Never let it be said that Kanye West hasn’t released a great album. He’s famous for a reason. College Dropout was more than a solid debut and it changed hip-hop for good. Late Registration was tighter and better in every way. 808s and Heartbreak was seriously interesting, if nothing else, and the status of Yeezus as a brilliant album is hardly news.
As I sat down to listen to the new Kanye West album Ye, I was stricken with the sight of an album cover depicting a mountainous landscape overlain with the words “I hate being Bi-Polar, it’s awesome.”
As a man who grew up living with a bipolar mother, I was less offended by this seemingly scrawled declaration of mental illness and more disappointed. As such an influential public icon, Kanye West has real power to raise awareness about the nature of mental illness and perhaps even provide some insight into the affliction. According to The Daily Beast, he’s doing exactly that.
I disagree, from my point of view, Kanye really missed the mark here. While millionaires are using mental illness as a selling point for their albums, or as an explanation for their public behavior, people across the world are hiding their mental issues, losing their jobs over it, and generally hesitate to call it a “superpower,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A lyrical genius should be able to articulate such important subject matter in ways no one has, or they needn’t touch on it. Alas, this run of the mill statement about being bipolar staring back at me from the Spotify app shows me a superficial understanding of the disorder is present even in an apparent victim. But perhaps this would all make sense once the album got going. Or maybe it’s a single misstep and the album contents are where I’ll find the gold. One mustn’t judge an album by its cover.
A few minutes into the first track “I Thought About Killing You” and it’s apparent to me that at best, the album cover won’t be the only misstep of the 23-minute record. Instead, I was being subjected to a mildly interesting beat and try-hard lyrics.
“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.”
Yes Kanye, and it’s always darkest just before dawn, in moments of weakness you’ll find strength, out of dirt grows a beautiful tree and so-on. It seems odd to me, for Kanye to open his album with lyrics reminiscent of a motivational email forwarded from my grandmother, but I don’t blame a lack of talent. Complacency, I suspect is the culprit. It’s important for an artist to be intuitive, but relying exclusively on one’s own instincts, creatively, can lead to assuming the first try is as good as it something has to be, and that’s almost never the case.
Brilliant art isn’t defined by the artist’s process, it’s defined by the final product. If the final product is incredible, people may ask about the process, but if it isn’t, they won’t care. It occurs to me that the issue with a lot of contemporary musicians is their focus on the means, rather than the ends. It doesn’t detract from brilliance if you spend a lot of time working on a great album. For that matter, a boring album isn’t going to be more impressive if you tell everyone it only took you one try and you recorded it over a weekend.
Ye feels half thought-out and all too certain of its own profundity, when it probably needed another year or so of production to properly incubate, especially lyrically.
“Today I seriously thought about killing you. I contemplated, premeditated murder.”
Perhaps this is going somewhere.
“And I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you, so…”
Oh we know you love yourself most of all, Kanye, we know. The truth is, I focused on the lyrics to “I Thought About Killing You” far longer than I’d like to admit, but I believe it was only because I felt I should, this is Kanye West, after all, he made Yeezus. Surely he’s hitting on something deeper than what I’m picking up. But I don’t think so, at least nothing I could discern. The song picks up some steam but never blossoms lyrically in any way that could be described as poignant, or even insightful. Like most of the album, it meanders about in no particular direction.
“Yikes” has the makings of being a decent standard hip-hop track, but a painfully generic, yet dragging hook hinders its otherwise steady direction. After the track closes with Kanye yelling that bipolar disorder is his superpower, it’s difficult to take this album as any kind of serious depiction of mental illness. Instead, he’s reducing his diagnosis to a gimmick. Again, having known someone I’m very close to who suffered from BPD, it makes this difficult to not see as mostly exploitative. Still, I remain less angry and more let down by an opportunity missed.
One of the shorter songs on this already short album is “All Mine” and it happens to be the best track of them all, I think. Kanye’s flow here is on point. Lyrically he’s still mediocre, but that’s just the status quo within Ye. When “Wouldn’t Leave” kicks in, the album hits the halfway point and it’s now inescapable that at best, this will be an inconsistent effort from Kanye. It feels like this is supposed to be the ever-present heartfelt revelation track. Instrumentally speaking, this song has little to write about, other than to say, once the song ends, I have to start it back over again to remember how it sounded while writing this review. It’s representative of the work as a whole, but not for its intended reason. Like Ye, it’s forgettable.
“No Mistakes” has a catchy singable chorus with Kanye reminding us it’s been a shaky year for him and that he was “too grown in high school.” In 2004 releases and even a bit beyond, Kanye’s less-than-stellar year and recollections of misspent youth seem emotionally resonant. Here, they feel like either filler or a poorly executed callback, I’m unsure which.
One wouldn’t think such a short album could be much of an endurance test, but as luck would have it, “Ghost Town” is the longest song on Ye and tests patience to the point of feeling parodic. Somewhere around the three-minute mark, after Kid Cudi’s chorus has somehow already started bearing threads, “Ghost Town” descends into an extended droning ear assault from artist 070 Shake. We’ve reached the low point of Kanye West’s new album and it’s as lyrically derivative as it is monotonous.
“We’re still the kids we used to be, yeah, yeah. I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed”
Someone listened to The Downward Spiral, forgot about it, had a vague recollection of Trent Reznor’s iconic lyrics “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel,” they couldn’t remember where they heard it or what the lyrics were exactly, and here we are. A few mental gymnastics later, somebody became a lyrical genius in their own mind. At least that’s how I picture 070 Shake’s lyrics for “Ghost Town” came to be. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t listened to any of her solo work, perhaps it’s amazing.
“Violent crimes” closes the album and isn’t the worst track. It might be the best. Honestly, it’s hard to remember. Ye is just so lackluster, slogging, and forgettable, discerning one track from another is a challenge until going back to replay it. In all, I listened to Kanye’s new album three times, just to be certain it didn’t grow on me. In truth, it was a bit better on further listens, but marginally.
Kanye West is boring on Ye. While I don’t have to love every release from an artist, it’s key to at least be interesting. Dullness is difficult to forgive. Again, it’s Kanye, he’s made some incredible albums, and as such, I’ll check out any new release he puts out, but hopefully, he gets over this notion that everything he creates is effortlessly amazing. Even great artists have to put in some effort and do some introspection.
Ye is, to me, an album reflecting an artist devoid of introspection. Someone so pleased with the idea of himself, he’s forgetting what made him great in the first place. Lately, Kanye’s musical efforts echo the character of Guido in the film 8½, where a solipsistic artist recedes into his fantasies of adoration and artistry, buying into his own hype
Whether it intended to or not, Ye doesn’t stand as much of a profound depiction of bipolar disorder, but it does seem to capture a narcissism well.