Kanye West: ye
By Steven Norwalk
The Western United States has long symbolized freedom. Ever since the promise of cheap land and rumors of gold inspired pioneers to trek across prairies and deserts for months in search of a better life, the wide open spaces and perceived solitude of the American West has been exalted as an antidote to the bustle of modern life. For many, the region became synonymous with true individualism, as images of cowboys living under open skies and outside the country's legal and economic structures became ingrained in the American consciousness. When it was rumored earlier this year that Kanye West, an artist who has proven himself to be obsessed with noncomformity and individuality, had holed up in Wyoming to record a new album, it seemed fitting. Kanye's desire to operate outside accepted social, political, and musical norms had finally led him to the promised freedom of the American frontier.
West's penchant for heterodoxy had also, yet again, led him into a swirl of controversy. In the months leading up to the release of Kanye's latest album, ye, the rapper repeatedly proclaimed his support for Donald Trump on Twitter, prompting intense criticism and alienating much of his fan base. It was the latest installment in a series of similarly controversial actions taken by West over the course of his career, dating back to his post-Hurricane Katrina assertion that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." But, whereas the George Bush episode or Kanye's interruption of Taylor Swift's VMA acceptance speech could be framed as expressions of righteous anger — against the questionable ethics of a presidential administration in the former case, against an industry that consistently marginalizes black achievement in the latter — Kanye's recent incidents directly challenged the values cherished by much of his fan base, and seemingly, the rapper himself. His willingness to tweet images as polarizing as a signed Make America Great Again hat indicated that he was less concerned than ever with the consequences of his words and actions.
In some respects, ye is a manifestation of Kanye's desire to act and speak freely without regard for repercussions. But, more interestingly, the album also maps the ways in which that desire is frustrated. It captures the tension between Kanye's commitment to free expression and his concern for how that free expression will impact those he cares about. The result is a fascinating portrait of an artist in crisis, an intriguing mix of self-assurance and self-doubt that is couched within some of Kanye's most unabashedly emotional music to date.
Perhaps the clearest example of this tension is the album's touching centerpiece, "Wouldn't Leave." Amidst the brash blustering that characterizes much of the rest of ye, the track is a rare instance of sober reflection, even regret, that nevertheless manages to avoid offering any real apology. Amidst moving vocal turns from the likes of Jeremih and PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kanye expresses appreciation for the patience and support provided by his wife throughout his recent maelstrom of controversy, and demonstrates an awareness of his sometimes hurtful tendencies. He raps lines like "Even if, publicly, I lack the empathy / I ain't finna talk about another four centuries / One and one is two, but me and you, that's infinity." The track captures Kanye's inner struggle between the unrestrained expression of his controversial ideas on the one hand, and the responsibilities he owes to his loved ones on the other. It also reflects his recognition of the precarious position he occupies in both the personal and public spheres of his life; in the track's heartfelt chorus, the rapper barely even pronounces the song's title, slurring the words as if afraid of jinxing his wife's loyalty, or, in another sense, jinxing the loyalty of his audience.
While "Wouldn't Leave" is a worthy addition to Kanye's catalog, much of the rest of the album lacks the lyrical and musical punch that has differentiated the rapper's music over the past decade and a half. Like The Life of Pablo before it, ye suffers from inconsistency. Kanye's verses are frequently scatterbrained, giving the impression that they were cobbled together only moments before they were recorded. Musically, too, the album is uneven. "No Mistakes," for instance, is a forgettable slice of gospel-inflected rap whose two minutes are almost entirely overshadowed by neighboring tracks. But, as with The Life of Pablo, every low point on the album is matched by an undeniable highlight. "Ghost Town," the album's climax, is jaw-droppingly beautiful, joining the ranks of "Bound 2" and "Ultralight Beam" as peak late-period Kanye. The track builds to a show-stopping, and likely career-launching, performance from up-and-coming rapper/singer 070 Shake. Her poignant outro is pure catharsis, and it captures the essence of Kanye's attitude across this entire album, or, more accurately, the attitude that Kanye wishes he could fully embrace: "Nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of free."
The freedom that Kanye craves also takes the form of complete personal openness and transparency. For the first time in his musical career, Kanye's lyrics deal directly with his bipolar disorder, and this focus often informs ye's most powerful moments. "Yikes," one of the album's best and most radio-friendly tracks, builds its powerful chorus around West's struggle with his mental health: "shit could get / menacing / frightening / find help / sometimes / I scare myself." The song is a strange mix of extreme self-confidence and complete vulnerability, with Kanye supplying audacious interjections like "See, this is why all the bitches fuck with Ye" in the midst of the song's last repetition of its honest and affecting chorus. This unorthodox combination renders the track unmistakably Kanye, revealing the contradictions inherent in the rapper's attitude towards mental health, and differentiating it from the moody, emo-tinged rap that characterizes much of today's hip hop landscape.
When introducing ye at its premiere in Wyoming, surrounded by white-capped mountains and grazing horses, Chris Rock told the crowd, "Rap music, hip-hop music, is the first art form created by free black men, and no black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West." ye is most certainly an embrace of that freedom, but it is an embrace tempered by West's knowledge of the complications that this freedom can create. He recognizes that the unchecked expression of his thoughts and ideas can leave pain and heartbreak in its wake. Just as the independence sought by the pioneers of the Western frontier came at the expense of the American Indians they displaced along the way, the free expression Kanye longs for on ye often comes at the expense of those it marginalizes. This inner conflict gives ye its lifeblood, and when this tension finds expression in the album's music, the result is something perplexing, troubling, and beautiful all at once.