“Hip-hop music is the first art form created by free black men. And no black man has taken advantage of his freedom more than Kanye West.”
Chris Rock’s already-infamous proclamation regarding Kanye West, Black art and history seems like a de facto slogan for both the Wyoming-based excursion that West hosted for various “tastemakers” as part of the rollout for his new album Ye, and for the month or so of bizarre controversies that Kanye instigated preceding the album’s release. The line could be interpreted as deifying of West. It’s truer, however, that Kanye has exploited the idea of not being ensnared to his own advantage.
Kanye invited a collective of media, celebrities, artists and others to the remote Wyomingness of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the debut of his latest project. Notables like the aforementioned Rock, Nas, Jonah Hill, 2 Chainz, Kim Kardashian, the far-right troll Candace Owens and others settled into the rustic locale and absorbed the spectacle of pop culture and rap-industry trendiness amalgamated to pastorally picturesque Americana. It’s the kind of pronouncement that has become standard for a new Kanye album: 2013’s Yeezus featured a projection of Kanye on buildings in major cities around the world as he lip-synched lead single “New Slaves”; 2016’s The Life of Pablo was accompanied by the gaudy Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden. West knows how to make a noise—even if he hasn’t really made “a moment” in a long time.
“I’ve got no strings / To hold me down / To make me fret / Or make me frown / I had strings / But now I'm free / There are no strings on me…”
Freedom is something West has touted throughout the past several weeks of Trump-loving Twitter outbursts, TMZ confrontations and confounding interviews. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother,” Ye tweeted of Trump back in late April. “I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.” These ideas of “independence” and “freedom” seem to be at the core of what Kanye champions, but its clear his idea of autonomy is rooted in recklessness in service to ego. Ta-Nehisi Coates stated as much in his May op-ed for The Atlantic:
“West calls his struggle the right to be a ‘free thinker,’ and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.”
Is this freedom the kind that purchases a photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-strewn bathroom to use as cover artwork for an album? Is it the kind that unabashedly declares chattel slavery a “choice” as the daily indignities of contemporary racism illustrate how deeply it continues to affect our culture? Kanye has made it clear that he doesn’t have the answers, and on Ye, his inability to truly address even his own imperiousness is glaring.
The seven-track album has gotten mixed reactions from fans, many of whom are still uneager to embrace anything Kanye does after his latest antics. Pusha T’s West-produced album DAYTONA arrived a week prior to Kanye’s new project, and T intimated that the latest West album would answer some of the questions the rapper’s behavior has raised. But Ye isn’t anywhere near as political as one might have anticipated following the last few weeks. This is a personal album, but it’s not a particularly inspired one.
The dark opener “I Thought About Killing You” finds Kanye musing over “doing bad things” and seemingly delighting in not apologizing for his feelings. Not that anyone would’ve asked him to, but Ye scoffs at the idea of softening his words to make anyone feel better about what he’s saying. “I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you.” The spoken word continues for more than two minutes before the Kareem Lotfy-sampling song kicks in. It’s supposed to be a gripping look into Kanye’s frayed emotional state and segues thematically into “Yikes,” as Kanye further explores the darkness he wrestles with mentally. He takes a dig at Russell Simmons while somehow also prodding the #MeToo movement to the point that it’s unclear if West is criticizing one, the other or neither. Most tellingly, he ends the song declaring “that’s my bipolar shit” and announcing that he doesn’t have a disability—he’s a superhero.
Ty Dolla $ign and G.O.O.D. Music’s Valee guest on “All Mine,” and the track dumps the pathos that preceded it for standard-issue conflicted ballerisms from Kanye, including raps about wanting to date Naomi Campbells and Stormy Daniels, while mentioning his sister-in-law’s beau Tristan Thompson and his recent indiscretions. It’s a song of no consequence and on an album of 7 tracks, one would think Kanye would forego fluff for something more substantive. But this is Kanye West—expecting anything is a fool’s errand. It’s the beginning of the album’s turn towards the kind of narcissistic navel-gazing that defines Kanye post-2010. Kanye has always loved Kanye, but the past near-decade has seen his self-absorption married to his luxury fixations and opulent lifestyle in a way that has made his music often impenetrable.
He finally addresses his Trump-supporting shenanigans on “Wouldn’t Leave,” in the form of a quasi-apology to Kim for dragging her into his maelstrom. Of course, he doesn’t miss a chance to paint himself as victim, and he still sidesteps any real insight or motivations for the statements that left most of his fan base confused and angry. With Kid Cudi and Charlie Wilson, “No Mistakes” features West once again getting introspective about his recent troubles without really sharing much about why he’s where he is. The Slick Rick sample is one of the album’s highlights, and all over Ye it’s obvious that Kanye’s sonic instincts are still intact. But he doesn’t have the potency of expression he once commanded easily. And he sounds like a man who is running out of ideas.
“Ghost Town” is a precursor to the planned joint project between Kanye and Cudi, and it’s anthemic spirit runs counter to the downbeat mood of most of the album. It’s mostly a showcase for Cudi, 070 Shake and PARTYNEXTDOOR. But Kanye’s inner conflict is once again center stage on album closer “Violent Crime;” he’s handwringing over the prospect of his daughter getting older, and pondering how his own contempt for women will be visited upon her by the men she encounters in her life. 070 Shake appears again, as Kanye rhymes “Niggas is savage, niggas is monsters / Niggas is pimps, niggas is players / ‘Til niggas have daughters, now they precautious / Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma.”
With an appropriately-detached Dej Loaf, “Violent Crimes” also features a distinct coda: a message to Kanye from Nicki Minaj, offering a bar and explaining the line. “I’m saying it like… I want a daughter like Nicki, Aw man, I promise / Imma turn her to a monster / But no menages. Let ‘em hear this.” Using a Minaj audio snippet whilst in the midst of Pusha T’s feud with Drake is cheeky, and an interestingly cryptic way to address the whispers of ghostwriting head-on.
Kanye’s personal struggles have often played out publicly. His emotional crises, stints in therapy, an addiction to opioids—he’s put it all out there. But it’s mostly been via outbursts, tweets and media baiting. In what’s become sadly routine, Kanye’s been most compelling when he’s making a mess—not when he’s making music. An album that comes on the heels of his most dumbfounding stretch arrives without offering much in the way of insight into why he seems so intent on trolling his fans. And there isn’t anything particularly revelatory about Kanye’s musings on having a daughter. A rapper waxing reflectively on misogyny upon becoming a dad has become rote territory, and the mundanity of “Violent Crimes“ is indicative of how creatively dry Ye consistently remains throughout. Kanye has his thoughts but they’re not as profound or as enthralling as he seems to believe.
“No black man has taken advantage of his freedom more than Kanye West…”
An album this personal should be more compelling than it is. A trip to Wyoming can make a big noise, but it can’t really make a moment. Kanye is “free” in as much as he’s rich and famous enough to make a lot of people move when he says move. But that concept of “freedom” is a tricky one for any Black artist dependent on white platforms, white dollars and white comfort for the dissemination of said Black art. Kanye West has to grapple with the chaos he creates while navigating a world that has never embraced people like him. He’s always sought to have leverage in white worlds. He’s always needed validation from white institutions. And he’s selling his Black voice to and for people who hate Black voices.
Does that really sound all that “free?”