Kanye West: ye review – a candid tour of a troubled mind

(GOOD Music / Def Jam)
The world’s most talked-about rapper is bracingly honest about his mental health struggles – though his attitude towards women still needs work

It seems a strange thing to say about an album premiered at a globally live-streamed exclusive playback that involved flying journalists and “influencers” to the mountain ranges of Wyoming – an event with its own merchandise range, including a long-sleeved T-shirt that retails for $145 – but there is something curiously low-key about Kanye West’s new album. At least by Kanye West’s standards.

It is neither a bold stylistic statement in the vein of 808s and Heartbreak (from 2008) or Yeezus (2013), nor a sprawling address along the lines of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or ye’s immediate predecessor, The Life of Pablo. Its seven tracks – none of them an obvious hit single – clock in at a trim 23 minutes. Its cover was apparently snapped by West on his phone en route to the launch. Neither of the curious, attention-grabbing singles that preceded it are included, though the lyrical concerns of Ye vs the People are peppered throughout – you hear quite a lot about how no one fully understands the genius-level thought processes that led West to come out in favour of Donald Trump, which to hear him tell it was an act of nonpareil selflessness in the service of humanity.

And despite the absence of the gibberish-strewn Lift Yourself, that track’s wilfully rough quality clings to sections of the album, not least the astonishing Ghost Town, which you would describe as having an epic, valedictory tone were it not for the fact that it feels like it’s falling apart before your very ears. An air-punch-inducing riff crashes around, played by a band that sound barely capable of holding themselves upright. Both West’s and Kid Cudi’s singing is off-key, and a guest appearance from John Legend sounds more like a placeholder guide vocal than a finished product. His voice cracks and strains, he slurs and mumbles, and occasionally sounds either like he’s forgotten the lyrics or was never given any in the first place. The overall effect is simultaneously stirring and unsettling, compounded by the lyrical references to self-harming and opiate addiction.

You might hesitate to say that Ghost Town sounds like the work of a mind in the process of unravelling – the ongoing speculation about the state of West’s mental health is lurid and unsavoury – were it not for the fact that West himself spends large chunks of ye telling you that his mind is unravelling. It’s hard to think of another major rap album that exposes and dwells upon its star’s struggles with mental illness to this extent. West angrily brushes away other people’s concerns and offers of support, but then discusses his despairing thoughts of suicide and depressive “bad days” in starkly affecting terms: “Screamed so loud got no lungs, hurt so bad I go numb”. Then he brags about it, which feels like a very Kanye response to being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder: “That’s my bipolar shit … that’s my superpower … I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”

It’s not the only reason why West emerges from ye a more relatable, sympathetic, even likeable figure than he has on previous albums. There is something winning about how his defence of his positions on Trump and slavery is undercut by his sheepish admission that they led to what sounds like a pretty nuclear-powered bollocking from his wife. Still, there is plenty of the usual hip-hop fare on offer in the lyrics. The ongoing feud between the denizens of West’s GOOD Music label and Drake’s OVO organisation is stoked further on the trash-talking Make No Mistake, replete with West mocking Drake’s skin tone. And his attitude to women could still use some work: “You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?” he asks at one point, as if women are possessions one can modify like cars.

From the start, West has traded in his own contradictions, not least admonishing consumerism while bragging about his rapacious spending, but he has never done it as provocatively as on the closing Violent Crimes, a track in which he admits to his as-a-father-of-daughters revelation that women are people too. He writhes in agony at the thought of North West (currently age four) reaching puberty, and his horror is compounded by the idea that she might inherit her mother’s figure. “Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma,” he yelps, presumably looking back at those visits to the titty shop with a rueful eye. His paternal anguish is set to a lovely piano figure and a sweet chorus, courtesy of Dej Loaf.

There are plenty of imbalanced moments. The scampering, falsetto vocals on All Mine quickly grate, and while there is something audacious about the way I Thought About Killing You suddenly turns into a completely different track three-quarters of the way through, neither of its two contrasting parts are anything to write home about. Still, they’re levelled out by stuff that is thrilling, such as the crashing drums and slick 70s soul vocal of No Mistakes and Wouldn’t Leave’s scattered, sparse eeriness. For all its brevity, ye doesn’t feel slight. Substantially more focused than its predecessor, it packs a lot into 23 minutes. It is bold, risky, infuriating, compelling and a little exhausting: a vivid reflection of its author.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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