It’s an August afternoon in 2013. I’m in Bushwick, standing on the JMZ platform at Myrtle and Broadway, a block and a half from the dumpy, poorly-ventilated loft I share with four friends. The second half of “I’m In It” is blaring in my headphones; the indecipherable combination of King Louie’s patois and Justin Vernon’s mumble-setto makes my hair stand on end. West’s sampled scream seems to skip in my headphones.
It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that Kanye West is at it again.
I know, in a kind of abstract sense, why I, an adult with a career and hobbies and responsibilities which all require tending, have followed Kanye-related news with an obsessive intensity bordering on full-bore psychosis for the last six months. Why I read the transcripts of his on-stage meltdown in Sacramento a year and a half ago. Why I Googled photos of him standing next to the former host of the Apprentice in the lobby of a New York skyscraper and argued about his hair color change. Why I rejoiced at the news of musical gear being delivered to the mental health facility in which he was reportedly staying. Why I was cautiously optimistic when he returned to Twitter to tap out a “book” and announce a slate of albums for his G.O.O.D. Music label. I did all of this because, simply put, there was no one as fun to talk about as Kanye West — no one as talented at scandalizing America’s bourgeois manners, no one whose music is both so immediately magnetic and propulsively conceptual, no one who seems as committed to pushing the envelope of both the normal and the acceptable. (And also, to be fair, because as a graduate student, I am free to spend much of my time as I please doing this, so long as I can reasonably describe it as “research.”)
Yet here, today, writing this, the prospect of running through the entire timeline of the very normal and regular last several months of West’s public shenanigans makes me feel the same visceral, preemptive exhaustion that rushes into my body when I am asked to describe the plot of a David Fincher movie. Where I once would have really enjoyed running down all of the various data points, now I get embarrassed whenever West’s name crops up in conversation or on my Twitter feed. Why bother explaining the series of tweets that led to him posting an image of himself in a (signed!) Make America Great Again hat, or running through the roster of alt-right cranks West has been spotted palling around with? What purpose would it serve to puzzle through the awful and deeply weird take on slavery he delivered to (of course) the TMZ newsroom? I mean, seriously: why? What would that get me?
It’s May 2016. I’m hiking with Drew in the hills outside of Berkeley. We reach a vista point and stop for the afternoon; putting on my headphones, I start Pablo at “Waves,” but when I get to “30 Hours,” I set it to repeat, and lie there, unmoving, for some lengthy but undefined period of time, until Drew pokes me sharply in the arm. When I pull my headphones off and turn to look at him, I realize that one of the steers who live in the preserve has wandered up and is peaceably grazing maybe two or three feet away. The cow looks glumly at me. I put my headphones back on and pack up my things and we leave.
West’s hijinks seem to have been leading up to G.O.O.D.’s June release schedule, including Pusha T’s Daytona, his own ye, and a collaboration with Kid Cudi entitled Kids See Ghosts, all three projects executive produced by him with help from a typically messy, lengthy slate of collaborators, including Mike Dean, Francis and the Lights, Nicki Minaj, Charlie Wilson, and Andre 3000, among others. (It’s worth noting that the lead-up to each of West’s last three records all featured increasingly-extreme antics, with perhaps the most extreme being 2016’s infamous “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!” tweet preceding the release of The Life of Pablo.) Of the two releases under his name, Kids See Ghosts is undoubtedly West’s superior album. The album draws more from Cudi’s aesthetic sensibility, melding arena-rock guitars and slurring, melacholic vocal work with understated percussion and a subtle but ubiquitous layer of overdrive and reverb. There are few climaxes on the record, with the duo seeming to prefer a kind of sly, revolving, libidinal motion, a sensibility on full display in the static but unevenly anchoring “Fire,” and the gentle, crooning “Reborn”: “I’m so, I’m so reborn / I’m moving forward / Keep moving forward / Keep moving forward.” “Cudi Montage” is built around a snippet of jangling, unsettling guitar work from Kurt Cobain’s Montage of Heck. The album’s highlight, “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2),” brilliantly samples UK gear-head Mr. Chop, a selection which recalls West’s inspired borrowing of the Hungarian rock band Omega for YEEZUS’s standout “New Slaves.” As a whole, Kids See Ghosts is ponderous, conflicted, subterranean, almost meditative; like all good collaborations, the two artists convert their shared feeling — in this case, their anxiety about, and frustration with, the intersection of fame and creativity in the contemporary world — into both explicit content and aesthetic strategy. The result is an album which feels earnest and thoughtful, if also occasionally somewhat slight, airy, floating.
It is telling, then — and also revealing — that West’s own ye seems completely devoid of any of this introspection. Although Kids is the superior album, ye is the more essential Kanye West record — or, at least, the record that seems to strike more at the heart of where, exactly, the psyche of Kanye West is (at least for the moment). The album opens with West contemplating the “premeditated murder” of himself, or maybe his wife, or his fans; it closes with his version of the “dad creepily laments his daughter’s eventual sexualization” song. In between, West muses on subjects that are by now eminently familiar to his listeners: fame, temptation, power, drugs, mental instability, family, scandal, loyalty, wealth, religion, fortune and misfortune, nostalgia and the future, Nike and Adidas. He doesn’t have anything particularly new to say on these subjects, but his perspective is buoyed by what he clearly feels is a newfound spirit of love, honesty, and self-acceptance. (Never mind that it’s difficult to take this posture particularly seriously when he remarks, “I don’t take advice from people less successful than me,” or to not roll your eyes as the wistful observation that “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.”)
West’s production chops are clearly in great shape, and ye’s instrumental work plays like a refracted career retrospective. The elegant, pointillistic, bass-driven minimalism of “All Mine” and “Yikes” recall the best moments of Yeezus and The Life of Pablo; “Ghost Town” and “No Mistakes” bridge The College Dropout’s sepia-tinted soul samples with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s melodic guitars and straightforward percussion. And all in all, there are a fair number of interesting, or beautiful, or unusual, or imaginative moments on ye, but pretty much all of the most memorable are a product of West’s collaborators: 070 Shake’s brilliant, groaning glissandos and Cudi’s moaning chorus on “Ghost Town”; the male-eros superteam of Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and The.Dream on “Wouldn’t Leave”; the machine-gun falsetto with which Ant Clemons opens “All Mine.” Even Kanye’s hook on “Yikes” was reportedly written by Drake. Collaboration has been a central part of West’s creative process for years, stretching from the kitchen-sink-maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the inclusion of everyone from Daft Punk to Bon Iver to King Louie on YEEZUS. In fact, he is probably best understood not as the kind of isolated, visionary auteur he imagines himself to be, but rather as a masterful orchestrator — less Charlie Parker and more Duke Ellington.
Late October, 2016. I’m sitting in traffic on my way to see the Saint Pablo Tour in Inglewood, only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election. Suspended on a simple platform above a frothing crowd and floating through a haze of red mist, Kanye, unaccompanied, performs an hour and a half of music, including pretty much every song of his I could imagine wanting to hear. West runs back the first few bars of “Famous” half a dozen times, drawing laughter from the crowd and making me wonder, first, if perhaps Taylor Swift was among the audience, and second, if West did this at every stop on the tour. At one point there is a lengthy home-movie montage of West’s family, focusing specifically on a young Kim Kardashian, set to “Only One,” his collaboration with Paul McCartney. The night concludes with West dancing through a laser-light display to “Fade” before segueing beautifully into “Ultralight Beam.” We get lost walking back to the car.
But the degree to which West’s productions rest on his collaborators’ talents makes it especially hard to hear West deliver eye-watering duds: “I love your titties because they prove I can focus on two things at once.” “None of us would be here without cum.” Blech. West considers himself an epoch-defining innovator and futurist; one imagines that, when he comes up with lines like these, he hears himself pushing the envelope, redefining what is considered acceptable, tasteful, sayable, imaginable, cool; “it’s a different type of rules that we obey,” he raps on the album’s first track. But the effect is somewhat different: West, a 41-year-old polymath with two children and what is probably an unimaginable fortune, has made the classic error of the teenage edge-lord — confusing the provocative with the imaginative.
The result of that confusion is that ye sounds less like an adventurous and preternaturally talented artist trying to channel their struggle with mental illness into music than that artist settling into an unimpeachable, bone-deep certainty of his own genius. There are some memorably that’s so Kanye! lines, some good moments, some funny parts and some impressive choices. But unlike all of West’s previous records — well, to put it simply, there is no there there. There is nothing essential, no substance, no statement, nothing permanent or indelible to indicate the existence of a beating heart at the center of the album. Where is its “Ultralight Beam,” its “Black Skinhead,” its “Runaway,” its “Pinocchio Story,” or its “Flashing Lights”?
The aura of celebration and revelation which floods ye (and which West seems determined to capture at the spate of listening events he has thrown in Jackson Hole and elsewhere) seems intended to evoke a party West has thrown for himself, with all his friends in attendance, to celebrate a final, conclusive victory in his battle with his demons. But that proclamation of success feels hollow, brittle, empty. ye‘s sonics make frequent use of the tropes of gospel, lending the record some aural brightness but leaving it with no pulse, no punch. “I’m a superhero!” West shouts on the opening track, trying not so much to convince the listener as he is to convince himself: This is real and powerful and good and interesting, something other people should listen to and which is worth making. The obvious comparison is Don Delillo’s famous “Most Photographed Barn in America”: invisible to the naked eye, only observable in photographs via the recorded perceptions of others. Except in this instance, West’s music is both the barn, and the photographs, and the onlookers. It’s Kanyes all the way down.
Now it’s February 2016. I download The Life of Pablo to my phone just before meeting two friends for Indian food. On the drive home, I queue up the first track, “Ultralight Beam,” featuring Chance the Rapper and what, at the time, seems like six or seven other people. We sit in silence for the song’s duration, captivated, sitting in a parked car for the last three minutes.
ye’s vacuousness is particularly tough to stomach in the context of West’s recent flirtation with the online extreme. Since his infamous VMA stunt in 2008, West has enjoyed a special status within American cultural discourse, one in which liberal social values have achieved something approaching complete hegemony and the cultural output and personal travails of ultra-celebrities like Beyoncé, the Kardashians, Taylor Swift, Colin Kaepernick, and (of course) Donald Trump serve as both a framework for working out political affiliations and for staging political conflicts. In this setting, Kanye became both figurehead and cause celebre for the growing national consciousness around social justice. If your old-fashioned relatives thought Kanye was a loudmouth and a jerk, then it was you, the wise and well-educated student of politics and culture, who knew better. You argued that, by refusing to perform the defanged version of fame we demand from our black celebrities, Kanye was sticking up for himself, and so, by extension, for people of color more broadly and black people specifically. On “Wouldn’t Leave” he raps, “I got the mind state to take us past the stratosphere.” Kanye, you argued, was trying to show us that our manners and norms were holding us back; he was asking you to imagine a new, better world.
So West’s well-publicized dalliance with reactionary lunkheads like Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens is troubling not only because, well, anyone’s interest in these Koch-funded snake-oil salesmen is exasperating and concerning, but also because West was supposed to be the guy who saw through frauds and called out the racial animus plaguing American culture. West was the iconoclast who was brash enough to stand up to powerful people even when it meant paying a serious personal cost. That he could be suckered into providing political cover for the free-speech trigger-the-libs crowd feels very Manchurian Candidate. Maybe his ego, his bravado, his outspokenness were bugs, not features, after all.
It’s winter of 2011, sometime after midnight on a Thursday morning. I’m standing in the kitchen of the co-op dormitory I live in, listening to “Runaway” for the billionth time with the seven or eight other people who, like me, are always somehow awake between two and four a. m. The lights are off. We are dancing, bopping our heads and shrugging our shoulders in the spastic way college students do. Someone is probably spilling their plastic cup of wine.
One could be forgiven for concluding, as many quite publicly have, that West has been converted to the conservatism he seemed to rail against for so long. But this wildly overestimates the clarity and coherence of West’s politics. It’s worth noting that, at the risk of being pedantic, West’s various statements about Donald Trump — all of which have somehow managed to be both inane and horrifying in equal measure — trend closer to the appreciation of a fellow traveler than an endorsement. And, moreover, it is pretty clear that West — like the president, and, really, like most people — lacks any clear and well-defined political commitments, especially any that could be meaningfully described as an ideology. He seems animated less by any of the current administration’s policies than by an awestruck respect for the way that The Trump Show and its many wretched, evil spinoffs have utterly swallowed American popular discourse. He doesn’t seem to agree with or support him so much as, if you can believe it, admire him.
Not that this is really “better,” per se, and in fact it is probably much harder to stomach. His remarks swirl around a blithe, airbrushed notion of universal love and acceptance, promoting tolerance and experimentation and collaboration without division or competition. This is a kind of astroturf hippie vibration so laughably out of touch and so obscenely predicated on access to wealth and privilege and influence that it doesn’t even warrant discussion. West seems to be, at best, completely and totally unconcerned with the increasingly ghoulish violence that the Trump administration is gleefully inflicting on America and the world. For West to not grasp this reality’s weight or complexity indicates so great an obsession with himself — his ambitions, his ideas, his accomplishments, his grievances, his anxieties — that it prevents him from comprehending the external world it as anything beyond a kind of distant, gray abstraction that people can’t stop talking about, and which appears to engender in him a reckless jealousy for the sheer scale of it all. It’s a particularly ugly emotion to consider, let alone take into one’s heart, in our current moment: somewhere between narcissism and solipsism, a desire to blot out the universe and replace it with oneself. And that, in the end, is its own political statement.