One Thursday night near the middle of this semester, I sat on a dorm room floor engaged in a tipsy debate centered around the question of our generation: What is up with Kanye West? The conversation turned from his politics to his music (not a far leap, considering the way in which the two are inextricably intertwined), initiating the familiar argument over which of the rapper’s albums is the best. An idea popped into my overly eager, newly appointed-Co-Editor-of-The-Misc-Arts-section head.
“Would any of you want to write an article about your favorite Kanye album?”
The response was enthusiastic. Just like that, Kanye’s Korner was born. The rationale for the series is this: Love him or hate him, the rapper’s importance in the music and fashion worlds, the Kardashian family and the White House render him deeply relevant to our generation. His thoughts, expressed through his albums, reveal volumes about our current moment. In many ways, Kanye is contemporary American culture, so his commentary on it is invaluable.
Increasingly, however, the above claim is controversial. As the rapper continually espouses political agendas that separate him from his key fan base (simply put, MAGA hats do not appeal to the majority of rap fans) and exhibits more and more erratic behavior (as evidenced by his canceled tour dates due to a hospitalization in the UCLA Medical Center for stress and exhaustion), his relevancy has been called into question (The Washington Post, “Kanye West Hospitalized in Los Angeles, Placed on Psychiatric Hold,” 11.22.2016). On the night when Kanye’s Korner began, one of my friends illustrated this point: Smirking at me, he said, “Good luck finding someone to write about ‘ye.’”
Kanye’s latest solo album, which dropped June 1, 2018, is perhaps his only release since the beginning of his career that did not come out amid a cloud of excited anticipation from fans. Instead, the lead-up to the record was laden with anxious dread and riddled with assertions that the rapper had peaked long ago. In a review for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield described it best: “[‘ye’] isn’t the career-torpedoing disaster that many fans were bracing themselves for, but it sure didn’t turn out to be the heartwarming redemption story it angles to be” (Rolling Stone, “Review: Kanye West’s Chaotic, Insecure ‘Ye’,” 06.05.2018). While I’m not sure if “ye” strives to redeem Kanye, exactly, Sheffield’s assessment of the work’s mediocrity rings true. At best, the record is an eye-opening glimpse into the rapper’s seemingly unfathomable thought processes; at worst, it’s the manifestation of an artist attempting to keep up with the ever-present shadow of his former genius.
The manner in which “ye” was created speaks to the latter argument. In April, 2018, Kanye took to Twitter, promising the release of five G.O.O.D. Music albums. He was set to be the executive producer of each, and they were all to drop over a five-week period, with a week separating each. Two of the albums, “ye” and “Kids See Ghosts,” would be Kanye’s own projects, the latter in collaboration with Kid Cudi. In order to accomplish this feat, the rapper holed up in Jackson Hole with a group of artists and producers, creating a body of work that has come to be known as the Wyoming Sessions.
This rapid-fire production style rings reminiscent of Kanye’s past. While working on his first album, “The College Dropout,” the artist famously produced five beats a day for three full summers, a feat rendered even more impressive by the fact that he did so with equipment that is far less advanced than the tools used today (Vibe, “‘The College Dropout’ Turns 13: An Oral History Of Kanye West’s Classic From An Engineer’s Perspective,” 02.10.2017).
Surely, time was once of no obstacle to Kanye—but 14 years elapsed between his freshman effort and “ye,” and the type of immediately accessible, at-your-fingertips creativity he once possessed seems to have fled. Simply put, Kanye can no longer string together a brilliant beat in a matter of hours, and his process with “ye” suggests he fails to recognize that.
The artist used to be aware of such newfound limitations, though. “The Life of Pablo,” for instance, was released a full two years after its original drop date. As with “ye,” the rapper announced a timeline for the album on Twitter. Unlike with “ye,” he then announced another timeline, and then another. When the intended day finally arrived, Kanye delayed once again, tweeting that the album wasn’t out because Chance the Rapper had insisted they finish the song “Waves” so it could be included in the final tracklist (Rolling Stone, “‘Blame Chance’: Kanye West Explains ‘Life of Pablo’ Album Delay,” 02.13.2016). That type of commitment to quality over deadline was lost with “ye,” as the artist attempted to meet unrealistic production goals in order to prove his continued relevancy and musical genius. The project suffered for it.
Ultimately, that is my central critique: While each of Kanye’s albums since “The College Dropout” has innovated in some way, “ye” is more of a look back into the rapper’s past successes than a new triumph. The harshness of the pulsing beat in “Yikes” sounds like “The Life of Pablo”-era tracks such as “Feedback,” while “Wouldn’t Leave” recalls “Devil In A New Dress” from “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The ghosts of Kanyes past scatter throughout “ye,” giving new meaning to the title of the Cudi collab released a week later, “Kids See Ghosts.”
Despite the lack of sonic ingenuity, “ye” is valuable in that it gives listeners unprecedented access into Kanye’s often baffling thoughts. For instance, the track “No Mistakes” gives a succinct description of the rapper’s state of mind: “I got dirt on my name/I got white on my beard/I had debt on my books/It’s been a shaky-ass year/Let me make this clear/so all y’all see/I don’t take advice from people less successful than me.” This further nuances the claim that “ye” was an attempt to prove Kanye’s continued relevance—the first half of the above quote shows the artist’s cognizance that he was losing his grip on the world’s attention; the second half reaffirms his commitment to ignoring doubters and maintaining his place at the top of the cultural food chain.
“I Thought About Killing You” dives deeply and darkly into Kanye’s struggles with mental health. He repeats the refrain “I think about killing myself,” and then asserts that such thoughts are not born from lack of self-love, which he has traditionally claimed to have in abundance, but an urge to “Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels/Weigh all the options, nothing’s off the table.”
Throughout the song, he alludes to the fact that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder: “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.” This sheds light on the album’s cover art, which bluntly states, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.” Although the status of Ye’s diagnosis is a little fuzzy (he told President Trump that he did not, in fact, have bipolar disorder, but last month Kim Kardashian affirmed that he does), he uses the disorder to contextualize “ye.”
Kanye may or may not actually have bipolar disorder, and we will probably never know for sure. Either way, the diagnosis would not change the fact that his public persona has always felt dichotomous. His assertion about the proximity of beautiful and dark thoughts essentially sums up his career: The rapper has always been both brilliant and nonsensical, inspired and misguided. Hopefully this series has done justice to the multi-faceted, often facetious and ultimately fascinating enigma that is Kanye West.