GOOD Music | Def Jam
He would have it no other way than to be characterised as the patron saint of mental illness. Although his iconoclast compulsively destroys idols made of him, this one might as well be carved in stone. In an interview c. Yeezus the artist describes the thug motivation-ish superhero that sits opposite the saint: he is there in the song whenever Kanye pretends to be super so that the listener can feel super too. Anyone paying attention to the music had of course noticed that by Yeezus his sustained cries of loneliness had permeated his sound as well as his words. Escapist motivation was no longer viable, nor did it need to be. What this means in terms of differentiating saint from performative superhero, of creating music that is inspiring for listeners yet honest for the artist, is an uncertain area that ye lays bare and cautiously begins to resolve.
It is another release by the artist that is interested in process over product, spontaneity over deliberation, sincere expression above all else. It has been eight years since he’s cared about demonstrating a composer’s virtuosity in bringing about a coherent whole. As listeners we’re encouraged to see his body of work as a thing in progress, as a network of ideas, feelings, and moments that reignite and recontextualise themselves as time passes. ye is what it sounds like when the superhero tips closer to the saint- when he makes music as himself, living in a world with us. Its essence is fragile, an unguarded hope that has always been there but has routinely been corrupted in its expression: amplified and mocked by the artist who is always neurotically guarded, particularly when he tells you that he’s being honest. His superhero anthem Power topples as it transforms so excited into suicide; one of many polarities exposed across My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with strategic clarity. It’s a virtuoso move: the mess was planned from the beginning. He later admitted that record was for his critics and not himself, its mess represented as superherodom, and he knew every step of the way it that it would be hailed as a popular masterpiece upon release.
ye moves quickly to slip past this neurotic performer who organises messy emotions into their aestheticised representations. It is small, intimate, simple, like a single photograph alone on the museum wall just over from a big dick artist installation work. It might seem meagre but it isn’t. The analogy holds- speed in the photograph is critical, along with scale and cropping. With Yeezus, the first break from the virtuoso or super-Kanye, the artist stripped layers from the finished product and left as much work as possible to spontaneous performance. This revealed a vitality that over-composed works lack, and aimed to capture raw performance instead of showcasing best takes. The Life of Pablowas its inverse: stitched grandiose from pieces roughly sanded back, built to feel unfinished, a perpetual work in progress where the proper take is ever yet to come. It is a sprawling collage of photographs, journal pages, unused musical notation. A light breeze could enter the space and remove a piece of the ephemera and it would be interesting instead of disastrous. As quick, as liberated as these works are, they heave and move and change shape in front of us. They also contain in them the shadow of the composer who might one day add or subtract more, to finish them.
ye has no sense of that authoritative shadow, and it’s jarring- you can feel its absence immediately. It’s just the one photograph and he’s in it, looking sick, sad, happy, embarrassed, recording. It’s undeniably brief, but it begs us not to make it fleeting. The song, as with the photograph, finds its meaning in what it decides to include and exclude from a take. In Berger: “a photograph bears witness to a human choice being exercised. This choice is not between photographing x and y: but between photographing at x moment or at y moment.” Yeezus is built on the absence of completed sounds, and Pablo the presence of negated sounds. ye on the other hand feels like unaffected reportage; more about its moment than minute creative details and exposed structural narratives. Why this moment in particular matters is clear from the start- it’s a cry not for anything, but from this place where gravity has kicked in: nothing hurts anymore / I feel kind of free (a humble comedown from the frantic workouts of I just wanna feel liberated two years earlier). It’s a shift from look what I can perform living with mental illness and I live with mental illness. That photograph alone on the wall is powerful in the space that it leaves- we wonder what other images might have been taken around the same time and added to the wall, but ye‘s power is in its solitary vulnerability.
The ghost of the superhero, the composer, who suffers and performs power for us can be found in traces around the room, but he’s lost: Niggas say they hero- I don’t see no cape, and later That’s my bipolar shit, that’s my superpower, ain’t no disability I’m a superhero. The former is a clear enough denouncement of the superhero concept, and the latter (compared to something like Power) is guided by the fragility of human belief rather than a concrete assertion of knowledge. Because it’s effectively naked, signature embarrassing Kanye jokes fluctuate between gross drunk uncle gags (none of us would be here without cum), and bland awful dad ones (I love your titties ’cause they prove I can focus on two things at once). They’re moments of insipid reprieve in a room that might need them: I can feel the spirits all around me (…) They know I got demons all on me is as chilling as when Future muttered I know the devil is real on DS2, and Ye’s gallows humour never felt bleaker than on Yikes: hospital band a hundred bands, fuck a watch. He provokes himself to continue, to get shrill, but there is something awful in the image of Ye outside of the verse: They don’t know they dealing with a zombie. These are interspersed with candid reports that add to the photographic quality of the album where poetry can only be heard if poetry was there at the time. What moves most are the tender and mundane specifics of bankruptcy, of gratitude for your loved ones standing by you, of finishing a record with a song about your daughter. There’s no poetry in these parts because there was no poetry at the time, no ghosts or demons, and so they’re left bare, as in a domestic photograph. ye smiles.
It is no surprise that as rapper-producer it’s the presentation of voices that matters most here. What is surprising is how the artist has responded to Tim Hecker’s question of what liturgical music should sound like post-Yeezus. Pablowas an exploded view of possibilities, of rough-cut gospel, sound poetry, and transcendental autotune. The standout however was Rihanna’s flat, unadorned rendition of Do What You Gotta Do on Famous. ye takes Rihanna’s bit as a starting-point for uncomfortable, candid voices delivering uncomfortable, candid words: before we even begin picking apart the contents of a bar the photographic quality of the record has done the affective heavy lifting. I Thought About Killing You is like a blast of cold wind in the way that the rapper allows himself to be foregrounded- nasal, unsure of himself, exposed in the cold mountain air. Ghost Town is a post-All the Young Dudes glam anthem with Rihanna’s Famous and Lil B’s All My Life (Remix) as foundational text- a worshipping Shirley Ann Lee sample checks the liturgical box, before his guests deliver the weirdo performances of a lifetime that have the listener shudder, laugh, and then a few listens later weep tears of happiness. Wouldn’t Leave has a baptism from sixty years ago enter the song-space in the scattered, clipped form of howls and claps that would be right at home with Moodymann, but the difference in texture is harsh, like holes torn in the fabric of the song. The distinction between the sacred and profane is something Kanye has methodically deconstructed since day one, but post-Yeezus the two have coexisted in this earthly space, invading each other’s worlds.
ye has new and old answers, and it’s explicitly for Ye, as someone who lives and suffers the same as we do. It’s the first of his that’s not major in the sense of defining a cultural zeitgeist and influencing what comes next. Instead it’s by and for the individuals that might need it. And like everything he does, it breaks your heart. Because even as he destroys your icons and starts fires, the pain that’s there in the music is immediately relatable, and it makes you feel less alone when you hear something so messy and awful, so familiar, coming from this kind of a platform. I think about killing myself every day, and have done for as long as I can remember. How can you describe the feeling when someone says I love you and that breaks you, for like two and a half minutes, out of your year-long spell as a zombie, and it makes you rush to feel more again, to breathe in that freezing cold air, to climb up high even though it might destroy you, and you slip and come crashing down again. What are the right words when that person rolls you over so they can look you in the eye and say again I love you. No matter what, I love you. You might find that there’s no poetry present in these moments, nor does there need to be: I love you. Thank you, and I love you.
ye, cautiously, smiles.
ye is inspiring- it’s a moment in which we can believe that even if our disorders don’t make us superhuman, understanding and living with them might.