As I watched the live stream listening party for Kanye West’s eighth studio album Ye, I couldn’t help but focus on the flames.
In the middle of a field in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a crowd of listeners surrounded a large bonfire as speakers pulsed with music. As nightfall fell over the mountainous landscape, the fire’s glow seemed to provide a sense of warmth and comfort amidst the chilly surroundings. Yet as the fire crackled and sparked, I kept wondering how close one could stand before getting burned.
It kind of reminded me of what it’s like to be a Kanye West fan in 2018. If I’m being honest with myself, maybe it’s always felt this way.
At seven tracks and just under 24 minutes long, Ye is almost the polar opposite of 2016’s mammoth-sized The Life of Pablo. It’s focused and concise, and even with its short running time, there’s plenty to dissect. It’s also problematic.
But then again, so was Pablo’s “Famous” and Yeezus’ “On Sight” and Graduation’s “Drunk and Hot Girls” and The College Dropout’s “New Workout Plan” and on and on and on. Kanye’s devil has always avoided the details, sitting in plain sight as we collectively shrugged it away, even if it got more difficult as more time passed.
This time around, the new music comes on the heels of candid support of Donald Trump, the elevation of problematic alt-right commentators, and an avalanche of non sequitur ramblings in the name of free thought, including a disastrous comment about slavery being a choice.
Even in the midst of disgust and heartbreak, a small part of me held out hope that a new album might help correct course or salve wounds. This line of thinking reveals that I have learned little – Ye doesn’t fix anything. It just sounds good.
It takes less than a minute into the album’s second track, “Yikes”, for Kanye to utter the lines, “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me, too / I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d”. The cringe on my face likely mirrored the one I displayed upon hearing the now infamous Taylor Swift line in “Famous” just two years ago. In both instances, I kept listening because the beat was so good.
And in typical fashion, the production on Ye is something to be admired. But this time, it can’t cover up the flaws, because right now, the emperor truly has no clothes. “All Mine” is reckless in its ideas of women as possessions, and even a genuine attempt by West to address his own misogyny for his daughter’s sake on “Violent Crimes” comes up startlingly short, placing the impetus on North to follow a certain path in order to avoid the pitfalls of a sexist society.
In its best thematic moments, Ye deals openly with Kanye’s battle with bi-polar disorder and thoughts of suicide, and finds him grateful to his wife for not leaving his side amidst his self-created chaos. Like so many Kanye albums, Ye is messy, and in large part, this is what has made his music so approachable, relatable, and powerful. But at 40 years old and deep into his artistic career, is it time to ask for more? Or at least ask for growth in the areas that continue to cause pain and alarm?
There are no easy answers to this and the responses will be varied and deeply personal. On “Ghost Town” Kanye and Kid Cudi team up again, with 070 Shake joining late in the track with a repeated refrain of, “We’re still the kids that we used to be / I put my hand on the stove to see if I still bleed / And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free”. There’s a lot packed into those lines and interpretations will differ, but for me, as long as the stove remains hot and the fire still sparks, I’m comfortable putting a little distance between myself and the flames.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.