Kanye West was at a do-or-die crossroads in his career. He had been widely criticized, even hated, in the press in light of his recent behavior. Many fans questioned whether it was ethical to continue supporting his music. Even the president had weighed in on Kanye’s actions, turning the state of a rap career into a matter of national concern.
How did Kanye respond artistically? If the year is 2010, and the album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, then the result is what many consider to be West’s finest artistic achievement. West himself later referred to Dark Fantasy as “my long, backhanded apology” for the furor that erupted after he famously upstaged Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, a controversy that — at the time anyway — seemed like it could permanently derail West’s career.
West had set out to win back the public’s affections by creating an album so dazzling that his talent couldn’t be denied. He holed up in Hawaii, booked three separate rooms at Honolulu’s Avex Recording Studio, and worked around the clock with a small army of collaborators to create the most cavernous, maximalist music of his life, spending a whopping $3 million in the process.
“I was like: ‘Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves,’” West told The New York Times in 2013. Fortunately for West, the gambit worked: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was rapturously received, especially by music critics, the constituency with whom West has long had a stormy, deeply dysfunctional relationship.
Eight years later, West is at another crossroads. He admits as much in “Wouldn’t Leave,” a typically self-referential track from his new album Ye, in which he describes his wife, Kim Kardashian, fretting about how his recent MAGA makeover will impact the West family’s bottom line. If nothing else, “Wouldn’t Leave” suggests that Kanye is as self-aware now as he was when he was making Dark Fantasy. He knows what’s at stake in his career right now, and recognizes that the only way forward is to make music that will continue to justify all of the attention that’s been lavished on him for almost 15 years.
Only Ye is not a self-evident masterpiece. It’s not even a fascinating collection of near-misses and half-formed fragments, as 2016’s The Life Of Pablo was. It is thoroughly, utterly ordinary. At seven songs and 23 minutes, it’s his shortest album by far. (It’s about one-third as long as Dark Fantasy.) More important, it’s his smallest record, reiterating his established sonic signatures rather than innovating, all while dispensing some truly awful one-liners, even by Kanye’s lax lyrical standards.
Nothing on this album stands out as an essential song in West’s discography, or as a decisive break with what he’s done before. It doesn’t feel like a world unto itself, as every other Kanye record does. Even the relative highlights (I nominate “No Mistakes,” without much enthusiasm) sound like echoes of superior tracks from other records. And, again, it can’t be overstated how terrible the lyrics are. “All Mine” might have the highest number of groaners, with this head-slapper at the top of the list: “I love titties, ’cause they prove / I can focus on two things at once.” Now there’s a line only Donald Trump could love.
More than any other pop star of the early 21st century, Kanye West demands to be discussed in terms of his body of work. Fans talk about his albums the way cinephiles argue about Kubrick or Coen Brothers films — every record has its supporters who will ceaselessly stump for its overall “bestness,” though there’s general agreement that each album deserves to be taken seriously. Because every record is a chapter in a larger story that’s more interesting to ponder than the component parts. And no story in pop music for the past two decades has been more engrossing than West’s. But now that story has reached a crucial turning point.
West turns 41 on Friday. He’s already fully ensconced in the part of his artistic life in which art is no longer the central concern of his existence. Every great artist hits this point eventually — study any iconic discography and you almost always see a downturn at around the moment of life that West is at now, whether it’s Paul McCartney or Jay-Z, or any other long-running legacy act.