If there’s a such thing as “Great America” hip-hop, a rap album that could be enjoyed by President Donald Trump, it’s Ye, the new seven-song body of work from Kanye West. Whether that’s actually a great thing at all will mostly depend on your view of the man and cultural force that West has become.
Ye starts with “I Thought About Killing You,” a half-monologue, half-trap trip of mentally ill, music-borne sociopathy and self-worship. We follow Kanye on a spooky stream of consciousness, whose repeated trail of wordplay takes us through dark, twisted fantasies of murdering someone he loves. It reminds us early on, with full transparency, that music is part of his overall mental therapy strategy.
For the remaining six tracks, there’s a clarity of self-awareness within the lyrics of Ye and its synergized production, which seems much less confused than I expected, particularly when judged against the colossal hot air balloon of wackness that was The Life of Pablo. Comparing that album to Ye, and considering his recent work on Pusha T’s immaculate seven-song album Daytona, you have to admit that West is putting out some of his best work in years.
You can argue that he always saw it coming, this dissociative relationship with his friends, family and fans, even though he’s always sought to explain himself to us with window-shoppers’ views into his soul. See, most black people, and even white people at this point, could never afford to speak our minds in the way Kanye West enjoys today. We’re so used to being shocked by his statements that we not only allow it, we expect it. And we hope that there’s something from within the artistic blur of his creativity that we can glean, and help us break through every invisible wall and glass ceiling we’ve constructed on our own to keep us from his level of freedom.
But there’s also a maniac despair in Ye. He needs our understanding of what he’s doing. And those of us who became decidedly anti-Kanye—after his slavery-as-a-choice statement, his elevation of tap-dancing conservative-thought leader Candace Owens and his general adoption of the idea of Trump, as opposed to an informed opinion on what he and his Republican party now represent—are deeply conflicted and in despair over what to do with our beloved son who sold himself to the devil. I recently re-watched some of T.I.’s interviews after the release of his Kanye collaboration “Ye vs. the People,” and I knew exactly what the trap music originator meant when he told a radio show on Hot 97, “The black delegation can’t afford to lose Kanye West.”
So when we hear him with Ty Dolla $ign and Valee on the song “All Mine,” which has all the hyper-sexualized Auto-Tune gargle we’ve come to love in modern future-trap rap songs, we are comforted that he’s still the same old Yeezy from “Gold Digger,” who loves models and fast women of all sorts. The song includes a mention of Stormy Daniels as a balance to his lustful attraction to Naomi Campbell, and it comes across as if he’s trying to simplify the universal sexual attraction America has to the exotic blackness of model Campbell and the forbidden sin of porn star Stormy. Whether or not we should want both wildflowers, we do, and we all know it, the rapper seems to say.
Those of us who became decidedly anti-Kanye are deeply conflicted and in despair over what to do with our beloved son who sold himself to the devil.
The album ends with “Violent Crimes,” where Kanye aligns with the maturity Jay-Z displayed on 4:44. On the song, Kanye shows his concern for his daughters as he talks about how raising a daughter finally exposed to him the disastrous patriarchy of life today. I have a daughter, a beautiful little girl who resembles my wife almost exclusively with the exception of her eyes, which are clearly mine. I, too, am consumed by what I know men to be, and with how I must prepare her to deal with them. Maybe the line to which I relate most is from that song, when he says, “Don’t do no yoga, don’t do pilates, just play piano and stick to karate.” And again, I want to be angry at Kanye West, but with this final track, I find him to be a kindred, if troubled, spirit. I don’t necessarily like that he consistently identifies bad men as “niggas,” because it’s hard to hear the N-word come out of the mouth of someone who proudly wears a MAGA hat, but I think I know what he’s trying to say, and surprisingly enough, that’s apparently enough to keep me listening.
It’s confusing. Because with all of this, what are we to make of the man we thought was the nerdier reincarnation of Tupac Shakur, when he embraces the politics of racist symbolism? He’s an unparalleled musical talent—can’t he tell a dog whistle when he hears it?
We live in an era of people being “canceled” for their thoughts, and I was sure I’d canceled Kanye. Hip-hop has no patience for sellouts, and we live a time where a real estate mogul occupies America’s highest office, and he was assisted in achieving this goal partially because of America’s modern and delusional association of ego with actual talent. Kanye has both, but clearly struggles with balancing the two as he works to serve some greater good. And I have no doubt he believes himself to be a crusader, but only Kanye knows if he’s still the man who gave us The College Dropout.
Today, the collective body of cultural consumers has decided that we’re willing to censor the art of people we find to be outside the mainstream of acceptable behavior and thinking. And I was part of this until Ye was released—I swore that I could not forgive the man who told us, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” for saying that Donald Trump was his “brother.” But I admit that I’m glad I listened to Ye—the album Kanye West should have released when he put out the disjointed but passable Yeezus a few years ago—because it is an extended EP of emotional exposure. It's a cautionary tale of what happens to your spirit and ability to connect to reality when you chase the pyramidion of fame, and find out just how lonely—mentally, spiritually, financially and otherwise—it is at the top.