According to Kanye West, the title of his eighth album revealed itself upon his epiphany that “ye” is the most commonly used word in the Bible.
It isn’t. According to KingJamesBibleOnline.org, “ye,” the antiquated pronoun for “you,” hovers somewhere around 40th when it comes to usage. If you’re keeping score, that’s significantly behind “Lord” and “God,” West’s preferred synonyms for self.
Inevitably, every Kanye song winds up being about Kanye. The South Side Chicago native turned Calabasas Dilbert connoisseur has created anthems about everything from Jesus to doomed love, but to paraphrase one of the first classic rap disses, Kanye has always embodied what Dostoyevsky said about Turgenev: “If he described a shipwreck, he wouldn’t describe the drowning children but the saltiness of the tears running down his cheek.”
The old Kanye would’ve inevitably turned the wetness of those tears into a sexualized double entendre, or at least a “Zoolander” punchline. Yet what once came off like goofball charm has calcified into the crass misogyny and dragon energy delusion of “Ye,” the unedited ramblings of the world’s oldest adolescent showcasing the ignorance of a gifted but oblivious fool who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge reality.
Twenty-one Grammy Awards and 21 million albums sold. These statistics exist as evidence for why West claims “I don’t take advice from people less successful than me.” But “Ye” exists as a reminder that even legitimate genius has limitations and all of us can use real friends to remind us of who we used to be and the out-of-touch caricature that we’ve become. A self-serious 23-minute crayon pamphlet of luxurious emptiness, “Ye” limps along as vacant and inert as the Wyoming skyline on its cover.
West has committed the unforgivable sin of the provocateur: the most unpredictable man in music created something irredeemably boring. It’s an album as all-night term paper written frantically on 40 milligrams of Adderall and four Red Bulls, turned in with a clear plastic folder to suggest a veneer of professionalism.
Last May, reports began trickling out of Wyoming about West secluding himself with a rotating cast of visitors that allegedly included Pete Rock, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dave Chappelle, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Rick Ross, Chance the Rapper and Travis Scott. It’s unclear whether those sessions will wind up on one of the other West-produced albums that will be released this month from Kid Cudi, Nas and Teyana Taylor. But West’s public declarations all indicate that he scrapped everything he had been building in favor of a manic burst of raw creativity among elk, moose and intermittently flown-in tastemaking vloggers.
Forget the old chop-up-the-soul Kanye. The 2013 Kanye who bragged to “Yeezus” executive producer Rick Rubin that he’d score “40 in the fourth quarter” has become J.R. Smith letting time expire without knowing the score. You don’t have to squint hard to see the lobotomized remnants of what once was. The Kanye who equated himself to spoken word appears immediately on “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s unclear whether he’s addressing himself, Kim Kardashian West, the demons inside his head or some combination of the three, but it’s effectively gibberish. If Eminem could be shockingly grim and tasteless, his concepts were at least fully realized. This is a CliffsNotes “Kim” for people too lazy and apathetic to actually commit the crime.
Each production idea has previously been explored with greater imagination, meticulousness and energy throughout West’s two-decade career. A disembodied vocal chop of Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” on “No Mistakes” recalls Madlib’s superior use of Ghostface Killah’s vocals on “No More Parties in L.A.” “Ghost Town” attempts to pierce the wounded soul of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” but feels like breaking into an abandoned Hot Topic where Kid Cudi caterwauls like Biz Markie. On opener “I Thought About Killing You,” West self-consciously brays that he’s on “young n---a s--t/ we don’t age” but name-checks Fire Marshal Bill and Deebo, which might as well be a jitterbug reference to a new generation raised on the music of Lil Pump. Who knew that the guy behind “School Spirit” would wind up as a walking “how do you do, fellow kids” meme?
If 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” approximated a rupturing psyche with its schizophrenic beat shifts, unnerving aggression and the grandiosity of the deranged, this feels comparatively numb and resigned. There is no joy in “Ye,” merely a profound sadness to see a generationally great artist misunderstand the slim nexus between his strengths and weaknesses. He trumpets his apparent bipolar diagnosis as a superpower, but his erratic behavior since “Yeezus” has resulted in his two worst albums, tour cancellations and alienation from many of his longtime collaborators. The howl at the end of “Yikes” aims for the unhinged primal scream of John Lennon but comes off like Howard Dean.
“Ye’s” back half ostensibly hinges upon his love for Kardashian, and retrograde explanations of the boys-will-boys behavior that men force their wives to endure. After all, who among us hasn’t gone on syndicated tabloid TV and inadvertently parroted grotesque white supremacist fabrications about slavery being a “choice”? But rather than unpack the warped logic behind his TMZ confessions or redress his failure to acknowledge the oppressive brutality of America’s original blood sin, West blithely recalls his wife’s terror at the idea that he might have potentially messed up their French chateau money. Then he compares himself to futuristic animated briefcase George Jetson. Somehow, the most ludicrous analogy comes when he links Cleveland Cavaliers journeyman and Khloé Kardashian beau Tristan Thompson with basketball Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
“Ye’s” charms are brief and almost entirely the result of West’s collaborators. On “All Mine,” G.O.O.D Music’s most gifted new artist in a decade, Valee, inexplicably figures out how to transform his voice into a trilling flute that blends perfectly into Ty Dolla Sign’s blunt ashes baritone. Charlie Wilson’s empyrean soul on “No Mistakes” solidifies his claim to having the best late-career run since Philip Roth.
Ultimately, what’s most glaring and damning is West’s inability or fear to tread beyond surface-level introspection. Mentions of opioid addiction, liposuction surgery and mental breakdowns are totally elided beyond perfunctory gestures. He addresses his marriage in two songs but fails to reveal specifics beyond a brief admission that he lies about not having cell service when he receives upsetting texts.
His abrupt political agitations go similarly unmentioned, which spares listeners the trouble of reconciling the MAGA metamorphosis of a man who once risked national opprobrium for calling out the policies of George W. Bush. Yet it raises a question: What was the point? Why successfully remove yourself from public life, only to return to say and do provocative things in front of every camera possible, without at least offering a coherent explanation? He doesn’t offer a justification for the promotional incitement or deliver a rewarding payoff. In his rush to meet a self-imposed and arbitrary deadline, West neither shapes this tumult into a lucid narrative nor offers the humanizing moments that might allow listeners to empathize with his plight.
In practice, “Ye” is the polar opposite of “4:44,” in which Jay-Z grappled with his flaws and misdeeds. On that album, Jay gracefully matured from the “Girls, Girls, Girls” rapper to a penitent father and husband, aware of the need to evolve without sacrificing the charisma and wordplay that originally made him compelling. By contrast, Kanye’s big wet attempt to flout his free thinking is the finale, “Violent Crimes,” a lackluster reworking of Nas’s “Daughters” in which he strikes a rare triple Lutz of casual chauvinism, stealing a marginal Nicki Minaj lyric about threesomes and making a stale reference to a Ben Stiller movie. The song’s central plot point involves Kanye lamenting the fact that his daughter will inevitably become a woman and his hysterical fear that she’ll do yoga, become curvy and one day fall prey to middle-aged men like Kanye, ostensibly happily married but openly lusting after Stormy Daniels.
This is about as close as West gets to rapping about his bond with his “brother” Donald Trump. But a subtext hangs heavy over the record that extends much deeper than the music. It’s hard not to note the similarities between the pair’s ability to create a cult of personality rooted in an independent and constantly shifting reality, where facts are less important than feelings, where the only worthwhile wisdom comes from the voices in their heads. For the past two months, the pop culture and political worlds have been alternately rapt and horrified by West’s every statement and endorsements, his trolling scatological singles, signed MAGA hats and ahistoric pronouncements. All for the sake of an album rollout.
All that for this?