In a recent New York Times essay, titled “My Woody Allen Problem,” film critic A.O. Scott grappled with the problem of dividing an artist’s body of work from the inescapable particulars of a troubled (and troubling) human being. “Innocence and guilt are legal (and also metaphysical) standards,” he wrote, “but when we talk about the behavior of artists and our feelings about them, we are inevitably dealing with much messier, murkier, subjective issues.” Separating art from author has been a common practice – there’s Woody Allen, but also Roman Polanski – and, regarding the content of ideas, happy ignorance stretches all the way back to Wagner in the modern era.
We’ve now reached a point of reckoning. Giants have been felled by their disgusting actions (Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey) and hateful words (most recently, Roseanne Barr). Kanye West is no stranger to controversy, but for some, his embrace of Donald Trump and a statement that “slavery was a choice” crossed a clear, moral line of demarcation. Include me in that group. Kanye’s numerous shenanigans have accrued over time, like barnacles on a grand ocean liner. And they’ve proliferated lately, going from irritating to exhausting to ruinous. This ship seems perilously close to sinking under its own weight.
West’s new work, a 23-minute attempt at a rejoinder called Ye, squarely places the blame on mental illness for unforgivable statements, while raising its own concerns. I don’t know what’s more offensive as an enthusiastic fan of his music. Is it his willingness to conflate legitimate sickness with moral failure? Or is it this minor release, which he’s passing off as an “album?”
Ye isn’t an LP in the traditional sense. It only runs three minutes longer than, say, Chronic Town, R.E.M.’s immortal debut EP. (The same categorical objection should, rightly, be applied to Pusha-T’s excellent, West produced, DAYTONA.) Compared to the messy sonic smorgasbord of The Life of Pablo, Ye is but a morsel, a table scrap, an artistic ort.
As an artistic ort, a table scrap, a morsel: Ye is delectable. It’s both a throwback to the “Old Kanye” and a proof of concept for an artist who’s easing comfortably into an elder statesman. But Ye is little more than that. As it breezes by, flashes of West’s halcyon days are recalled over and over again. This is the first instance of Kanye looking backward, pleased to repurpose past glories without pushing his sound forward.
Ye finds West at his most bare and exposed since 808s and Heartbreak. He’s candid about an addiction to opioids and a (self?) diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Soul samples proliferate, and they’re uniformly gorgeous. Heartfelt exclamations are sung by a motley crew that includes GOOD Music’s Valee, Canadian rapper PARTYNEXTDOOR, R&B legend Charlie Wilson and, most notably, New Jersey up-and-comer 070 Shake. At one point, squeaky vocal flourishes evoke Bon Iver’s wonderful 22, A Million.
But, when judging its merit and considering its significance in a larger context, Ye’s brief length remains a fundamental flaw. Just think of the countless, imperfect albums released over the years that could’ve been pared down to 23 minutes of excellent to unimpeachable content. There’s a reason why we place less aesthetic heft on a great single versus a remarkable album. It’s a difference of scale and ambition.
Even though Ye contains a glorious three-track stretch (“Wouldn’t Leave,” “No Mistakes,” and “Ghost Town”), it’s dragged down by a rambling, spoken-word opener (“I Thought About Killing You”) and “Yikes,” a lesser melodic sequel to “FML” and “Wolves” from Pablo. “All Mine” is mostly great, buoyed by Valee’s tongue-twisting vocal assist. But only “Ghost Town” reaches the stratospheric heights that Kanye regularly achieved on previous albums. 070 Shake’s star-turn on the outro matches prior breakout performances by Nicki Minaj (on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Monster”) and Chance the Rapper (on Pablo’s “Ultralight Beam”). It’d be one thing if these seven songs were all fabulous. They’re not, and that’s the problem. There’s little room for error here.
All told, Ye is thin gruel when placed next to Kanye’s intellectual transgressions, not to mention an impeccable oeuvre. As an aural experience, it offers a mix of triumph and nostalgia. Results will vary, depending on your willingness to embark on this very short, often thrilling, ride. But for an artist defined by grandiosity, Ye is frustratingly slight. Now more than ever, Kanye West needed to deliver a bombastic fireworks display. Instead, he’s arrived, amidst a storm of controversy, waving sparklers. B MINUS