanye, less tortured and flamboyantly antiheroic, equally quotable whether you’re cheering or groaning: “If I wasn’t shining so hard / Wouldn’t be no shade.” But Ye, often for worse but occasionally for better, is about the darkness, not the light.
Good news: No one track here is half as atrocious as Ye’s two inedible late-April appetizers, the poopity-scoop trollgaze atrocity “Lift Yourself” and the beyond-clunky T.I. debate “Ye vs. the People.” Bad news: No one beat tops the sly and sinister fantasmagoria of Pusha T’s Daytona, released last Friday, also seven songs, also produced in full by West. Ye’s most vivid and unsettling moment is “Ghost Town,” a sludgy psych-rock smear bookended by nauseous hooks from Kid Cudi (“I’ve been trying to make you love me / But everything I try just takes you further from me”) and 070 Shake, another GOOD Music prospect who sounds like she’s auditioning for the Slits. “I put my hand on a stove to see if I still bleed,” she moans. “Yeah, and nothing hurts anymore / I feel kinda free.” That’s not how a stove works, but point taken.
Ye’s calmest and prettiest moment is “Wouldn’t Leave,” just two gorgeous piano chords and the raindrop plinks of a modest handful of drums. This appears to be West’s love song to his wife, Kim Kardashian, in the form of a sheepish almost-apology for putting her through hell for these past few weeks, along with a substantial percentage of his fan base. Verily, this is where we get into current affairs. Opening lines: “They say, ‘Build your own’ / I said, ‘How, Sway?’ / I said, ‘Slavery a choice’ / They said, ‘How, Ye?’ / Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.” He is nowhere near ready to answer the “How, Ye?” question, but Kim’s reaction to her husband’s recent provocations are rendered vividly: “Now I’m on 50 blogs, gettin’ 50 calls / My wife callin’ screamin’, say, ‘We ’bout to lose it all’ / Had to calm her down ’cause she couldn’t breathe / Told her she could leave me now, but she wouldn’t leave.”
Will West’s fans ever abandon him, if his present-day mentality continues to so harshly contradict the firebrand superhero who rose to power by speaking truth to it, not pandering to it? Ye is unlikely to either shove you off the bandwagon or coax the suspicious back onto it. It’s a solid, unspectacular B where most fans were hoping against hope for a sneak-attack A-plus but bracing for a catastrophic F. Ye is capable but troubling; West makes clear that nobody is more troubled by recent history than he is. The song actually called “Yikes” earns its title, druggy and combative: “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me, too / I’ma pray for him ’cause he got #MeToo’d.” The nominal hook is “Shit could get / Menacing / Frightening / Find help / Sometimes / I scare / Myself / Myself.” He concludes by describing “my bipolar shit” as “my superpower.”
Indeed, West scrawled “I hate being Bi-Polar, it’s awesome” right on his own self-shot album cover. But Ye’s most troubling moment aims to be its brightest and most enlightened. The album-closing “Violent Crimes” has a much sweeter hook, but West’s lyrics are all treacly enlightenment: “Father, forgive me, I’m scared of the karma / ’Cause now I see women as somethin’ to nurture / Not somethin’ to conquer.” Yes, America, he is playing the As a Father of Daughters card, a tough sell from a 40-year-old who was bragging about all the girls he’s brought to the Titty Shop just a few tracks ago. (He also explored that karmic idea, with far more verve and acuity, on “We Major,” back in 2005.)
Expecting consistency or outsized sensitivity from a global superstar is a fool’s errand, of course, and it’s that sort of thinking that plunged us into this mess in the first place. Kanye West told us he was a genius, not that he was perfect, nor, for that matter, a particularly approachable dude. Ye is worthy of the lower reaches of his canon, but it offers little in the way of explanations or apologies. If there’s any clear statement here, really, it’s that nothing of the sort is forthcoming, and it’s on us, not him, if we ever thought otherwise. This record won’t make you hate him any more. But it doesn’t inspire much love, either.