[G.O.O.D./Def Jam; 2018]
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost….”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
The title of Kanye West’s eighth studio album ye refers to “Ye,” Kanye’s nickname, but it can also be read as “ye,” the old English pronoun for “you,” which can mean either one person or a group of people. It’s an interesting ambiguity, one that gets directly to the heart of his recent work: it brings up the relationship between the singular and the plural, the alienation between the individual and the world, the friction at the intersection of Kanye and everyone else. This double meaning of “ye” asks a crucial question that’s haunted most of Western civilization’s Kanye discourse for the past decade: What’s the difference between Kanye and the rest of us?
“Well, a lot!” you’re probably thinking. “I’m not rich, and I’m certainly no Trump supporter!” Or maybe you just stopped at “Well, he’s crazy and I’m not!” Whatever it is, if it’s important to you to feel like you’re different than Kanye, you’ll find a reason. Why make the distinction at all? Because everyone wants to believe that the problem is someone else, something outside of themselves — it’s the basis of essentially every political and social movement we have today. We can no longer stand the thought that’s different from our own, so we turn against it, believing that if we can find a way to successfully resist it, it will simply disappear. We therefore come to fear and eventually hate the Other, the thing that’s different from what we think we are, the thing that seems outside of what we take ourselves to be. But the Other is a real phenomenon, just as real as you are. And it only exists because you do.
In Kanye’s music, the Other has always appeared to him as something about himself that seems alien, untenable, out of control. If Yeezus was about experiencing the Other and The Life of Pablo about trying to grasp the Other, ye is about accepting the Other. His new album is, in other words, about reconciliation. It’s about trying to understand what kind of person he is and what kind of person he wants to be. It’s about parsing out what his real commitments are. In many ways, ye is a reckoning with the fact that there are people in Kanye’s life who do accept him: his wife, his children, and many of his fans. In a review of “Wouldn’t Leave” for Pitchfork, Jonah Bromwich said that Kanye should know that he doesn’t deserve Kim’s forgiveness. But what does Kanye need to be forgiven for? Having his own opinions? In a sense, he’s fulfilling and negating the image of the “free artist” that society presses on us every day in advertisements for liberal arts colleges and in AT&T commercials. Be yourself, they say! Find yourself! Get a scholarship! Subscribe! But don’t forget to read the rules and regulations — if you don’t meet them, your contract will be voided.
One doesn’t need to be forgiven for having and expressing an opinion, or for behaving erratically, or for having beautiful dark twisted fantasies. Working through the content of ye, this album makes it pretty clear which of those desires he’s willing to act out and which ones he’s not. To think that ye is simply Kanye’s plea for forgiveness is to miss the entire point of the record. “Told her she could leave me now, but she wouldn’t leave,” Kanye raps in “Wouldn’t Leave.” Their relationship is meaningful not because Kim constantly forgives him, but because she has accepted him all along.
I will always ride for my man!
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) May 27, 2018
“But sometimes I think really bad things/ Really, really really bad things,” Kanye says in ye’s opening track, “I Thought About Killing You.” On his new album and in his pursuits on Twitter and in public — neither of which can really be discussed without the other at this point — Kanye has continued his quest to find and accept the darkest parts of himself using whatever means necessary. He still wants to “go dumb,” to “set the nuke off on ‘em.” For Kanye, provoking people by challenging the status quo is part of both his self-exploration and theirs — at least that’s his hope. In forcing to the surface the issues people have with his behavior, he’s encouraging them to explore their own reactions. That is, of course, one of the tasks of being an artist. Maybe what he wants most is to represent the Other for us. If so, are we willing to think about that?
The reason his work has always been so relatable is because he explores alienation via the activities we all participate in. On Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, he rapped about things like family, business, sex, going to church, feeling alone, crashing cars, buying couches, eating croissants, staying in touch with friends, taking medication, going on vacation, and using Instagram. And the music on those two albums largely reflects the dissonance those things produce in him: we hear screams, detuned keyboards, disorienting texture changes, weird soul interludes, moments of silence, deafening synths, and Street Fighter II samples.
In “Ghost Town,” followed by a purposely gnarly Kid Cudi refrain, Kanye offers an elegant vocal performance in which words like “Fentanyl” have never sounded so sweet. Lyrics like “Talk like I drank all the wine/ Years ahead but way behind” seem like a change in consciousness from The Life of Pablo’s “I can see a thousand years from now in real life/ Skate on the paradigm and shift it when I feel like.” It’s weird that a song about the difficulties of being in a relationship would have one of Kanye’s most anthemic outtros, but it’s true: his magnificent production sets the perfect foundation for 070 Shake’s cyclical “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of free/ We’re still the kids we used to be/ I put my hand on a stove to see if I still bleed.” Some have argued that the best parts of ye come from Kanye’s collaborators, but that would be like saying that a great painting is great because of the quality of the paint used. That’s usually an important component, but paint also requires vision, transformation, organization, and context to become something truly meaningful.
It’s easy to take for granted the ease with which Kanye switches texture and mood on “I Thought About Killing You;” the way he uses space and silence on “All Mine;” the way the dark, Yeezus-esque production of “Yikes” reflects the claustrophobia at the convergence of mental illness, 2CB, and DMT; the way he discloses his hopes and fears regarding his daughter in “Violent Crimes.” The sparse production of “All Mine” is some of his most interesting, especially in its second half, with its bare-bones bass, snare, and occasional earth-shattering crashes — in a sense, it’s the stormy sequel to “Ni**as in Paris,” but better. I, for one, really love his much-hated line, “Let me hit it raw, like fuck the outcome/ Ayy, none of us would be here without cum.” I mean, he’s not wrong. There can be consequences to having pleasures, but those consequences aren’t always bad.
ye really does what a self-titled album should do: it says “Hey, this is who I am.” Even at 23 minutes, it almost feels like two different albums: an aggressive, dissonant one, and an empathetic, soulful one. Yet, those aren’t the two sides of Kanye, because those things exist in him simultaneously, all the time. On some level, he knows that in order to be who we really want to be, we have to reconcile who we are with what we most desire. He’s a husband and a father, but he still wants to go out and fuck; he’s been dealing with mental illness, but he’s still probably going to go H.A.M. and do that Fentanyl; he’s black, and he has unusual thoughts about slavery. Is it possible to have taken so many girls to the titty shop that you’ve lost count and also strive to become a good, protective father? Of course it is — that’s what makes us human, that we’re capable of change.
So what’s the difference between Kanye and the rest of us?