Review: Ye by Kanye West
Kanye West’s recent social media life has not received much fanfare as his Life of Pablo did in 2016. Rampant across Twitter are terminative propositions to “cancel” the rapper for his recent political disturbances. In April, Kanye declared fraternity with President Trump in a spontaneous and squally tweet: “We are both dragon energy,” the rapper mythicized, “he [Trump] is my brother.” Implicit in this same tweet was an attack to the contemporary culture of political correctness, as he cites his “right to independent thought.” The rapper pushed this level of free thinking even further, to the dangerous point of licentiousness in a May interview with TMZ, where he ignorantly and ahistorically claims that the four centuries of slavery were “a choice.”
Yet, despite these problematics—and the MAGA hat, signed by Don and donned by the rapper—Ye and his newest album ye were able to debut as #1 on the Billboard 200 Chart in perhaps the most controversial period of the artist’s career. With this release, the rapper rakes in his eighth No.1 album, which garnered even more first-week album sales than Life of Pablo, which was released in a less tempestuous context. Such a response comes as a surprise, given Kanye’s political undertakings and furthermore ye’s haphazard production history, as it was scrapped one month prior to and finalized just one day before release. Not only that, but the artist was further discredited after being committed to a psychiatric ward.
Thus, there must be something captivating enough within this musical—this (a)political—mess for fans to download and purchase. Similar to the title, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome,” scrawled on the album cover in neon green, our feelings towards the album are similarly complicated and multi-faceted. Although run-on, misspelled, and ungrammatical chicken scratch, there is something profound and relatable in the oxymoronic messiness. Are there are reconciliations to be had with “ye”—a beautiful mess we are to behold and get rid of—to be amazed but also grotesqued by—at the same time?
The premier song is “I Thought About Killing You,” a fusion of genres that begins with a pronouncedly dark and powerful spoken word piece layered and juxtaposed overtop a calming, muffled electronic beat. The meditation on murder is morbidly sweet, as Kanye contemplates a double homicide—of his wife and of himself—that is driven by love. Not only is subject matter disturbing, but also its treatment, as the necromaniac sustains a leveled—even soothing—tone and pace throughout his verse. The poetry is forthright, foregoing any use of euphemism; where he is “supposed to say somethin’ good,” Kanye just says more “really, really, really bad things.” Dwellings on homicide-suicide then escalate when Kanye jumps into his closing rap, as the slow techno base is replaced by a persistent squeaking, coupled with periodic bird-like screeching, as Kanye fatalizes “We was all born to die, n*gga DOA.”
By the end of “I Thought About Killing You,” we are unquestionably occupying the headspace of a troubled artist, but of one who accepts and romanticizes his troubled state. It is like the double entendre of the album’s title, ye. Both titular and affirmative, it is Kanye saying ye to being crazy.
The rapper’s instability becomes palpable by the turn of his next song, “Yikes.” Whereas he “love[s] [him]self” in the opener, here he is “scared [of] [him]self” as things are “menacin’, frightenin’.” The piece is gritty and bellicose; Kanye projects the internal to the external, employing a rap that laughs at the tabloids for sensationalizing his commitment into a psychiatric facility. In addition to the public, the rapper directly confronts the medical institution by tracing the erasure and degeneration of his mind via intense clinicalization. The ward patient-prisoner runs through the abbreviative jargon of medication that inundated him: “tweakin’ off that 2C-B,” “gon’ run DMC,” then “DMT”—almost to the point of “OD.” And he criticizes the destabilizing impenetrability and irregularity of prescriptions, weaving angry asides in the chorus’s third iterance: “They take me on meds” then “off meds.” “Yikes” then explodes in its outro, where Kanye dissociates into his “third person” and calls his “bipolar shit” his “superpower”—not “no disability”—chanting “I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!” and closing with a cathartic scream.
It is obvious—perhaps painstakingly—that Kanye tries to find subversion in his art by forcing controversy upon his listeners. He redefines touchy subjects, such as love that is murderous and overdoses that are heroic. At times, this self-channeling of craziness into a source of creativity is effective in crafting music through which listeners can recognize larger systems of violence such as mental health stigma. But other times, Kanye’s free-thinking leaks into dangerous recklessness, as seen in his recent tweets. The rapper doesn’t necessarily directly endorse the president, though he nevertheless—and possibly lending to worse repercussions—reinforces and promulgates what the presidency symbolically represents in terms of unrestrained free thinking. He is elliptical in language—“[y]ou don’t have to agree with [T]rump but the mob can’t make me not love him”—in an attempt to distance himself from politics and make a broader, philosophical statement on “independent thought.” But what Mr. Kanye does not realize is this: to apoliticize is to politicize, even if under the guise of art, whether it be on Twitter or with music.
The danger of Kanye’s unrestrained mind manifests later in ye. After reclaiming mental autonomy in “Yikes,” Kanye deploys it ignobly in his following song “All Mine.” The rapper discusses infidelity as the involuntary product of the “medulla oblongata.” The female subject of interest is objectified as “supermodel thick” with an “ass bustin’ out the bottom” which in turn triggers the rapper’s “genie out the bottle.” Other instances of sexism are rampant and oozing, as she is dehumanized as a mere orifice for the male rapper to “lose [his] mind in,” “back [into]” and “pipe up.” Like with politics, Kanye displays zero deliberation in his treatment of women and sex; he is loudly inappropriate, urging to “[l]et [himself] hit it raw.” What he does here, hypocritically—toxically, dangerously—is wield the liberation and artistic inspiration he garners from his mental health to in turn devalue the body and suppress the agency of another marginalized demographic, women. But for Kanye, the issue with such invasive language, though, is not of moral kind, but rather simply social, as he fears getting “MeToo’d” and sent on “E! News.”
Kanye constantly teeters the line between bodaciousness and recklessness. And the public response to such inconsistency is, deservedly, disdain. On one hand, we sometimes feel sympathy for Kanye. In “Ghost Town,” his on-pitch, clear-cut rap signals a break—an awakening—from Kid Cudi’s flat and stoned mumbling as he longs for a return to the past, where “someday,” as a child, “he will begin to feel better.” But instantaneously, he tarnishes the credibility he’s built and suffocates the sympathy he’s elicited by yelling “fuck the outcome.” There is a treacherousness to his inconsistency that we can’t overcome. In response to calling “slavery a choice” he disquiets us even more, ominously prophesizing “just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.”
Is Kanye telling us that he can say worse? Can he bastardize free thinking even further? For the tomfool, art has zero stakes when, in reality, it holds so many, especially given the platform he holds. If only he would filter his Twitter and music like he does his profile pictures.