Kanye West recently explained that he titled his eighth album Ye because it is, he believes, the most common word in the Bible. For West, it signals a shift in his perspective from I to we, with West speaking as the voice of all of our good and our bad. But in his lyrics, he focuses on the darkest sides of human nature, the struggle to deal with his mental health issues,, and exposes the most toxic views in modern society. Based on what he presents here, humanity isn’t in a very good place — and that is, arguably, a worldview that is born out by the current administration, culture wars, and rising authoritarianism in America and fascism in Europe. It’s also hard as hell to listen to in a 23-minute long album.
West opens with “I Thought About Killing You,” a track punctuated by screams that deals with heavy themes of death and violence. It’s eerie to listen to these dark thoughts next to that dark production from Mike Dean, who pairs synths with dirty bass, though we should attribute the gloom to West (think of Bey’s “Partition” verses West’s “Monster,” which encapsulate the different directions in which an artist can push Dean’s signature sound). He then segues into “Yikes,” which reads like a lament on opioid addiction and self-medication. It also struggles with an uncomfortable mention of Russell Simmons and the #MeToo movement. West has a “witch hunt” moment when he wonders, “Thinkin’ what if that happened to me too / Then I’m on E! News.”
The stars of Ye are its guest vocalists, who deliver its catchiest moments. Valee’s high-pitched chorus on “All Mine,” PARTYNEXTDOOR’s soulful singalong chorus on “Wouldn’t Leave, and Charlie Wilson and Kid Cudi on “No Mistake are all standouts” — no small feat in songs loaded with thirsty Kardashian references. “Ghost Town,” from producer Benny Blanco, comes in sounding instrumentally the most like a fully actualized song on Ye, but the lyrics are just a mumble jumble, with no meaning or chorus halfway mumbled into a mic. And then there is the final track, “Violent Crimes,” on which West doubles down on his lack of understanding that women are actual, functional human beings who deserve autonomy and their equal rights wrapped in the blanket of being a song from a father about a daughter. West pleads for North not to grow up too fast, while he plays out a scenario in which meeting her future husband will be like Meet the Fockers. He also wishes for her to have a body more like his and less like her mother’s legendary curves so that men won’t be interested in her. He assumes when he raps that she can’t “comprehend the danger” she’s in, but he explained his total lack of understanding about the way women see the world earlier in the say, rapping, “Father, forgive me, I'm scared of the karma / 'Cause now I see women as somethin' to nurture / Not somethin' to conquer.” It’s no surprise to hear this from West, but it’s starting to be obnoxious.
Ye sounds like what it is: the work of someone who scrapped everything and slapped this together in two weeks. He reworked his album after trotting out, ostensibly, some of the ideas he meant to explore on it, possibly influenced by life in Trump’s America, and the feedback was fast and furious — and negative. There is something to be said for the level of confidence it takes to do that, as well as the confidence West displays by dropping a 23-minute album in the streaming era when many rap artists are making triple albums full of filler just to game the Billboard charts with their streaming numbers. That West feels free to step out of that game is either a testament to his belief in his own relevance or a damn fine explanation for why he said all that controversial stuff before dropping this album. Possibly both.
There is some truth to West’s assertion that he’s “a reflection of who we are, just as beings.” He gets it dead wrong sometimes, and other times he explores things that maybe we, collectively need to talk about more in order to get it right. That’s been a theme throughout his career, especially on Yeezus, where his ideas about fashion, slavery, and ex-girlfriends mashed up with Nina Simone samples didn’t always connect. The problem on Ye is that West wants to speak for “us” without getting any feedback. That’s fine when he made 808’s & Heartbreak, which was entirely his story to tell. Ye suggests that the rapper, in his isolation, can no longer accept that his ideas aren’t necessarily a greater truth. West seems at odds with the fact that he is the iconoclast who poured his everything into amazing, genre-pushing albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne. Though, it should be clear that for West “us” doesn’t include the voices of women. Ye sounds like West is still grappling with how to accept being just the voice of Kanye West, and make that enough.