Expecting blockbuster artists to reinvent the wheel every single time is a pointless endeavour. Kanye's 'Ye' would be classed ‘business as usual’, if Kanye’s usual business wasn’t so revolutionary.
In the typical press cycle of a blockbuster release, this is the time we start talking about the dust settling. The record’s been let loose, the quick digestions and knee-jerk reactions are done, and the first reviews have been handed in. Only, weirdly, this time it’s different. Kanye West’s ‘ye’ arrived last week to only moderate fanfare. Where the last few Kanye releases seem to have stopped time itself, this one, comparatively, felt like a bit of a shrugfest. As the days have rolled on, one thread keeps emerging in the middling reviews, tweets and water cooler conversations surrounding the record – it’s nothing to write home about, he hasn’t changed the world. He’s lost his touch, they cry. It’d be classed ‘business as usual’, if Kanye’s usual business wasn’t so revolutionary.
It’s a weird criticism to level at an artist. While Kanye might have a penchant for reinventing the wheel – his last two records in particular warping hip-hop’s sonic palette and the very idea of what constitutes an album, respectively, it’s not as if his every move is a game-changer. ‘Graduation’ didn’t rupture the foundations of hip-hop. ‘808s & Heartbreak’ might’ve been a heel-turn for its creator, but it didn’t inspire much in the way of immediate copycats – its impact was a slower process, people poring over the record and dissecting it over a number of years. Demanding his – or any artist’s – every work to immediately change the rules of the game is a sure-fire way to set them up for failure. And Kanye’s perfectly adept at that himself. No one should ignore the context of this record’s creation. The ‘Make America Great Again’ hat; the insistence that ‘slavery was a choice’; the repeated championing of far-right figures. These are all questions to be asked of ‘Ye’ and its creator – ones that he neatly (or cowardly?) sidesteps on the record itself.
Sure, ‘Ye’ might not have stopped everyone in their tracks the way ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ or ‘The Life of Pablo’ did upon release, but does that really matter? There are parts of ‘Ye’ that bloom like Kanye’s very best. The chopped-up soul samples that make up ‘I Thought About Killing You’ are quintessential Yeezy, while the confused ramblings on suicide and “premeditated murder” that he spews over the top are the best insight yet into a seemingly impenetrable mindset.
The muted musicianship – often sounding filtered through the muddy perception of a mind on anti-depressants – is not without its stunning moments, either. The slow, droning bass on ‘Yikes’; the blown-out strings on ‘Ghost Town’; the aching, choral beauty of ‘Violent Crimes’. It’s a record that reeks of Kanye’s love of noise, post-punk and the avant garde – one that should appeal to underground scenes that would normally never set foot near a hip-hop release. “That’s my bipolar shit! / That’s my super power! / Ain’t no disability! / I’m a super hero!” he declares on ‘Yikes’ – a bracingly open declaration. It’s clearly a record that Kanye needed to make – a personal exorcism, rather than an attempt to disrupt the order of things.
The need to smash apart the established order is a strange expectation placed on A-list artists – and exacerbated by the hyperbole of internet discourse. Whenever a Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Kanye West rears their head, they’re expected to have created something truly revolutionary; anything else is treated like failure. ‘ye’ is far from a perfect record, and the context surrounding its release deserves criticism. But arguing it’s a flop because it hasn’t changed space and time itself? ‘Yikes’, indeed.