“You been putting up with my shit just way too long,” Kanye West rapped nearly a decade ago on “Runaway,” from his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Thanks largely to his infamous Taylor Swift interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards the previous year, public opinion of the candid musician had never been so low, and the confessional mea culpa rested at the heart of his ensuing redemption narrative.
Despite his accomplishments, an underdog mentality has long defined West — and the 40-year-old musician has fought turmoil, often self-inflicted, with artistically exceptional and strikingly frank music. From “Runaway” to “Real Friends,” an arresting overture to his inner circle from 2016’s The Life of Pablo, West the Musician has spoken when West the Celebrity has been at a loss. Overwhelmingly, the strategy has worked.
But West’s streak couldn’t endure forever, and with his divisive album Ye, the bill has come due. In the wake of some of the messiest months of his public life — aligning with President Trump, sharing controversial political missives online — West the Musician has struggled where he previously has not. Ye‘s content doesn’t remedy West’s recent statements, or even explain them. Ye also doesn’t offset West’s tabloid exploits with a new musical narrative — it merely mines his musical past, from chopped-up soul to chilly electro. Cornered in the court of public opinion, West delivered nothing to silence his haters; unlike his previous offerings, Ye appears unlikely to budge the public’s opinion of him.
At a mercifully brief 23 minutes, Ye isn’t an abject failure — it’s barely long enough to make an impact either way. But it still scans as a missed opportunity. West produced the entirety of Pusha-T’s lean, driving Daytona, released in late May, and the gleaming instrumentals suggested that the producer had rekindled his signature strength. From 808s & Heartbreak‘s soul-baring synth-pop to Yeezus‘ industrial cacophony, West has made reinvention central to his brand, weaponizing his creativity to short-circuit critics. Had Ye been more innovative with its instrumentation, it could’ve performed a similar function. Remorseful rhymes, or even explanatory ones, could’ve increased his public standing even further.
It’s not that Ye doesn’t have musical highs. “Yikes” improves on the bleak iciness of 2016’s “FML,” while “No Mistakes” recaptures the euphoric soul West peddled early in his career. It’s just that it’s tough to ignore Ye‘s musical stasis; known for his forward motion, on this set, West remains mired in the past. Though West teamed with producer Mike Dean — the Tony Visconti to his Bowie, and one of the few musicians to have worked on every West album — along with chart-topping hitmaker Benny Blanco, Ye’s list of collaborators is far shorter than West’s other recent albums. Going by the credits, it’s West’s most by-Kanye album in at least a decade. That may have prepared many observers for a back-to-basics return to form, primed by the crisp mountain air of Wyoming, where West recorded the album and in recent months assembled a tight-knit group for an ad hoc G.O.O.D. Music summit. Instead, it’s just another manifestation of the increasingly slapdash music-making approach West has embraced in the ‘10s.
Lyrically, West has set the bar low enough that certain omissions — like a reprise of his longstanding, distasteful feud with Taylor Swift or a restating of his belief in Bill Cosby’s innocence — provide relief. That West largely abandons the political proselytizing he deployed as recently as his late April release “Ye Vs. The People,” along with the fact that that he candidly opens up about the depths of his bipolar disorder and familial strife, keeps the album from total catastrophe. On “FML,” West rapped about being “off his Lexapro,” and on Ye tracks like “Yikes,” he expands on his struggles with a heavily stigmatized mental illness in an honest way that’s still unusual coming from a musical A-lister.
But he remains a troublesome presence on the mic, steeped in the odious social views promoted by some in his orbit. In a detailed Twitter thread, writer Chimene Suleyman analyzed Ye‘s toxic masculinity and casual misogyny, calling the album “a rhythmical manifesto for the men who are scared” of reckoning with society’s systemic mistreatment of women. And West’s proximity to some of hip-hop’s most progressive voices, like fellow Chicagoans Common and Chance the Rapper, accentuates his continued conservatism, even if he isn’t name-dropping President Trump or bragging about wearing a MAGA hat on record.
Listening to Ye, there’s a recurring sensation: Given West’s mercurial presence of late, it could’ve been worse. The beats are decent; the lyrics don’t sound pulled verbatim from a 4chan forum — but, of course, West is one of the very few artists to enjoy this sort of privilege, thanks to a combination of the strength of his previous work and the realities of male celebrity. And it might simply be a function of the album’s short duration; the feeling lingers that, with a few more songs, West might’ve shared some of his most controversial views and included less-rewarding tracks.
Yet it’s possible that West envisioned Ye not a rebound, but as another type of course-correction entirely. Following a decade and a half at the fore of his G.O.O.D. Music label, West appears to be assuming a secondary role, blending into the background as he elevates artists from Pusha-T to Valee. Before Daytona, he hadn’t contributed so heavily to another artist’s project since John Legend’s 2013 album Love in the Future, and the string of releases he has lined up as a producer — sets from Kid Cudi, Nas, and Teyana Taylor are all due this month — recall the mid-’00s Common albums he shaped. West has long asserted himself as a curator and booster, but by facilitating an unlikely collaborative summit in Wyoming, he may finally be following through: Narcissism and West go together like peanut butter and jelly, but Ye comes neither first nor last in this summer’s barrage of G.O.O.D. releases, and considering Daytona‘s strength, it won’t be the slate’s most enduring project.
For the first time since he was manning the boards for the likes of JAY-Z at the turn of the century, West seems content to aid and assist others — so it makes sense that Ye‘s an exercise in brevity and directness, not excess and decadence. As he arrives at the sort of mid-career lull that has plagued many iconic musicians, Ye may signal the start of a new phase. It’s a missed opportunity in the sense that it fails to measure up to his previous work and change the conversation around him. But West may well be chasing a different opportunity entirely.