Bring on Yeezy season
William Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit”. From one genius to another, let’s turn our attention to Kanye West, a man who has finally unveiled his eighth album, ‘ye’. Readers, the record is a mere seven tracks long. 23 minutes and 41 seconds of pure, unadulterated Kanye. It’s been online for less than a day, so we’re still coming to grips with the collection, but all signs point towards it being a triumph.
‘ye’ is the sound of a rapper looking back on his career, assessing the journey that his brought him to this destination. The early, pink polo shirt Kanye traded on chopped-up soul samples, which make a return here. ‘No Mistakes’ sounds as gooey and sentimental as ‘Hey Mama’ or ‘Family Business’, but the lyrics take the confessional approach that Kanye explored on ‘The Life of Pablo’, referencing, for instance, his debt: “I got dirt on my name, I got white on my beard / I had dead on my books / It’s been a shaky ass year”. On ‘Yikes’ his delivery apes the flow of 2016 track ‘Wolves’, and the lyrics are perhaps his most naked yet: “Shit could get menacing, frightenin’, find help / Sometimes I scare myself.” Overall, it sounds like a Kanye West more at peace with himself than he’s sound in years; a blessed relief after the stark, violent ‘The Life of Pablo’.
In form, though, the record finds Kanye continuing to defy convention, rallying against the norm. The big album trend of the last couple of years has been the bloated, overlong record. Think Drake’s ‘VIEWS’; think The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’; think Migos’ ‘Culture II’; especially think Post Malone’s ‘beerbongs & bentleys’, which is a monument to the beige, dreary, needlessly track-stuffed album trend. Like Pusha T’s recent, dazzling ‘Daytona’, which is also only seven tracks long, and which Kanye produced, ‘ye’ swaps long-windedness for to-the-point brilliance.
Well, why have albums become longer? It’s all because of streams: in 2014, the American charts combined these with actual sales, meaning that the more tracks you stream from a record, the more chance it has of going to number one. In February, Atlantic Records marketing manager Malcolm Manswell told Rolling Stone: “Stacking albums with extra songs is a strategic way to achieve certain goals.” It’s cynical, sure, though the music business has always been that – a business. If a new way of making money has emerged, why not exploit it?
Kanye West is many things, but he is not cynical. This is why we love him. He pursues his dreams and creative vision, relentlessly, often to his own cost. This is a man who admitted in 2016 that he was $53m in personal debt because he’d sunk masses of cash into his ill-fated fashion line. Fashion shows, such as those staged to show of his Yeezy clothing line, are wildly expensive affairs. In the wake of the revelation of ‘Ye’s debt, Jonathan Reed, C.E.O. of brand consultancy CS Global, explained to Vanity Fair: “For a large show, you’re thinking about venue expenses, set and stage expenses, audio and special effects, labour costs… This can run into seven figures very quickly. That doesn’t include any of the talent—models, hair, makeup, stylists. That’s its own huge bucket, another easy seven figures.”
But Kanye doesn’t care about any of that. He pursued the fashion line because he believed it could be beautiful, because that’s where the muse took him. He could have stuffed ‘ye’ with any number of tracks he may recorded, low-key, since ‘The Life of Pablo’ was released in 2016 – and reaped the rewards. But to do so would be calculating in a way that the rapper and his new confessional, nakedly vulnerable record is not.
His albums often inspire trends and copycats. ‘The College Drop-out’ brought non-materialistic hip-hop into the mainstream. ‘808s & Heartbreak’ ushered in the emotional, introspective rap of Drake and the Weeknd. ‘The Life of Pablo’ paved the way for the gospel-sampling likes of Chance the Rapper. Let’s hope ‘ye’ sees other musicians follow suit, trimming the fat from their records, eschewing chart-topping tricks to turn in something more honest, direct and to-the-point. Once again, Yeezy taught us.