From ‘Dark Fantasy’ To ‘Ye,’ Kanye West’s Decade-Long Slide From Greatness To Mediocrity

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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.

Not only is Kanye middle-aged, he’s also a married father with children. And he has a lot of other things on his plate, to put it mildly. Once you have a family, and develop other interests — like fashion design, to name one example — the hunger to be a great musician dissipates. Of course it dissipates. It’s easier the first time to summon the energy required to achieve greatness, or to rescue yourself from certain career destruction. But to do it again, and then again, and then again? Your will is drained. Passion naturally erodes. Jokey lyrical boasts aside, your focus becomes compromised.

Ye is such an obvious departure point from West’s previous albums that all but the most bullish Kanye fans will likely isolate it as the moment when he crossed the rubicon. This narrative is compounded by West’s flirtations with the alt-right, which caused many supporters to “cancel” Kanye before even hearing the album. But whether you feel betrayed by Kanye’s promotional foolishness, or dismiss it as Twitter-addled posturing, it’s hard to argue that the indistinct, noncommittal Ye has somehow arrived in a vacuum. Even admirers of West’s post-Dark Fantasy work have to concede that he’s been slowly sliding in this direction for years.

I say this as a huge fan of 2013’s Yeezus, which is probably my favorite Kanye record. Angry, arty, eccentric, and loaded with potent contradictions — Yeezus is as economical and hard as Dark Fantasy is expansive and plush, and I still play it more than any other album in his catalog. But the confusion that’s pervasive on Ye was already apparent five years ago. The difference, perhaps, is that West had the foresight on Yeezus to reach out to a trusted adviser, Rick Rubin, to help him shape his incomplete sketches into a coherent record.

According to Rubin, West sent him a rough draft of Yeezus that rambled for three and a half hours. For two weeks, they worked together for up to 16 hours per day, stripping elements out of the tracks, reducing them down to the barest, minimalist essentials. Rubin claimed he was panicking all the while, as Yeezus‘ release date loomed like a term-paper deadline.

For those of us who bought into Yeezus, this story formed a rich mythology around the record. But a lot of Kanye fans hated Yeezus, and the record sold less than Dark Fantasy. While I still love the album, I wonder if the album’s critics saw Yeezus less as a miraculous “pulling a rabbit out of a hat” triumph than as a warning sign that West’s grip on his own art was slipping.

The conversation around Kanye West has long attracted a vocal contingent of naysayers incredulous over the exceedingly generous reviews his albums often garner. A good number of these people love his earlier records, but believe he fell off a cliff at some point, whether it’s 808s And Heartbreakor Yeezus. If you’re a member of this camp, listening to a new Kanye West album can feel like wearing those They Live sunglasses, which allow you to see/hear/feel the “truth” while the rest of the world goes mad with delusions of grandeur.

I started to get that feeling with The Life Of Pablo, Kanye’s ecstatically bleary gospel-rap excursion from 2016. This is how I imagine Yeezus would’ve turned out without Rubin’s counsel, a series of fragments that frequently fail to coalesce into actual songs. For the first time, I understood the frustration of reading reviews that perpetuate extreme rhetorical acrobatics to justify what plainly seemed like a half-baked record made by a distracted, exhausted artist. Kanye’s suggestion that he might continue to add and delete tracks after the album was released wasn’t lunacy or evidence of artistic indecision … it was the next evolutionary step for the album as we know it!

Over time, my opinion of The Life Of Pablo has warmed. Amid the clutter, there are some real high points, like “Real Friends” and “Waves.” (The polarizing “Wolves,” on the other hand, remains an unfixable mess.) No matter the album’s lack of structure or discipline — or West’s haphazard, almost accidental sense of aesthetics — at least there was an abundance of ideas stemming from West’s unmistakable, if blinkered, point of view. If The Life of Pablo is a postscript to Kanye’s “glory years,” it still seems to offer up new surprises each time I put it on.

Ye meanwhile is obvious and superficial. After the many outrages of the preceding months, and the petty trolling that was “Lift Yourself,” that “poopity scoop” monstrosity, my initial impression of the album as I streamed the Wyoming listening party last Friday was, “Well, that could’ve been much worse.” Ye sounded like a familiar Kanye record. There were soul samples and suicide notes. There were no cameos by Jordan Peterson or Roseanne Barr. It seemed almost… professional. But it neither added nor subtracted anything from my appreciation or understanding of Kanye West.

As the album played on a loop from my laptop from that endless YouTube video, Ye didn’t even seem like a memorably bad Kanye West album. And I still feel that way. It’s neither good nor bad — it just is, inert and meaningless, an afterthought. The self-destructive artistic habits that have undermined, and now subsumed, Kanye’s work didn’t start with this record. Ye is merely the final, sad, soft trickle down the drain.

Ye is out now on Def Jam. Get it here.