Review Summary: this is what I bleached my asshole for
[Just a quick structural note: there are two angles I’d like to approach ye from, both reasonably different from the other, so I include both here. If I was a better writer I’d say that both of them interact with each other because I would have made it so but I think both points have their place in the relentless DiscourseMachine so I deemed it prudent to post it here where I am allegedly a “contributor”, though what I contribute is generally ***posting mixed with occasional analysis. You can read either/or by Kirkegaard, either/or, or none at all if you prefer. Thanks.]
I) A promise, fulfilled.
There’s an argument by Mark Fisher [take a shot every time I say this in any kind of discussion] about a psychedelic consciousness, as opposed to a neoliberal consciousness, that peaked in the 1960’s. What this consciousness denotes is that, in cultural and aesthetic terms (I differ from him on political ramifications), progression and experimentation were conflated with quality, so audiences came to expect that a new album by their favourite artist would be different
. Not more recherche and convoluted – Fisher uses The Beatles as his example, a goddamn limey through and through – but I get where he’s coming from. I think it has its roots in Jazz (consider the period in the 1960’s and early 70’s where for a Big Name – Coltrane and Davis most obviously, but also Shorter, Braxton, Coleman -- releasing an album of the same style in consecutive albums was anathema, and if didn’t uncompromisingly push boundaries of what the genre could do well what was the point) and transfused into other genres. The likes of the The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Love chose to go bigger with each album; Beefheart just went ***in weirder, and don’t get me started on Zappa, but there is a sense that we can glean something from this pattern. Progression is the wrong word, and diversity isn’t quite right either, but music had to go somewhere, even if it propelled itself backwards with appalling relish to rewrite now sneered upon relics from the previous year/decade/era. Somewhere, that changed. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy so much as shifting sonic palettes, but compare the reception of Abbey Road, a culmination of experimentation (rapturous, insanely ecstatic) to Laughing Stock (“wank” “pretentious” “noodly” “probably going to be Winesburgohio’s favourite album in twenty years OWNED”) and we see it wasn’t just audiences who were no longer receptive to tonal shifts; it was critics as well.
Now we have the eagerly anticipated – or at least it was before Kanye West played the fool and got owned by TMZ of all ***ing websites, TMZ the same website which has historically both pandered to the vacuous, the salacious and frankly horrific, and whose record on black people is more akin to someone feverishly trying to rid soot out of the glorious gleaming white fireplace of celebritydom than any kind of political progression until the moment in time when “woke” started to connote “cynical” but I digress – “ye”, an album that feels like a successor [or prequel?] to Yeezus in a way Pablo never did or could, an album that goes… that goes… that goes…
I mean I honestly don’t know where it goes. It’s so layered with contradiction, negation, frequently glacial beats, hooks and choruses and, as my colleague(?) Rowan notes, ugliness. There’s this passage in his review that’s worth our repeated consideration:
“Kanye's love has been twisted up, misguided and mangled into selfish and entitled ignorance which couldn't be further from where it began. Basically nothing could be worse for the kids who found culture in "Heard 'Em Say" or comfort in "Jesus Walks" or confidence to believe in themselves in "I Wonder". It's a sad, nasty thing and what it's given us is a sad, nasty album, one where all the good intentions and desire for cleansing honesty have been twisted into more self-delusion and artlessness.”
Considering how much I like the album I’m surprised by how readily I concur. It is, despite sounding less forceful, equally as angry and bleak as Yeezus, but it doesn’t even give us the comfort of any kind of obvious creative vision. Everything is weirdly affectless, as a result of the rush in which the songs were recorded or the songs themselves I’m not sure, and frequently hollow. Kanye takes his time popping up in a lot of the songs and when he does he sounds disjointed and, though he promises to be frightening, neutered. There are exceptions of course (more on that below) but there’s something discomfiting about how amiss it all seems, the aural equivalent of a shirt with mismatching buttons, or perhaps the thematic equivalent of spade scraping across concrete.
At the same time this succeeds, to me, where Pablo, which tried to recreate the more naïve glories of his earlier era, didn’t, in that I sense there is something going on here that I don’t get the first time and maybe I’m not meant to. The ugliness, the maelstrom, draws me back in. Some ancient Greek cunt said “beauty is terror” and to amend it, there’s a beauty in an album which is so avidly, unabashedly disquieting and, well, ugly. Most importantly: it feels like Kanye. It feels like Kanye in the way that Yeezus felt like Kanye even though it took me years to “get” it. It’s so intertwined in his ongoing twitter antics, his personality, his persona and the complex, sometimes irreconcilable difference between the two that it feels like a logical next step from the concise fury and triumph of Yeezus while also sounding radically alien to everything that came before. God help me I like it.
But there’s another point to be made, and it’s a salient one: this is the album Kanye promised us
. This is the album that the reception the at-the-time colossus of MBDTF ; if not quality, then at least verve, innovation, a balls-the-wall cultural moment that was a blueprint on which anything could happen and felt like a general cultural moment, hearkening back to the ‘60s: go big, go different, or don’t release it.
He went different on Yeezus, fast becoming a cult classic; he was content to retrogress with Pablo, whose star is on the wane; now he’s released a beguiling album that is difficult to follow, difficult to find meaning or cohesion in that is utterly, whether you love it or hate it, captivating, or at least intriguing.
More than this being the album that Kanye promised us though: this is the album we asked for
. This, weird Kanye, bipolar Kanye, confusing Kanye, cultural Kanye, is what we demanded. That he delivered it is impressive enough: that he did it with a kind of Delphic aplomb is fantastic. As he promised, in On Sight, all those years ago,
“He’ll give us what we want
it may not be what we need.”
What we want in Kanye five years later is very different; what we need is the same as it ever was.
II: This time, it’s personal
I remember the first time I heard “Tommy’s Party” by Peach Pit, largely because I hated it and thought it was Mac Demarco/Beach House emulation typical of indie rock at present and I had to sit through an entire album of that to get to this mildly pleasant song with some, ok, quite nice “ooh-ooh-oohs”. I wasn’t listening to the lyrics. I saw said lyrics in the form of a particularly moving quatrain posted on a list and listened to it again. I estimate, conservatively, that I listened to it 50 more times that night.
What that song gave me was something I’ve never experienced, really, and find difficult to explain. For the uninitiated, the lyrics walk a delicate line, ambiguously depicted either the plight of losing a friend (which is powerful and underexplored in music enough as is, though after Bark Psychosis’ conclusive “and that’s the biggest joke of all” one understands why people veer away from it) OR losing a lover of the same gender only to discover them now courting a person of a different gender. There are few enough songs about bisexuality in music as is (most of them coy allusions): to have one render this specific scenario on resplendent canvas was achingly moving because I got it. I got it. I know the completely irrational feeling of added betrayal when a male partner takes on a female lover after being through with you, or vice-versa. Completely irrational, completely unfair, largely I suspect generated by heteronormative practices imbued in the body from both and maybe a teensy bit of natural jealousy, but it’s also something you feel viciously in your heart, that tugs you with an added layer of inadequacy and shame and fear and a whisper of “you’re so repugnant someone literally stopped sleeping with ur gender bc of u lol”. So to hear that explained in music was genuinely cathartic – the feeling is something I’ve moved through, as all of our kin must – but it was also, uhh
It made me feel warm and understood and loved in a very specific and not entirely noble or enviable way. I felt represented, not politically, but aesthetically.
Is this how it feels? Is this tingly feeling of warmth and comfort why black people are still fighting for more representation in media, women more representation in board rooms (the former insanely good; the latter capitalist swine)? I suspect not. That is important in a different way. This is important on a level of being moved by a piece of artwork, just one specifically made with you and your preferences in mind. By that nature it’s inclusive; but it’s inclusive of your faults as well. “We get it” Peach Pit cooed to me in Tommy’s Party (doesn’t hurt that the guitar solo rules hard m/).
Kanye West gets it.
I don’t want to get too personal about it but I get it. Let’s just say we both have dragon energy. I get that when he says “I seriously thought about killing you / I contemplated, premeditated murder /And I think about killing myself / And I love myself way more than I love you, so” it’s not so much literal as a depiction of the garbled grandiosity of mania. I get the hypersexed line about the breasts, doomed to become meme fodder, not as a non sequitur a la his twitter but a kind of hypersexual behaviour pattern (it’s worth asking why he can’t concentrate on any other two things at once) as well a hint of a kind of myopia, a parochial vision that refuses to yield until bedtime at 5 in the morning. “I called up the Muslims / said I’m about to go dumb” is in this context a warm-hearted line acknowledging his previous hastiness and wanting to express his remorse, with a dollop of self-parody lumped in. I also like that he calls up his cousins: this forms a tidy resolution to his familial conflict witnessed on TLoP, a similar skirmish took Arrested Development 5 episodes, and not one line, to untangle.
The structure of the album too, the hodge-podge nature, the stop-start, the unusual brevity, that it was literally written and recorded in the space of a single week and the album art was something Kanye thought would be cool to include last-minute so why not?, I resonate with, and not just because in this review I’m largely doing the same thing. I understand the creative impulse to rush something out in a moment of “inspiration” or as a reaction to events outside your control sure; I understand the behavioural impulse too. The way this structure mirrors the oddity of the lyrics and the subject matter is a boon, I think, and not a further deficit.
And when he says his bipolar is a superpower!!! I know that it’s lame and I’m sure there are tweets with this line captioned that say “this CLAP is CLAP everything CLAP” by people who avoid homeless people on the street and that it’s gay to be earnest but it was a really special moment, first listen – not that he acknowledged it (I think we’re all roughly as surprised as if you’d told us we blinked at some stage during our day) but that he transformed it. I don’t know if it’s good or bad for mental health discourse – and actually later on the album there is a question as to whether it is bipolar or just a series of behaviours codified as such (“every time somethin' happen, they want me sent to mental / we had an incident but I cover incidentals” and “I use the same attitude that done got us here” are telling I think, and contributors to the way the album is complex and realistic rather than platitudinous twitter redemption fodder) – but it is definitely powerful and, I think, empowering to hear.
Which brings us to a tangent but also a crux: because I resonate personally with a particular piece of music, does that make it mine? Does that mean I don’t have to expect critique and criticism? Does it make me any more qualified to understand it, or less?
It matters because I feel as though, concerningly, people are being barred from discourses that aren’t their own. This has manifested most agonisingly in literature and visual art, where there are a multiplicity of artists carrying a singular uncritical voice, but in music too. Discussions about the appropriateness of white people listening to hip-hop and commenting on it abound continually, perhaps forgetting that in general all art is a commodity based on fiction. Though I appreciate Kanye blurs the lines between artist and character (and I suspect, despite his shenanigans, intentionally) ultimately one of the joys of fiction is a kind of emotional learning, an ability to see through others eyes and experience what they experience through words, musical phrases and intonations, slaps of a paintbrush on a canvas. There are always going to be political dimensions inextricable from the work of the art as a commodity under capitalism, but what concerns me isn’t that people have lost the ability to enter others lives and eyes – it’s that they no longer want to.
Ye is a sound (lol) depiction of mental illness on its own terms – uncompromising, confusing, contraindicating. Obviously you don’t have to like it, and obviously I like it more because I resonate with it. But don’t be afraid to lose yourself in the music and give yourself over to Kanye’s vision. You’ll come out the other side.
Goddamn album is only like twenty minutes long anyway. ***ing bipolar.