Kanye West’s New Album Sounds Like a Cry for Help
Hours before he gathered the most famous people in music to a ranch in Wyoming to listen to his new album, Kanye West's wife Kim Kardashian met with President Donald Trump. That sentence in itself would have seemed like something out of a dystopian nightmare back in 2010, when West released My Dark Twisted Beautiful Fantasy. At that time, West's public persona had begun to unravel, with the infamous VMAs incident, which was followed by high-profile break from music. When he returned with MDTBF, West was much different than the artist we had come to know. He'd spiraled.
Today, the darkness that West inhabits is reflected in both the world around us, in his persona, and in his music.
Ye, at its heart, is a cry for help. And it gets to the terror and chaos of 2018—a year defined by mass shootings, unruly men with god complexes (West included), and absurd ideas. The darkest and most twisted thoughts in our society have been activated and motivated—in politics and popular culture.
"I love myself way more than I love you / And I thought about killing myself today / So best know I thought about killing you," West says on the opening track. The song, "I Thought About Killing You," then settles into a medicated beat with screams on the down-beat. It's chilling. The mood is terrifying, coming from a man who's said he developed an opioid addiction following plastic surgery.
On the next song, "Yikes," he delves into this darkness even further, with West warning in the chorus, "Shit could get menacin', frightenin', find help / Sometimes I scare myself, myself." He juxtaposes the state of the world with the state of his mind, referencing North Korea and #MeToo alongside his own death, drugs, and bipolar disorder.
These two tracks are a dangerous opening to an album that arrives at a time when popular music—specifically emerging trends in rap—has been so depressed it's been fatal. Late last year, Lil Peep, a promising young rapper on the forefront of this trend, died from an accidental overdose. His music—much like this new West album—was filled with these fatalist cries for help. Those messages weren't subtle, much like the broad strokes on Ye. And while Peep's death woke up the industry from a Xanex slumber, the sound is still very much in right now, with the likes of Juice WRLD and Lil Xan making big moves this spring.
YE GETS TO THE TERROR AND CHAOS OF 2018—A YEAR DEFINED BY MASS SHOOTINGS, UNRULY MEN WITH GOD COMPLEXES, AND ABSURD IDEAS.
As Zane Lowe told me in December, 2017 marked a year in which young artists opened up about their challenges with substance abuse and depression in their music. And the election of Donald Trump—along with an unstable country—has marked an extreme anxiety in popular music. Kanye West represents this confusion and anxiety better than any other artist currently making music at his level—for good and for bad.
The elephant in the room on Ye is, of course, West's own politics, which are as absurd and demented as America as a whole. On "All Mine," a sparse track anchored by Valee and Ty Dolla $ign, he references Stormy Daniels and explores the more disgusting reaches of his sexual desires—a song that is absolutely unthinkable in the time of #MeToo, which he referenced two songs earlier on the album's track listing.
Things start to brighten on "Wouldn't Leave," a song like a sunrise in the foothills of Wyoming. It's a subtle and breezy tribute to the Pablo gospel, on which he starts to reflect on everything that went down leading up to Ye. There's no excuse for what Kanye West said about slavery, but on "Wouldn't Leave" he details exactly what happened:
They say, "build your own," I said, "How, Sway?"
I said, "Slavery a choice." They say, "How, Ye?"
Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day
My wife callin', screamin', say, "we 'bout to lose it all!"
Had to calm her down 'cause she couldn't breathe
Told her she could leave me now
But she wouldn't leave
While the music sounds like a man looking to repent at church, the lyrics are about a man thanking his wife for putting up with his shit. It's about as close as we're going to get to an apology from Kanye West. And it reminds me of what his friend and collaborator Talib Kweli told me about West's outburst during the TMZ recording, "When Van Lathan debunked him and he said, 'I’m sorry that I hurt you,' that’s the real Kanye," Kweli said, "the one that does care, the one that can remove himself and care about other people in the room and the country."
And maybe that's the way to look at this album from Kanye West—not as an apology, but as a way to try to understand the most complex man modern music has possibly ever seen.
With that realization, the album takes a turn into a beautiful second half with "No Mistakes," a track that twists the phrase in its title. It's both about Kanye being unable to make mistakes, but also about the public's mistakes about him. He's a man who always thinks he can have it both ways, and on this track he does—spilling out both ego and love. With an intro from John Legend—the man who a month ago clashed with West publicly over politics—West is seeking answers on "Ghost Town." In the same way he claimed to be seeking an elevated form of thought in his conversations with famous liberals, West is searching for a more biblical truth, as his dreams of Sunday and someday blend with church organs. It's a childlike sort of wonder.
The album ends with a somber piano ballad that considers the inherent inescapable violent nature of humans. "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," West repeats in the opening and closing verse. No one is innocent, no one can be fully protected from evil. And if we've learned anything in these last few years, it's that even our heroes are capable of falling from great heights, that evil is everywhere around us. But West leaves us with one word: "Daughters." And the way he says it, "Til niggas have daughters," hints at something more along the lines of hope.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.