Kanye West: ye review: Big-hearted and introspective
While the troubled megastar is tender, warm and devoid of ego, the old Kanye hasn’t completely left us
Kanye West onstage in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Kanye West, ye
Kanye West has never flinched from controversy. Indeed, across recent years the rapper has seemed to actively seek it out at every turn. But his appetite for self-destruction is brought to a crashing halt on new album ye – a record by turns confounding, big-hearted and introspective and, which, it is tempting to conclude, represents the first step on the road to emotional healing for the troubled megastar.
Such a moment is unquestionably overdue. In the run-up to ye, released following a listening party at the rapper’s new HQ at mountainous Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and reportedly featuring a cover image snapped on his phone minutes earlier, West (40) had appeared to be on a mission to alienate as much of his fanbase as possible.
He’d reiterated his support for Donald Trump and told TMZ slavery was a “choice”. He’s also antagonised the family of Whitney Houston by producing the new Pusha T album, Daytona – the cover of which features an image of the tragic singer’s “drug infested” Atlanta bathroom (Kanye stumped up $85,000 for rights to the shot).
Once regarded as among the great artists of his generation, with every outburst West slipped further and further down the spiral. One was reminded of Morrissey, another icon whose legend was chipped away each time he opened his mouth.
West arrests that descent on ye, a meditative seven-track affair that, if skimping of mea culpas, exhibits hints of the self-awareness and empathy of which he has recently been lacking. There are moments he even does the unthinkable and stops talking about himself. Not since early triumphs such as The College Dropout and Late Registration has he sounded so willing to engage, at least fleetingly, with the wider world.
ye is built around a series of valentines to his family (it makes a twisted sense that West toyed with using as artwork a photograph of the surgeon who performed liposuction on his mother, Donda, who later died of complications). On Wouldn’t Leave he pays tribute to his wife, Kim Kardashian, for sticking by him through the meltdowns he’s suffered across the past several years (in 2016 he was committed to UCLA Medical Centre after experiencing “hallucinations and paranoia”).
Even more affecting is closing number Violent Crimes, in which he imagines the future lives of his two daughters, with Willow Smith (daughter of Will and Jada) voicing their love for him in turn (Nicki Minaj pops up at the end with a baffling voice-message). It’s sweet and unguarded – Kanye without the Kanye-isms.
But a meditation on fatherhood is also, arguably, a live-wire way to bring down the shutters – a tiny jab, right at the end. Kanye, we should recall, is a minor player on the latest beef to shake hip-hop, with his collaborator Pusha T calling out Drake for his supposed secret love child (the Daytona LP was likewise assembled at Jackson Hole).
“You don’t pay your child support… you don’ hang with me,” Pusha has stated – a proclamation of a piece with the caring, hug-dispensing Kanye, who turns up at the end of ye.
Kanye’s previous LP, 2016’s Life of Pablo, was a fascinating, cathartic mess – a work of slapdash genius, quicksilver hooks and killer lines juxtaposed with meandering songs, indulgent lyrics and career-sabotaging asides (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.”).
West confessed disappointment recently at the record’s lack of airplay, intimating the lukewarm response may have contributed to his breakdown and hospitalisation shortly afterwards.
ye is certainly a riposte to those who felt Pablo the work of an artist who’s best days were in the rear-view mirror and was more interested whipping up a storm on social media. It isn’t exactly stuffed with catchy interludes and, with its familiar minimalist beats and inwards-gazing wordplay, won’t cause younger rivals such as Kendrick Lamar and the aforementioned Drake lost sleep. If you’re looking for the hip hop zeitgeist, it does not reside here (then, nor did it on Jay-Z’s 444).
But the record is warm and accessible and, at its rawest, mercifully unburdened by Kanye’s all-crushing ego. It also speaks to his ongoing determination to reconfigure the architecture of the album launch.
On the heels of Pusha T’s Daytona, it’s the second of five Kanye-productions the rapper has pledged to release over the summer, each LP clocking in at seven tracks (if you can’t prove yourself with seven songs, explained Pusha, then what do you have to say?). Future releases will include a collaboration with Kid Cudi, a new Nas long-player and the second album from r’n’b singer Teyana Taylor.
Deeper and darker
Perspectives on Kanye’s sometimes fragile state of mind are presented up front, most chillingly opener I Thought About Killing You (also referenced on the jokey/serious words scrawled across the sleeve – “I have Being Bi-Polar It’s Awesome”).
“Today I thought about killing you. .. I think about killing myself…and I love myself way more than I love you.” To whom is he speaking: Kim Kardashian? Some aspect of his (possibly splintered) ego? We’re left guessing, the creepiness heightened by the matter-of-fact staccato with which West delivers the lines.
The old Kanye hasn’t completely left us, however. He dances around the #MeToo movement on Yikes, appearing to sympathise with hip hop mogul Russell Simmons who has been accused of inappropriate behaviour. “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too, I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d …Thinkin’ what if that happened to me too, Then I’m on E! News.” If any couplet comes back to bite, this is likely to be it.
He goes deeper and darker on the same track, with an unflinching reference to his emotional health. Kanye isn’t for turning and embraces and celebrates what others might regard as a weakness. “That’s my bipolar s***,” brags an artist who has confessed to an addiction to opiods and to undergoing liposuction, both prior to his 2016 hospitalisation. “That’s my superpower n***… ain’t no disability… I’m a superhero.”
One individual who doesn’t merit a shout-out is Donald Trump, whom Kanye has hailed elsewhere as “my boy” (“I’ve never been into politics. I just love Trump.”). The closest is a reference to Stormy Daniels, the adult entertainment star involved in a legal battle with the US President.
“If I pull up with a Kerry Washington,” he says on All Mine. “That’s gon’ be an enormous scandal, I could have Naomi Campbell and still might want me a Stormy Daniels.”
How does ye rank compared to the Kanye’s previous records? It is unquestionably closer to the experimental spirit of Pablo than to earlier chart-busters. That said, it’s more comfortable in its skin than the suffocating, Auto-Tune soaked 808s & Heartbreak (2008) and less sprawling and formally ambitious than 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. A seven-track release was never going to challenge that masterpiece. Nonetheless, ye unquestionably sits in the higher echelons of the pantheon.
Throughout the musical backdrop is tender and fuzzy – not terribly far removed from the shoe-gaze hip hop of Frank Ocean. Accompanied by a lilting line from Young Thug and a slow, slaloming beat, the aforementioned Wouldn’t Leave softens the blow of its often hard-pummelling rhymes. “I say ‘slavery a choice’,” he says, referencing the notorious TMZ interview. “They say ‘How, ‘Ye?’, Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.”
But, against the gentle wash of samples, he says proceeds to lay his heart out. “That’s what they mean when they say for better or for worse, huh? For every damn female that’s stuck with their dude through the best times… through the worst times… this is for you.”
It’s a tender departure – Kanye getting over his essential Kanye-ness and reflecting on his life someone else’s perspective. Compared to the cathartic musings of Pablo, it’s the sound of artist throwing open the shutters. “Make no mistake girl… still love you,” goes the celebratory chorus of No Mistakes – the biggest pop moment here.
In the main, the tone is woozy, sometimes soporific. But Kanye has fun kicking back on Ghost Town, built on a celebratory duet between Kid Cudi and John Legend, over which Kanye sprinkles his lines. It’s gorgeous and uncomplicated – as is Violent Crimes, the closer in which West express his love for his daughters (n***as b playas until there be fathers”). These are moment of genuine warmth and humanity – a hint that maybe Kanye hasn’t left us after all.
“Nothing hurts any more.. I feel kind of free,” goes the chorus on Ghost Town. Coming from Kanye that might once have felt like an ominous sentiment. Here, it’s a simple celebration – affirmative, uncomplicated and joyous