Kanye Westâ€™s projects since he teamed up with his now-wife Kim Kardashian West in 2012â€”the abrasive Yeezus, the sprawling The Life of Pablo, the series of personal appearances punctuated by top-of-the-head singlesâ€”have had varying stylistic contours. The one thing theyâ€™ve consistently focused on is contrast: Light and dark, ugly and beautiful, self-aggrandizing and self-loathing.
West is perhaps uniquely qualified to grapple with this. In the public mind of 2018 he is â€śKanye,â€ť shorthand for an outspoken black man who says a lot of outrĂ© things in a world still struggling mightily with its racial politics, who Barack Obama has called a â€śjackass,â€ť and whoâ€™s married to a similarly polarizing figure. (Among other things.) Heâ€™s also Kanye West, rapper and producer born in Chicago, happy when heâ€™s eating ice cream. The back-and-forth between â€śKanyeâ€ť and the public can be excruciating to watch unfold in real time, particularly when it deals with topics like mental illness and opioid addiction, and even moreso when it touches even more volatile third rails like President Donald Trump. Itâ€™s perhaps most disheartening when it crosses onto platforms that take the wink-and-nod approach to any subject they tackleâ€”your TMZs, your 24-hour news networks, your drive-by Tweeters looking for an excuse to blow off steamâ€”and erase the humanity at the starâ€™s nucleus.
But West didnâ€™t reach his exalted position because he went on a reality show with no interest in making friends. He was an innovative producer who minted hits, both for himselfâ€”the Ray Charles callback â€śGold Digger,â€ť the dreamy â€śP.Y.T.â€ť flip â€śGood Lifeâ€ťâ€”and for others, like former confidante Jay-Z and pop megastars Rihanna and Paul McCartney. This year, in addition to his gossip-blog-poking appearances, he returned to music, â€śchopping samples from the sunken placeâ€ť (as he said on Twitterâ€”he apparently meant Jackson Hole, Wyoming) on albums for himself, as well as other artists in his G.O.O.D. Music stable.
Ye, Westâ€™s eighth solo album and the second in this pre-summer flurry, was launched at a splashy listening party in Jackson Hole on Thursday. West collected boldfaced names and influencers in order to hear the record around a campfire. It opens in the dark; the first track is unnervingly called â€śI Thought About Killing You,â€ť and it opens with West in monologue, his voice stretching and shifting as he talks about murder and suicide over watercolor synths. â€śI think this is the part where Iâ€™m supposed to say something good to compensate it, so it doesnâ€™t come offâ€¦ bad,â€ť he says, then chuckles mirthlessly before his voice is pitched to an even lower point, so as to emphasize the â€śreally, really, really bad thingsâ€ť knocking around his brain. (Think American Psycho where the exalted business cards are flaunted on Instagram.) Those impulses recede, but linger over the rest of the record.
Sonically, Ye resembles Pablo but, perhaps appropriately given its terse title, more stripped-down, with the occasional pitch-shifted voice dropped in to add uneasiness. Ye doesnâ€™t deviate too much from the lyrical concepts of Pabloâ€”it blends the trivial and the life-or-death like on the darkened-club â€śYikes,â€ť where he declares his bipolar syndrome (which he calls out on the scrawled-on-iPhone-pic cover) to be his â€śsuperpowerâ€ť and compares the U.S.-North Korea tensions to his long-simmering beef with Wiz Khalifa. â€śWouldnâ€™t Leaveâ€ť is a love song that doubles as an apology to his wife; closing track â€śViolent Crimes,â€ť which features a shoutout to and cameo by fellow stratosphere-dweller Nicki Minaj, draws from the â€śI respect women more now that I have daughtersâ€ť well thatâ€™s simultaneously frustrating and a relief. But it wouldnâ€™t be a Kanye album without fundamental contradictions to the very end.