Kanye West is flailing, and we’re all watching it happen. This isn’t a comment on his mental health, something that has been examined ad nauseum and a subject he, at last, explicitly acknowledges on his new album ye. This isn’t even a comment on his new right-wing chums, including Candace “being a black Republican makes me special” Owens, who was a guest at West’s Wyoming listening party last night. Rather it’s a comment on Kanye the artist, the figure that made us fall in love with the self-aggrandizing misogynist who nevertheless believed black lives matter, or so we thought.
But as we’ve seen increasingly confirmed on outlets like Twitter and TMZ, West — who built his identity on being the innovative but underappreciated underdog, and has spent the latter half of his career idolizing “disruptors” like Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, and Walt Disney — is desperately trying to convince everyone he can still blow our minds by zigging when everyone zags. From the brevity of ye, an obvious reaction to the current trend of way-too-long hip hop albums, to the marketing’s exhausting reliance on the state of Wyoming and the “out there”-ness it represents, West has put a lot of energy investing in the idea that he’s not your average rap superstar.
Unfortunately for West, those attempts have resulted in an underwhelming and desperate-sounding album that can best be described as the recorded version of a middle age crisis. After an astonishing run of musical creativity spanning from George W. Bush’s first term to Barack Obama’s final days in office, West is confronting a problem most of us learned about in middle school and again in our early 20s: There’s nothing less cool and different than trying to convince people you’re cool and different.
The 7-song, 23-minute album is an alarm alerting that the Kanye bubble has burst. Where once he delivered truly genre-defying projects, ye relies on the musical flairs that once brought his fans awe. There are the sparse, horror film-esque beats on “Yikes” evoking “Wolves” from West’s last album, 2016’s The Life of Pablo; there are the gospel vocals and strategic samples on “No Mistakes” and “Ghost Town” that lend the album the grandiose, religious atmosphere he’s created for years, most famously on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album’s closing voicemail from Nicki Minaj that recalls Pablo’s “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer,” where we heard a scratchy message from an incarcerated Max B; the spoken word at the start of the album recalls monologues from albums past (like the Chris Rock bit on “Blame Game”).
Throughout, West resorts to the same histrionic one-liners about women and his ego that have run through all of his works, though with the added context of his right-wing, political misinformation campaign, lyrics like “I don’t take advice from people less successful than me” no longer hold the pump-up song appeal of a song like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” No longer can they be read from a place of relatable, personal angst. All claims to subversiveness and the radicalness of self-love arrive to us in the shadow of a MAGA hat too big to ignore.
As my editor pointed out, the references to events that recently happened, like West’s own comments that slavery was a choice, give the album a feel of a hurriedly-completed homework assignment — not the carefully crafted, long-awaited, highly-anticipated new project from one of the world’s best artists. Whereas West’s previous works distilled his larger than life identity and personal narrative into inventive, relatable, and most importantly fun music, there’s little pleasure to be found on ye. Instead audiences are left with a not-even-half-hour justification of his recent actions, complete with reprehensible, provocative lines like “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too / I’ma pray for him ’cause he got #MeToo’d.” ye is stale and boring, two words that would’ve never described Kanye even a few years ago. In listening to the album I can’t shake the feeling that West realizes he’s grown stale too.
To be clear, this is a problem for West and West alone. For a month the internet has mourned the radical cultural icon turned uninformed Trump supporter, but there’s no shortage of innovative new projects by young artists. Just this week Philly rapper Tierra Whack released a visual album of 15 one-minute songs that is already generating the kind of hopeful, inspired buzz among hip hop fans that a young West used to. Consumers are better equipped than ever to sort through the slog and find artists they can get behind, and while the sentimental memory of hearing College Dropout for the first time can’t be entirely washed away by West’s new, faux-subversive antics, it’s time to accept that Uncle Kanye has, for the moment, stopped growing.
For West this means a small win. Now, he can go back to trying to prove everyone wrong, as was the case when he was a young musician fueled by doubt. As for his audience, we can go back to searching for the next artist that will make us feel new again.