After a series of controversial statements which led many to wonder what in the world was going on Kanye West. What was with the sudden flood of pro-Trump activity? What was up with his statements about slavery? Why was he shouting at the TMZ crew about his problems concerning plastic surgery, opiates, and the pressures of being famous? If Ye, Kanye West’s recent and third album, is any indication, Kanye West has wondered what is going on with Kanye West just as much as the rest of us, but he thinks he might know the answers. As a result, he wants to let us inside the mind of the real Kanye West, not the illusion he builds up on so much of his previous output, but the man himself. The result is the most personal album Kanye West has ever written, almost to the point of going beyond what is really normal and acceptable. Almost. And the very album cover, which references Kanye’s bipolar disorder, is meant to prepare us for how this album will be just such an experience.
However, if one did not get the point from the album cover, it will become blatently obvious from track one, “I Thought About Killing You.” The song is about exactly what one might expect from its title, though who the “you” happens to be is kept somewhat ambiguous, it is safe to assume he is talking about himself, or at least a side of himself (due to the bipolar disorder). The struggle is portrayed very passionately, with Kanye rapping and speaking in an absorbing way, accompanied by nothing other than a distorted choir in the background and alterations to his own voice for over half of the track. It works so well because of how few bars are quite so powerful as “I thought about killing myself/and I love myself far more than I love you” and “I think this is the part where I’m supposed to say somethin’ good/To compensate it so it doesn’t come off bad/But sometimes I think really bad things/Really, really, really bad things.” This and other sentiments are expressed repeated throughout the song for emphasis, which I found to be incredibly effective at giving the track the sort of powerful, brash drama that complimented how open its artist must have been. And this is just the first, spoken word part of the track. In the second half, the drums kick in, the melodies soar, and the track comes to a point of bringing chills. By the end of “I Thought About Killing You” I had no doubts as to the honesty of who wrote it, making it the perfect entry point.
While the follow-up with “Yikes” is not quite as emotionally stirring, it works great as the single-quality track it was meant to be. The drums are pounding, and Kanye’s lyrics which revolve around his line “Sometimes I scare myself” really maintain the themes of the first track and carry them forward. Unfortunately, while I wish I could say the album keeps this high quality for the rest of the album, it is in this middle section where the album falters. “All Mine” is musically lacking in comparison to its predecessors, with lyrics about infidelity that come somewhere between an apology for it and nothing excuses for it. By the end, the track shows much less of the self-honesty which has been the point of the album up to this point, instead coming across as a retreat, especially with the unpleasant refrain delivered by Ant Clemons: “Get to rubbin’ on my lamp/get the genie out the bottle.”
The middle track “Wouldn’t Leave,” is much better lyrically, speaking to his relationship with his wife, Kim Kardashian. However, it is also falters musically, with Kanye’s delivery seeming significantly weaker than the moments in the track calls for. It ultimately makes the track weaker than it could have been. “No Mistakes” is much closer to recovering this, with a sample from “Slick Rick” that works to great effect. The issue here is mainly that the song feel too short, making “No Mistakes” feel like it has things unsaid. Overall, it seems that “No Mistakes” should have been part of “Wouldn’t Leave” (or the other way around). Also, it is hard to truly get into the sentiment of Kanye’s words to his wife after the attitude expressed on “All Mine,” which makes the track stand out even more as an unnecessary and faulty addition.
“Ghost Town” is where we see the quality seriously rebound, with a track that hits a note of optimism not present on the album up to this point. With the previous five tracks being all about problems experienced, “Ghost Town” expresses a welcome relief from it all, and ideas about “feeling kind of free.” Just a brief excerpt from any part of “Ghost Town” will reveal just how lifted up the melody is on this track compared to all the others before it. The track is clearly the album’s climax, with the 070 Shake outro being the beautiful resolution to this story of mental illness and infidelity. Problems with the latter’s expression aside, “Ghost Town” works admirably as the expression of relief which comes from opening up, making it feel that Kanye West has, musically, confessed his deepest thoughts and is now relieved by not having to hold them in any longer. It is truly an amazing piece of music.
And if “Ghost Town” is the climax, that makes “Violent Crimes” the falling action leading to the end of the “story.” In this track, we see Kanye struggling about his daughters over a synth-line that conveys a sense of anxiety for the future. Kanye thinks about the ways in which he has viewed women throughout his life, as well as how he might go about raising his daughters, and he is afraid of what they might do. He wants them to avoid toxic relationships, but feels powerless to stop it in a world that he sees as thinking a lot like how he once did. He talks of how men are “monsters” and “pimps” until “they have daughters,” and wants them to learn karate instead of yoga, implying that he wants them to learn to defend themselves. The problems of “All Mine” come back here, though it does make more sense how he might fear men who think like him given how scary his own thoughts are. Regardless of flaws, we are left in “Violent Crimes” with a view of the softer side of Kanye West, the side that wants the best for his children. In a way, he has ended the album by reaffirming a sentiment from the beginning of “I Thought About Killing You:” “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.”
In the end, Ye leaves us with this short portrait of what goes on in Kanye’s head, and that is really what comes across as the album’s biggest flaw. Regardless of how well it begins and ends, Ye feels incomplete, as though there is much more that could have been said and expressed. “All Mine” is not a horrible track by itself, but seems unsubstantiated. Kanye’s mental illness could easily have been a topic for an album of twice this length, yet only half of this album really explores it in earnest. The individual tracks are strong and work well together (mostly), but this is not a project to limit to seven tracks, regardless of what larger project Kanye may have been developing with Pusha T’s Daytona, Kids See Ghosts, Nas’ twelfth album, and KTSE by Tayana Taylor. This album ultimately does not feel bigger than its seven tracks, even if most of this album is amazing. Really, I just want more of it because of how well executed the tracks are by themselves, because the only real issue with all of Ye is that it is way too full of holes in its own narrative. Regardless, I found it very enjoyable and moving at its best, and it is still a testament to the quality of the product when its worst problem is that one wants more of it. After a career of boosting himself to be larger than life, saying everything up to and including that he “is a god,” this sort of brutal honesty, however short, is refreshing.