With the release of Ye, the second in a series of LPs (or really amped up EPs, depending on how you look at it) to be released in June by GOOD Music, all helmed by Kanye at the producer’s desk, it seems like every major music publication has got their resident weary Kanye fan to get back to it and write another review of what they know to be some sort of indisputable masterpiece, in spite of the egomaniac who created it.
I know this because Kanye fans, even closeted fans, have some very clear, almost inevitable tells. The most important of these is going to be the ‘liking Kanye is so hard‘ argument that usually comes towards the beginning of the four-star (three point five if he’s a very resilient Kanye fan) review. The Kanye fan is a miserable soul, burdened with having to reconcile their appreciation for his unfettered genius with their disdain for literally anything he does other than make music. And there’s always something.
Stage-invading during the heart(emoji)felt acceptance speech of that everlasting cutie Taylor Swift at the VMAs to say Beyonce should’ve won that award is reprehensible to the Kanye fan but after a few years and in the right circles, understandable and forgivable. I mean, ‘why you gotta be so mean, Kanye?’ but still, even though it isn’t said, it is rationalised into Kanye’s public persona. We all know who Beyonce is. We all know who JAY-Z is. We sure as hell know who Kanye is. We understand these people in relation to each other. We know that Queen Bey being spurned for anybody (let alone bubblegum teen cuteness sensation Tay Tay) tickles Kanye in those regressive cultural meme centres where he is most vulnerable. Family. Loyalty. Community. Standing up for all of the above. This is the way Kanye operates.
Everything he’s ever done since has been rationalised internally (on the outside, it’s just not talked about because this is a review of the music dammit, not the person!) along similar lines. It’s violent and offensive but hey, it’s at least consistent.
Till it stopped being consistent. Till it began to get really hazy who Kanye West was really standing up for. Did Kanye stop loving you like he loved Kanye and end up only just loving Kanye?
There has always been some confluence between the (revolutionary, excellent and groundbreaking) music Kanye has produced and the strange things he does when he’s not producing music. Now Kanye wants to tell you why he’s been doing what he’s doing the way he knows best: couched between meticulously sampled, artfully placed beats and punchlines like “I love your t******s ’cause they prove I can focus on two things at once.” (which in spite of everything, you have to admit, is uproariously funny). So, business as usual.
But is Kanye West really the revolutionary genius he claims he is?
I – idk probably
We can try and argue our way around this for sure but beyond a level we’ll hit the rock solid dry-wall of the fact that nearly every trend that has shaken hip-hop up since the early 2000s was engineered by Kanye. He brought sampling back in a major way with his production on JAY-Z’s Blueprint and we haven’t quite been able to go back to the drums and keyboard soundscape since. His bright, funny and often bitingly ironic chipmunk soul made it okay to write songs about things other than bling…you know, like Jesus and spaceships and an unromanticised approach to drug-dealing.
And then there was 808s which was him singing really really really sad songs about his life falling apart and synthpop was never the same thing again. And also, it was cool not to write songs about your own emotional vulnerability. Go back in time and kill Kanye and Drake would still be consuming copious amounts of maple syrup (isn’t that what one does in Canada?) and The Weeknd wouldn’t be a thing.
The maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came and went, and suddenly strings-sections were literally everywhere.
We’re still ostensibly living in the post Yeezus epoch where precise, industrial beats and Daft Punk beep-boops form a nearly inalienable part of the modern hip-hop soundscape.
The Kanye West story is a fascinating one where a young man from Chicago wearing pink polo shirts selling his own beats-CDs from his backpack (think Ed Sheeran’s work ethic minus the faux-humility) came to redefine what can and cannot be considered good art in this genre.
The revolution with Life of Pablo is a little more complex and a little less influential. It is a mostly personal turnaround where a producer known for his perfectionism decides perfection doesn’t quite describe his own state of mind. It is a jagged and misshapen piece of work, highs jutted awkwardly with the lows. And the usual last minute changes reflected not the refinement to an impossible perfection they usually did but rushing out an imperfect album. Because Kanye’s mind is as volatile and fickle ref. his personal life. And his latest record Ye is very much an extension of that. So what’s the revolution there?
II – it’s still there but it may not be the music
Kanye has a revolutionary new idea. A 7-track LP. Maybe a couple of tracks longer and more defined than an EP but three songs shy of the shortest possible average LP. And this push towards minimalism is definitely a trend. Since Yeezus, sparse, less-is-more tracks have always been a part of the Kanye sound. He now plans to do it by releasing five such LPs in the span of a month, one by him, one by him and Kid Cudi, one by Teyana Taylor (for which I am most hyped), one by Nas and the one that started it all, Daytona by Pusha T.
III – Daytona by Pusha T
I have to admit, going into this record, I knew very little about Pusha T. I had heard of his being given the reigns to the Kanye chariot, GOOD Music in 2015 but I had never taken the time to listen to any of his work and I don’t know if that matters. Probably not. The reviewers say his previous solo LPs (since his split from the duo Clipse with his brother) were full of staggering promise but the lows of those albums (purportedly a couple of detours into RnB fluff) dampened the potential of the highs. Daytona is like a continuous high.
If Kanye wanted to sell this 7 track concept to me, I don’t think he could’ve done it better than with this album. Pusha’s identity is based around this narcotics-peddling narrative which in this world of sci-fi mumblerap (New Freezer, anyone?) is charming in a very old world sort of way. He tells us he’s sold more dope than Easy E which is so cute because I don’t know if the rap audience that demands street-cred in such a streety sort of way even exists anymore. And this project is lovingly molded by the able hands of that delightful polo-shirt clad right-wing “genius” provocateur Kanye West who’s about as divorced from the street at this point as Brad is from Angelina.
Separate from its subject matter, Pusha’s flow is, though at first unobtrusive and rarely calling attention to itself, masterfully confident. He’s aware of the ‘sport’ of hip-hop being in the metaphors and he plays with a quiet, experiential grace. Not that you’ll listen to a lot of the specific words the first time around because this is without a doubt an Old-Kanye masterpiece. He doesn’t try to create a sound so much as perfect the sound that already exists around Pusha’s voice which reveals that he’s still got that appreciation for and skill with meddling in and around human vocals so few producers operating at his level have. There’s this nigh-indescribable smudge where crisp samples not only apt for their choice but for their precise placement coalesce with tight, sometimes mischievously rococo beats and a creamy wall of bass, all of which maneuvers carefully around Pusha’s voice, connecting one song to the next to make a 7 track LP that feels like a definitive, epochal hip-hop event.
The subject and grander thematic concern of it all is where this gets weird because that’s where this juxtaposition between him and Kanye gets really incomprehensible. ‘I’m real because I sell drugs’, as messages go, is in poor taste but perhaps less so than the ‘misogyny is my DNA’ his producer-boss has been toying around with for a good few years now. But Kanye’s the guy who wrote those very measured songs about how important it was to work your way up from there and all that. He seemed to start with ambitions to rise well above the street.
Pusha wants us to know how on-the-ground he still is. If you know him from the Drake feud, that’s a pretty significant part of the album. Which gets even weirder because the emotional sad-rap ostensibly disconnected from the black cultural and economic reality (or at least that’s probably how Pusha would have you see it) Drake got rich off of is on the firm foundation Kanye laid. Even when Kanye was last on the ground (which was probably eighteen years ago) his eyes were firmly heaven-bound.
This gets even weirder when you look at Kanye’s guest verse in the fascinating song, What Would Meek Do (which is a sort of meditation on his moral compass after he became a rap-star). Pusha’s own narrative of making a lot of money and buying diamonds and being the best would be simple, were it not for an opening line I may be reading a little too much into: “I’m top five and all of them Dylan.”
This is a reference to a Dave Chappelle sketch from the cancelled Chappelle Show where he plays an off-the-rails, egotistical Dylan who says the five greatest rappers of all time are all him.
This is too clever to be a hollow chest puff. There’s something so delightfully tongue in cheek about prefacing your claim to GOAThood by saying you’re Chappelle-Dylan. I don’t think Pusha thinks he’s the GOAT. I don’t think he even particularly wants to be. But after he finishes his beautifully flowing claim to greatness, he defers to the captain of the ship, Kanye West who finally tells us what’s been going on with his life.
IV – what’s up, kanye?
First of all, Kanye’s too smart for any of you peasants to even understand, apparently. Also, his MAGA hat is great ’cause he’s not stopped by the police for being black anymore so…yay. Also, what would Pac say? In case you didn’t know, Tupac is rap’s catch all messiah symbol. Nobody knows what he’d say but invoking his name is like a finishing move. What is Kendrick Lamar unfollowing you on twitter and Chance’s obvious unsettled shame in light of Pac’s alleged posthumous support of whatever it is Kanye’s doing.
Also Kanye doesn’t want you to call him crazy as an excuse for what he’s doing because he’s basically going to do that to himself in his own 7 track LP.
V – ye
That last sentence was offensive and unfair. Ye is not as hamfisted as I was then about dealing with its subject matter. It’s about Kanye being bi-polar and it’s awesome. Ye is seven tracks of decay, violence, ugliness, you-hate, self-hate and fear for his daughter’s life.
It’s very good. It’s nowhere near as finely tuned as Daytona but I don’t think Kanye wants it to be because it’s a spiritual sequel to Pablo in that it’s a glimpse into Kanye’s crumbling edifice of a mind (I guess). It certainly sounds like that sometimes. It’s convincingly poignant about the loops of hate and love he’s caught in. Written last week, apparently, it feels recent, responsive and spontaneous.
It’s also not really a very convincing excuse. Ye being an absolutely necessary portrayal of mental illness in an industry that’s still struggling to get over it’s anxieties about women is important but this whole project suffers from the baggage of having to address Kanye’s past couple of months and how all these things connect.
I was waiting for something musically revolutionary. Something that would reveal the past few months (especially hard on Kanye fans) to be a phenomenal, performance-art prelude to rap’s new genre-defining masterpiece. That didn’t happen. Like every reviewer says, it feels like a Kanye shrug.
And now everyone who’s been holding on will begin their own mental Wexit. It’s time to cancel Kanye.
VI – moving on
Will this experiment change music forever? It might, to be honest. It can be very good when done right. I can think of a number of records that would’ve benefited from the 7-track chopping block. Maybe the Teyana Taylor album would reveal how this would work outside a strict rap setting.
His work on Pusha is important because he still understands the power of a unified, concise musical statement in the form of an album. He’s still one of the best there is at his job. Why Pusha is a question neither of them can seem to answer. Pusha’s even a little salty about how Kanye can hear him ‘only one way’. Kanye entered into this with his own agenda and in the process pushed Pusha up (hehe) into the upper echelons of the hall of fame, the sort of stuff that’ll be remembered. But he also wants to do his own thing with a number of voices including his own in a way he hasn’t done for years. It’s just shocking that this time, that confluence between his personal life and his music is just noncommittal and frankly more than a little sad.
Kanye West might have changed the course of the music industry again without needing to get any of us to like his own music.
A lot of things have changed though. Kanye is never quite going to be able to say an ‘I am the greatest’ speech again because that sort of thing is tainted by everyone’s knowledge that everyone’s going to take something like that again with several grains of salt. The emperor has been exposed for his lack of clothes.
And now there’s just me cradling pleasant memories of The College Dropout and Yeezus, feeling sad.
The Pitchfork Review (it’s very sweet and I love it)
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Cancelling Kanye
Some stuff about Kanye’s influence
Some Cat Videos