In the last few years — partly because it's such a ridiculously sweeping proclamation but mostly because I believe it — I've taken to declaring that Kanye West is the greatest artist of the 21st century. I get a lot of shocked or disgusted reactions, but to me, it should be obvious: Over the course of 14 years and eight albums, the 40-year-old rapper/producer has put together one of the most electrifying, fascinating, galvanizing collections of work of the last two decades. With all due respect to Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and your own personal favorite, no artist in any medium has been as consistently compelling, not just tapping into the zeitgeist but rewriting it again and again.
But the reason that proclamation isn't self-evident is because, well, it's Kanye West. The looks I get aren't because West isn't a talent — it's that the very idea of Kanye West deeply annoys people. For every album like The College Dropout, there's some petty instance of him bum-rushing an awards stage to whine that Taylor Swift didn't deserve the trophy. For every "Stronger," there are a dozen dumb tweets. For every 808s & Heartbreak (a risk-taking, startlingly minimalist look at heartache and grief), there's a 808s & Heartbreak (a polarizing album that a lot of fans dismiss as too chilly and mopey). He's too arrogant, he's too outspoken, he's got no sense of humor — and isn't he married to Kim Kardashian, the embodiment of everything that's wrong with our narcissistic, pseudo-celebrity culture?
If West's brilliance is as undeniable as the many, many, many stupid things he's done in public, it creates a powerful tension for anybody like me who still loves him. His warts are as glaring as his genius — but it's not a question of forgiving or forgetting his flaws. What's central to appreciating what Kanye West has meant to the culture is to acknowledge that both sides of him are inextricably connected. He is amazing because he's terrible.
West just released his ninth album, Ye, and it does nothing to relieve the core conflict his fans feel about championing him. It's a slight, uneven record — at seven songs and only 24 minutes long, it's profoundly unsubstantial — and yet Ye reconfirms the deal we've made with West from the beginning of his magnificent career. We'll give him the space (and the benefit of the doubt) so that he can express himself as candidly as he wants, and he'll do his best to make it thrilling — even if he occasionally tries our patience and makes us question our devotion.
Starting with his George W. Bush comments in 2005, West has been a divisive figure, his albums often competing with his media controversies for attention. That's never been truer than in the buildup to Ye. Since the release of 2016's The Life of Pablo — very few fans' favorite Kanye record (although I adore it) — West has done a remarkable job of obliterating whatever public goodwill he had left. He loudly pledged his support for Donald Trump. He stupidly suggested that "slavery ... was a choice." It caused a lot of longtime backers/apologists, including Pitchfork's Jayson Greene, to jump ship. "We were indulging him, in part, because of our unwavering belief (and his) that he is a Genius," Greene wrote in early May, adding, "This idea has fueled him and absolved him in the past, but it is killing him now."
Some of West's recent bizarro opinions, perhaps, can be explained away by his acknowledgement of mental health struggles, which were maybe compounded or caused by financial struggles and the inevitable toll of aging. (West opens up about all this on Ye, rapping on "No Mistakes," "I got dirt on my name / I got white on my beard / I had debt on my books / It's been a shaky ass year.")
But the new album doesn't transcend his troubles — it wallows in them, presenting us with a guy who turns 41 this Friday and seems no closer to freeing himself from his demons. On Ye, he owns up to dark thoughts about murdering his wife. He talks about dying young — either because of suicide or chemicals. He describes himself as bipolar. He brags that your girl would rather be with him. He reminds us that he's way more famous than we'll ever be. He makes juvenile, off-putting jokes as if to test our willingness to endure his bullshit. (From "All Mine": "Let's have a threesome with you and the blunt / I love your titties 'cause they prove I can focus on two things at once.") And then he'll drop the shenanigans for the freak-out confessional "Yikes," announcing that "Sometimes I scare myself" while sounding like someone who could snap at any moment.
That worrying sentiment of impending implosion isn't new for Kanye. Not counting his 2011 Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, West has spent the last 10 years bending his music to echo his twisted, unraveling mind. 808s & Heartbreak's dehumanizing isolation gave way to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's showy, frantic extravagance, which led to Yeezus' turbo-charged sonic paranoia and then The Life of Pablo's mixtape-like schizophrenia. For a decade, he's practically begged us to read his albums as psychological snapshots, and the picture hasn't been pretty.
If anything, Ye continues The Life of Pablo's swirling anxiety and fragmented feel, its astonishing snatches of music butting heads with its unfiltered, half-formed spasms of random thoughts. From a commercial perspective, this is no way to conduct a career, eschewing clear singles for a sketchbook-style meandering through one's psyche, oscillating between vulnerability and surliness, arrogance and desperation. "I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome," West scrawls on Ye's cover, one of the album's many barbed, self-aware jokes cluing us in that he knows that you know how messed up he is.
But starting with his 2004 debut The College Debut, West has always leveled with his audience — or at least, tried his best to do so — by articulating his inner contradictions, speaking to the raging storm of ambition, insecurity and tenderness that has made his music so dynamic. "We all self-conscious / I'm just the first to admit it," he told us back then. Fourteen years later, he opens Ye with "I Thought About Killing You," where he again lets us in on his thought process: "Just say it out loud to see how it feels / People say 'Don't say this, don't say that' / Just say it out loud / Just to see how it feels / Weigh all the options / Nothing's off the table."
For all the dumb things West has done and said, I remain riveted (at least in his music) by his willingness to say things out loud to see how they feel. Critics have tried to paint unfavorable comparisons between West and his BFF Donald Trump. But here's a crucial difference: Unlike Trump's impulsive proclamations, which are celebrated in some quarters for their "honesty," West's musical explorations of his toxic mind don't affect the nation, don't change public policy and don't put people in jeopardy. (Although, to be fair, as a straight white man, the depth of my feelings of betrayal at Kanye's salute of the president aren't nearly as profound or aggrieved as they understandably are for other groups.)
West's life project has been to try to understand who he is — to decode and sometimes rejoice in his flaws while aspiring to greatness. That life project has only grown more compelling as he's gotten older, settled into married life, had children and run up against the limits of his wealth, fame and creativity. Ye's truncated running time and inconclusive musings sound like a midlife crisis where hesitancy and uncertainty overwhelm all else. And maybe Kanye knows it. "I think this is the part where I'm supposed to say something good to compensate," he says early on in Ye after unloading his murderous, suicidal thoughts. But he refuses to make it easy on him or us: "Sometimes," he admits, "I think really bad things."
I understand why others may have tired of his rantings. But for me, the depth of that pain — and his belief that it's worth expressing — is moving. Kanye West remains an impossible, insufferable musician. His genius is getting us to care anyway.
Here are a few other takeaways from Ye...
A friend and I have an endless debate about which is better: long albums or short albums. His take is that long albums are superior, simply because you get more music from an artist you love — and even if all the songs aren't great, you still get a wealth of material. I think that's crazy: I'd rather have a perfect 10-song album than some bloated, double-record set that goes on forever and whose many weak points dilute the overall product.
In terms of industry trends, though, my friend's rationale has proved victorious. Starting with the CD era, albums have generally gotten longer as artists filled every second of that shiny disc with music. But even in the streaming age, size matters. Recent records such as Drake's More Life are more than an hour long with tons of tracks — Chris Brown's Heartbreak on a Full Moon had 45 songs on it and runs as long as Avengers: Infinity War — because more songs give artists more opportunities to be streamed, which is part of the arithmetic used to count album sales.
And yet, in the last few months some musicians have gone the opposite direction, releasing bite-sized records. The Weeknd's chronicle of his breakups, My Dear Melancholy, is six songs and 22 minutes long. Pusha T's Kanye West-produced Daytona is seven songs and 21 minutes long. And Ye is seven songs and 24 minutes long.
Back in the olden days, records this short would be classified as EPs, viewed as a palate cleanser or stopgap between proper albums. Ye and My Dear Melancholy definitely feel that way — they're almost as if the artist just wanted to check in real fast with some quick thoughts rather than committing to a longer, more creatively taxing endeavor. Partly because it's great, Daytona seems a little more major, but even on that record, there's a sense that the former Clipse rapper is flexing his muscles, as opposed to delivering a definitive artistic statement.
Ideally, I'd say the perfect length of an album is around 40 to 50 minutes — maybe about 10 to 12 songs — so this recent wave of short-ish albums are a tad unsatisfying. But I still prefer an album that leaves me hungry for more than one that overstays its welcome. And hey, combined My Dear Melancholy, Daytona and Ye are better than More Life — not to mention shorter.
Before Ye was available commercially, Kanye West hosted a high-profile listening party in Wyoming for specially invited journalists. Now, that might sound cool and exclusive — oh wow, Chris Rock was the opening act! — but it prompted music critic Tom Breihan to tweet what the rest of us were all thinking:
Now, I'll confess that I've never been invited to any of these listening parties. (And, all right, the Ye event did seem kinda interesting.) But these types of events feel counterintuitive. Essentially, you go to some fancy or exotic locale, and then ... you listen to an album for the first time. This is the worst possible way to hear a new album.
I know this because, as a music critic, I've occasionally had to visit a record label or PR firm's office to listen to an album I was assigned to review. (The label execs were too worried about it leaking, so I had to go to them.) I drove to the Capitol Records building, went into a nondescript office and listened to Coldplay's X&Y by myself. I think I was allowed only one listen. For Maroon 5's It Won't Be Soon Before Long, I'm pretty sure I was able to sample one or two songs a second time. In both cases, and others, I frantically wrote a ton of notes to encapsulate what the songs sounded like, all the while thinking, "No human being absorbs music this way." Even when I went to a fan event for the unveiling of Bruce Springsteen's The Rising — we all sat in a movie theater as the songs played, the lyrics projected on the screen — it was impossible to have any sort of meaningful response to what I'd just heard.
This is because, as opposed to a movie or TV show, an album can't be absorbed in one sitting. You have to spend days with an album — making it part of your daily routine as you live life — before you can really have a sense of how it feels. Music's appeal is entirely ephemeral — the way it drifts through your subconscious, invisibly attaches itself to your central nervous system — and so it often takes more than a single trip through a new record to know how you feel about it.
The appeal of a listening party, of course, is to say you were there. But the music always feels a bit secondary to the spectacle. In practical terms, that means the narrative around music put in the world this way reflects the spectacle much more than the sounds that it supports. And that the two are almost always impossible to separate.
Every Friday, tons of albums come out. And although we now live in a time when a Beyoncé or Jay-Z can shock the world by releasing a record with no advance notice, most album rollouts are carefully orchestrated affairs. The artist spends months strategizing videos for different singles. Select tracks are posted on Spotify weeks in advance to stoke fan interest. Tour dates are announced. Big interview pieces are set up in major publications.
This past Friday, for instance, was supposed to belong to, among others, Neko Case and Father John Misty. Case was releasing Hell-On, her first album in five years — and the first since her home burned down, a traumatic event that helped inform the record's making. As for Father John Misty, God's Favorite Customer is being unveiled just barely a year after 2017's sprawling, ambitious Pure Comedy — the new album a more stripped-down affair after the previous record's lengthy songs and obsessive introspection.
But those releases were hijacked at the last minute by the announcement that Kanye was doing his Wyoming listening party. Of course, one could argue that Ye's release didn't negate the release of Case or FJM's records. But Vulture devoted eight pieces to Ye in the span of 23 hours. Pitchfork had five. It's not that tons of outlets didn't review Hell-On or God's Favorite Customer — and Case had profiles in the New York Times, Pitchfork and elsewhere, whereas Father John Misty stayed out of the spotlight — but going into the weekend, all the media hype was focused on West, as it usually is.
I'm sure plenty of people listened to Hell-On and God's Favorite Customer this past weekend. (I know I did, and they're both really good records.) But I nonetheless feel bad for Case and FJM. We live in such a splintered, distracted society that it's hard to get people's attention about new music. Ye did it effortlessly, but like I've been saying all along, Kanye's one-of-a-kind.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He last interviewed John Cameron Mitchell, the man who brought Hedwig and real sex to the big screen.