When Cultural Deism Becomes Tyranny — re: ye
This is not a unfavorable review of an album. It’s more a post-mortem of Kanye West’s ye, a project that saunters the line between short-clip semi-automatic Soundcloud barrage and a vague kind of couch-locked sonic phenomena. Before the first listen, ye’s cover art signals the sort of non-album a listener can expect. A trite one-liner (“I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome!”) superimposed on a sedative Wyoming sunrise like a bug-eyed, acid-bender Snapchat. The accuracy with which this image represents the tracks within may well be the peak of any continuity throughout ye and it’s muffled, yet still-beating heart.
Why listen to a new Kanye West album? It’s an elusive question, best answered by Kanye’s inescapable relevance to anything capital-k culture. It’s important to stay informed — West’s past work served as a decryption key, useful for deciphering trends in music and aesthetics as a whole. Through established trust, West has widened our sonic palette (and tolerance for sheer buffoonery) and made us better listeners. Yet, ye is at the focal point of Kanye West’s queer 2018 reversal, swapping clarity for total obfuscation. Grandpa’s going senile, and no matter how sad it makes you, he still pisses you off.
At best, ye is fun. (Shouldn’t it be sad?) Occasional moments of superficial catharsis are scattered in inconvenient pockets, but to reach any of them, one must slug through opener “I Thought About Killing You.” The division between spoken word and rap is, at some point, arbitrary, and if anyone may choose where to place it, it’s West. Rhythm is all but thrown out, alongside the vulnerability that would make the titular declaration a shred compelling. Kanye’s non-confession is neither diabolical nor pained — just smug.
All of ye’s tracks are plagued by West’s insistence on his own pathology, sadly accounting for the only thematic cohesion throughout.
Is that kid in a trench-coat gonna shoot up the school or is he just a huge fucking dork? Is Kanye West really a bipolar “superhero” asshole or just an asshole?
In years past, the answers were obvious. Kanye’s most heroic moment of late appeared in “Ye vs. the People,” a seemingly sincere attempt to catalyze open political dialogue, and yet another release that stretches the definition of recorded “music.”
To be fair, nothing is more senile-grandpa than dismissing a genre or body of work, outright. Though ye deems a bit of etymological conversation necessary. Namely, what is an album, really? Is there some heuristic to determine the level of intention with which a work is assembled? If I pair my folder of bedroom-closet-studio rap demos from high school with a jpeg, is it an album or a fading dream? We won’t ask what a song is, but ye might have us close.
Nonetheless, an honest critic must hunt for signs of life before pronouncing a cultural suicide. (By sheer prolificacy, Kanye is not capable of this, though his attempts are unenjoyable). We do catch a pulse in “Wouldn’t Leave,” when Kanye reflects on a tumultuous 2017 and reaches for an apology to his wife. “This is what they mean when they say for better or for worse, huh?” A self-aware, spoken statement is a strange place for a highlight on a rap album.
ye’s most pleasurable releases are provided by guest hooks, namely Cudi and 070 Shake’s emo elations on “Ghost Town:”
I put my hand on the stove / to see if I still bleed / and nothing hurts anymore I feel kind of free.
There’s an ultramelodic purge happening here, a snug-fit for a My Chemical Romance revival. But in context, Shake’s contribution might have us anticipate a smug rebuttal.¹ Thankfully, we are spared the Kanye Interrupt.
“Ghost Town” may have been a powerful bridge or outro on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; on ye it’s the closest thing to a lead single. It’s also the production highlight. Muted cymbals and fuzzy snare could be a nice addition to 2018’s hip-hop texture², and the pipe organ is far from a gimmick. Somehow, the inclusion of 8-bit Space Invaderian samples isn’t totally nauseating.
“Violent Crimes,” more two pieces than two halves, strives for the cultural-jamming-cohesion of “Bound 2,” a prospect derailed by a voicemail from Nicki Minaj.
Indeed, ye ends much like a cryptic voicemail. Who was that, what did they want, and should I even bother listening again?
So what, Kanye, released a shitty album. Does Kanye have a responsibility to his listeners? Does Donald Trump have an obligation to the American people? Are we all just suckers wanting a consolation prize for our own fealty? These kind of questions arise when consuming just about any post-2016 Kanye West media. ye’s soul is pruning at the bottom of a murky bucket of platitudes and anxiety — illegible chaos. Maybe, if we could pan away the flotsam vanity and tedium, we would find a moderate tragedy, an affecting entropy, a headline to mourn.
- e.g. “No blood, I still burn, though.”
- If they aren’t already.