Last Friday, the Golden State Warriors won Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. In the final moments of regulation, JR Smith rebounded a missed George Hill free throw and inexplicably ran towards the half court line, ignoring an imploring, incredulous LeBron James as time expired. Immediately afterward, a million memes were born when JR mouthed, “I thought we were ahead…”
LeBron scored 51 points in the game – a Finals record in a losing effort. As soon as the game was over, I downloaded an app called WAV Media, and all of a sudden, I was watching live as Chris Rock introduced Kanye West’s eight studio album at a listening party outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
These two events defined my Thursday night, but I also see a delicate symmetry between them. Kanye isn’t LeBron, and he isn’t JR Smith – he’s the Cavs; an overhyped, overpriced luxury underdog, simultaneously the GOAT and the goat, spurred on by expectations so unreasonable that success and failure blur, good and bad cease to exist – they are enigmatic.
When Kanye West went on TMZ Live and gave his now-infamous, “Slavery is a choice” sermon, I reread that Snowcone thread about Kanye’s mood board because like all G.O.O.D. Kanye stans and rural militiamen, I knew I was going to need all the ammo I could my hands on. I heard the take about Kanye’s gross use of alt-right flirtation as an album promo tactic (yeah, gross) and I heard the one about his misguided romanticizing of Wyoming (not convinced) and I heard all the other ones about how his music hasn’t been good for awhile (didn’t resonate, my favorite Kanye West studio album is Yeezus – The Life of Pablo was also good).
The thing is, for people my age (not men, not women, not one race over another, not necessarily one political party or ideology over another), Kanye West was a beacon. He brought real rap back with a backpack and a pink Polo. He stated, plainly, that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His 2007 wager with 50 Cent arguably ended gangsta rap and “New Slaves” did more to build awareness of America’s privatized prison system than any other effort.
On ye, West raps, “I got the mind state to take us to the stratosphere / I use the same attitude that done got us here.” (“Wouldn’t Leave”) The context of the lyric is that he’s appealing to his wife after the fallout from his TMZ episode (pun intended). How did Kanye West get here? He wore a backpack and a pink Polo, cutting directly across mainstream culture by rapping in an outfit widely associated with whiteness. Does that help contextualize the Confederate flag on the Yeezus merch? What about the MAGA hat? Kanye spazzed at the telethon and the VMAs – what about the subsequent Matt Lauer apology interview? What about those two Zane Lowe interviews (for Yeezus and TLOP, respectively)? What about TMZ? On the same album as “New Slaves,” he sampled a Nina Simone song about lynchings and rapped about suffering from success. This is the same guy who said, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”
Which is to say, if you like your art clean and straightforward, this guy is not your champ. The true genius of Kanye has always been putting imperfection first. “We’re all self-conscious I’m just the first to admit it,” he rapped on 2004 single “All Falls Down.” In a genre dominated by endless braggadocio, Kanye West has always made himself real by revealing his flaws. “I’mma be late, though,” (from 2005’s Late Registration) “I know I got to be right now / ‘Cause I can’t get much wronger,” (from 2007’s Graduation) “Slightly scratch your Corolla / okay, I smashed your Corolla” (from 2013’s Yeezus) “I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fuckin’ bitches on / Paid that n***a $250,000 just to get it from him…” (from 2017’s The Life of Pablo)
Must I go on? The point is, the compelling thing about Kanye West has always been that he is a tangled mess of ego, conscience, faith, drugs, love, sex, family and violence. He is the boldest of deep sea divers, descending deeper and faster than anyone and bringing whatever truth he finds down there back up to the surface. I imagine that the emotional and physical toll of the bends is not entirely dissimilar to marrying a Kardashian (and as Kanye himself once said, “Everything in life is exactly the same.”)
And yet, the boldness of these dives may have contributed to his hospitalization. As someone who saw Kanye’s last tour let me describe the lasting mental image I have from it: Kanye, spot-lit and alone on a platform hovering 20-feet above the audience suspended from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden, rapping to no one in particular. As the floating stage moved about the general admission floor space, the audience seethed and surged, the section of floor directly beneath the platform perpetually bare, a roving absence always directly below him. Combine that image with his music video for TLOP highlight, “Famous” and we are able see the artist as simultaneously aware of his situation and disturbed by it. Perhaps it was one dissonance too many. To quote Dave Chappelle’s final Netflix special, “Everything is funny until it happens to you.”
But the choice to attempt those dives is his and his alone. I am not advocating for sympathy – I don’t like looking at the picture of Kanye in a Trump-signed MAGA hat, I don’t agree with his TMZ comments and I don’t “love” how Candace Owens thinks – merely empathy, which is what I think Kanye engenders in us, at his best.
And yet we also know, from early interviews following the listening party, that Kanye completely redid the album after his TMZ appearance. What could make the man who wagered with his career against the biggest name in gangsta rap and dissed the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES redo his entire album? From the sound of it, “for better or for worse,” his wife, Kim Kardashian West. What do you do when you lose the audience and you need to get them back? You play the hits.
Finally, we arrive at ye, Kanye West’s eighth studio album, a seven-song, 24-minute post-rehab re-entry. The album opens with a repetitious, minimalist monologue which includes a sort of Kanye thesis – “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, anyone? We all loved that one) and is highlighted by the couplet, “I thought about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you / So you best believe I thought about killing you today.” The drums drop shortly after Kanye calls for them, and we’re back hashtag-rapping (“Don’t get your tooth chipped like Frito Lay) with the guy who claims to have invented it. Then it’s on to “Yikes,” an “FML” – meets – “Guilt Trip” retread and the closest thing on this album to a single. The next three tracks, “All Mine,” “Wouldn’t Leave” and “No Mistakes” were accurately diagnosed by someone on Twitter as “Bound 3, 4 and 5” – competent, aesthetically pleasing peace offerings to his wife, his friends, his collaborators, and beyond.
The consensus album standout is “Ghost Town,” an emo-rap/just-emo ballad featuring Kid Cudi and recent GOOD Music signee 070 Shake. The featured guests provide the power – Cudi’s end-of-the-night-entreat delivery of “I’ve been trying to make you love me / But everything I try takes you further from me” as a chorus, considering Kanye and Cudi’s tumultuous professional relationship, packs an emotional punch, and 070 Shake’s “I feel kind of free / We’re still the kids we used to be” playoff “breakthrough” feels like the real redemption of ye. So yes, it’s true that on the best song on Kanye West’s new album, Kanye West is the least important vocal. But it makes a strange sense – Kanye can’t redeem himself, he needs Cudi’s forgiveness and the blessing of the generation of young artists he’s inspired.
Ye closes with “Violent Crimes,” Kanye’s wish for his daughter not to grow up so fast. Sure, the sentiment oversteps, sure, the wording is clunky, and yes, he qualifies his wishes saying he’s “Just being salty” or “Just playin’” but the song is sweet. It does recall earlier emotional appeals like “Family Business” and “Hey Mama” and “Celebration” which benefited from Kanye’s signature blend of incisive wit and crass humor. So what that he raps about “curves all under your dress” – he presumably changed this human being’s diapers! I get the easy parallel between that lyric and Trump talking about Ivanka, but until Kanye calls North a “piece of ass” we can all still breathe.
All in all, I find myself believing more and more that there is no such thing as The Old Kanye – there is only ‘Ye, with all his flaws and faults and foibles. This is why we let him say he’s a genius – if he’s a genius, there’s still hope for the rest of us. The overarching narrative of Kanye West’s art is that we are imperfect creatures chasing perfection by imperfect means. On his most imperfect album, that has never been more clearly stated.