For several years, Kanye West has mastered the dark art of publicity and prestige. He fancies himself hip-hop’s dark, bizarro Beyoncé—a grand marshal of popular culture, a one-man showstopper. In music, Kanye’s grand design played out as a proud bureaucratization of his albums; his songs sounded bigger, if not always better, and the albums grew convoluted. So, too, did the rollouts. Two years ago, Kanye released The Life of Pablo—an overstaffed and overloaded hour of music backed by a guerrilla publicity campaign that exhausted fans, critics, and even the most tangential Hollywood players, such as Wiz Khalifa, Amber Rose, and Kanye’s serial antagonist, Taylor Swift, who ultimately begged “to be excluded from this narrative.” The rollout was a calamity. Worse yet, the album was a clunker—a streaming music “experiment” that sounds not only imperfect but also, by the artist’s own admission, unfinished. Kanye was successful in one, crucial regard—getting everyone to speak excitedly about Kanye West, for better or worse, for months on end.
Kanye designed his record label’s latest album rollout to accommodate a party of five. For each weekend of the past month, GOOD Music has scheduled the release of new albums from Pusha-T, Kanye, Kid Cudi, Nas, and Teyana Taylor. The albums would each be seven songs, and a few of them would premiere at listening parties, streamed live from Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Los Angeles; and Queensbridge, New York. The celebrations have turned sour as Kanye suffers prolonged backlash to his recent flirtations with right-wing politics and Nas dodges public scrutiny in light of the allegation that he inflicted “mental and physical abuse” on his ex-wife, Kelis. Thus, the GOOD Music rollout has proved grotesque. Granted, Kanye wouldn’t have it any other way. The seven-songs constraint, the weekly album releases, the prime-time listening parties, the grand ethical reckonings, and the goddamned tweets—in Kanye’s design, this would all amount to a historical event.
On May 25, Pusha-T dropped first, and his Daytona seemed to flatter Kanye’s outlook for this particular album cycle. Kanye provided seven artisanal beats, Pusha narrowed his focus to Drake and cocaine, and the logistical pressures produced a nice little gem in Pusha-T’s discography. Kanye’s shtick worked. Pusha and Kanye have worked together for more than a decade now—officially since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy recording sessions—and Daytona is the fulfilling culmination of their partnership. In retrospect, Pusha-T was the first and only rapper to flatter Kanye’s outlook. Kanye’s own solo album, Ye, buckled under its own deadline and hype. Reportedly, Kanye scrapped an earlier version of the album that predated the infamous TMZ hit where he described American chattel slavery as “a choice” that black slaves made for themselves. The late-stage rewrite seemed to suggest that Ye would arrive with all the unwelcome urgency of a hot take. Shockingly, the album proved even less sophisticated than that—Ye arrived as a demo tape that may well have been written and recorded within hours of its commercial release. Kanye’s subsequent duets album with Kid Cudi, titled Kids See Ghosts, sounds far less rushed, but no more substantial than Ye. In any case, Kids See Ghosts certainly suffers from its incorporation into the larger tumult that marginalizes its minor musical successes; a tumult of Kanye’s own design.
If the Pusha-T album idealized Kanye’s overall approach, then the Nas album, Nasir, released Friday, proved its fundamental folly once and for all. Nasir is the very worst album of a cherished rapper’s career. For two decades straight, Nas critics—and even Nas fans—have hectored the rapper for his odd, off-trend production, which has supposedly sabotaged his career at every turn. So, Kanye West crafting a Nas album should sound like the last laugh—except the flagging rapper happens to have caught the flagging producer just as he’s downshifted from innovation to pure churn. Alternatively, Nas has never sounded less excited to rap, and less interested in music, than he does here, thudding from one rhyme to the next with a feeble demeanor—Nasir is like hearing one of the rapper’s notoriously forgetful performances rendered as a studio album. Kanye’s beats swallow Nas whole. There’s no greater testament to their faulty, inappropriate design than the fact Kanye spends two songs sounding like the better rapper. Ultimately, Nasir is a Kanye West album—a sample showcase in which any rapping you happen to hear is awkward and marginal, if not irrelevant.
Once upon a time, Kanye’s musical stylings were a reactionary repudiation of emergent Southern hip-hop production styles; but they also formed an idealistic prediction of how grand and luxurious hip-hop might become—bigger and more profitable than even Puffy imagined. Currently, hip-hop is American music’s biggest genre, a growth industry that has, in the decade since 808s & Heartbreak, come to sound rather at odds with Kanye’s bougie outlook. In 2018, trap music is bleak, sparse, and seductively monotonous. The personas are bold, and their voices are loud and dynamic, but the sounds are minimal, and the rappers themselves are very nearly civilians. For The Life of Pablo, Kanye recruited millennial trap acts such as Young Thug, Desiigner, and Post Malone into the mix, their contributions designed to anchor Kanye in contemporary hip-hop’s present tense. Finally, Kanye made a song (“Champions”) with Gucci Mane, the Atlanta godfather of a new generation. But Kanye had undeniably begun to lose his grip on the genre’s pulse—“Panda” went no. 1, while “Pt. 2” of “Father Stretch My Hands” peaked at no. 54. On the GOOD Music releases, including Ye, Kanye casts off the anchors and drifts irretrievably into nostalgia. The Slick Rick samples fall upon exhausted ears.
Less than a day after Nas dropped his album, Beyoncé and Jay-Z trumped his release with a surprise duets album that includes far more youthful and exciting ideas about contemporary hip-hop despite Jay’s advanced age. Drake is dropping later this month. June has rewarded mainstream rap fans with a glut of A-list music releases. Despite his ambitious design, and his own hype, Kanye’s music has mattered the least of all, despite his doing the absolute most.