Kanye West’s new album is a bracing reminder that real talent is impervious to controversy.
The seven-track, 23-minute record, bearing the all-lower-case title ye, premiered last night at a fireside listening party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and is now available on all major streaming platforms. It penetrates a bubble of discourse and scandal that had threatened to eclipse the release in the weeks since it was first announced, puncturing the ubiquitous gossipy hysteria of a news cycle less interested in art than in sensationalism.
It instantly renders what we call “the conversation” around Kanye irrelevant. We might have spent the last two months speculating and arguing about Kanye West, but it all starts to seem pretty boring in the face of another monumental Kanye album.
To recap briefly: West returned unceremoniously to Twitter in mid-April after an 11-month absence, offering such philosophical reflections as “some people have to work within the existing consciousness while some people can shift the consciousness” and “trend is always late.” He soon announced he would be publishing a book of philosophy, called Break the Simulation, and then revealed that the book was being written “in real-time” and that, indeed, these tweets were the book. The following week, West declared Donald Trump to be his “dragon brother,” and shared a photograph of himself wearing one of the president’s “Make America Great Again” caps. Many Kanye-adjacent rappers and celebrities expressed their disappointment with this sudden about-face. Trump called the show of support “very cool.”
The apparent spontaneous self-destruction of the once-radical West into an incoherent Republican egomaniac was swiftly embraced as the narrative that would define whatever music he wound up mustering. But in reality, it revealed our tendency to reduce the difficult and thorny to Twitter-ready talking points and inflexible positions entirely typical of pop-culture criticism in 2018. And so, the messy, nigh-Dadaist brilliance of “Lift Yourself,” West’s first new song since The Life of Pablo, was dismissed as a callow stunt or defiant act of “trolling,” and in any case seemed less compelling as a subject of discussion to most than West’s exasperating interview with TMZ around the same time, in which, among other lowlights, he defended his advocacy of Trump and described slavery as “a choice.”
It takes less than a minute for ye to prove none of this matters. Not because West is invulnerable to criticism or because he is entitled to say anything at all with impunity — as a public figure of influence, his remarks are dangerous and he ought to be held accountable. But West’s art is concerned expressly with his failings and poses more questions about these issues than mere punditry is capable.
“Today, I thought seriously about killing you,” West raps on the album’s opening track with unmitigated candour. “And I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you.” This album is from its very first moments a reckoning with the self. It’s not that it excuses or accounts for West’s recent behaviour, but that it encompasses it and configures it as part of his art — an art as slippery and complicated as life itself.
West has never been as frank or as confrontational about his suffering — from the contradictions of his mental illness (where his “bipolar shit” becomes “not a disability” but his “superpower”) to dealing with the consequences of his own erratic conduct (including the TMZ gaffe, which he confesses was a strain on his marriage to Kim Kardashian on the tender and candid “Wouldn’t Leave”).
Over the course of its brief 23 minutes, ye spans the full range of emotions its author seems so turbulently burdened with every day: it’s an album not only about life as a manic-depressive but an album embodying manic depression, fluctuating wildly from despair to optimism, from braggadocio to doubt. There are euphoric highs (singer 070 Shake’s soaring outro to “Ghost Town”) and anguished lows (the self-lacerating interrogation and anger of “Yikes”).
Of course, this being a new Kanye West album, the thoughts and feelings aroused by the initial hours of listening will shift and change in the many, many hours of listening still to come: even at 23 minutes, this is too much to digest in a single day. But what is obvious already is that ye is serious enough to sustain any amount of pre-release conjecture or strife — that compared to the music, the debate that surrounds Kanye and his interviews and tweets simply isn’t interesting or worthy of much thought.
It’s not a matter of separating the art from the artist. It’s a matter of accepting what ye makes obvious: that art, like life, is often difficult and complicated, and demands more of us than moral posturing or the finger-wagging of satisfied dissent.