New Release – Kanye West, ‘Ye’

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Kanye West is a phenomenon. Whether, by that, you mean ‘astonishingly good’ or ‘mind-blowingly awful’ – whether, to you, Kanye is famous or infamous – largely depends on Kanye himself, and how recently you checked Twitter. Somehow the man who gathered the applause of the nation for insisting, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ has transformed into the guy on the news calling slavery a choice. Kanye seems to be looking for bombs to lob, mics to drop; and behind it all, somewhere, there’s the music. Ye might be a record-breaker for sheer weight of negative pre-release hype alone.

But that’s the thing. The hype is, inescapably, part of the album.  For all his accomplishments as an Olympic-standard headline-grabber, West’s music has always managed to stay the bigger story, and this year, and this Ye, feel like West stress-testing that. He’s the only guy who can announce a release date then drop the album early, casually; one of the only entertainers in the world who can game the hype machine by getting out ahead of it like this, then string it out by constantly editing and revisiting it (as he did with his last long-play record, The Life of Pablo, in 2016). Where other artists grab headlines as a way of staying out of the studio, West somehow turns around genuine classics almost without trying. It’s as if Beethoven grew up watching Jackass.

The 24 minutes of Ye, released last week, are spread over only 7 tracks; the kind of running length which has been used by others for EPs, or even the ramshackle creative brilliance of the mixtape. It’s divided fans even before his ‘is-this-guy-for-real’ media appearances over the last couple of months (trick question when you’re dealing with West: the answer is always ‘yes, for now’). But West being West, he manages to pack a lot of punch into this snippet of a record, and somehow, he almost makes it work. Almost, because considering what a year it has been for the artist (and by extension, his fans), it was almost as if everyone was waiting with bated breath to see what this album would do. So, was it a kind of a redemption, or was it another addition to this nightmare of a year?

Fortunately, it turns out that it wasn’t either. The jury’s out for some – by comparison with era-defining records like The College Dropout, Ye clearly isn’t in the running for the spot of West’s best work; but it has its share of scintillatingly high moments. If you can manage to get past the clumsily composed first track on the album “I Thought About Killing You,” and if you can set all comparisons and expectations aside, you’re treated to a refreshing take on using space and silence in “All Mine”, before “Ghost Town,” the first true stand-out track. The song’s chorus, which runs “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free,” reminds you of all how honest West’s work can be when he decides to channel his heart and soul into his music. A running theme is Kanye’s journey in understanding mental illness in his life, and there are windows of the kind of powerful lucidity that can’t be faked.

Ultimately, somehow, Ye climbs out from behind the headlines; for this record, that’s a hell of a climb. The record is a frustrating, appealing thing: a jewel that might turn out to be plastic, but shines damn bright for that. It’s worth your time.

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF™ to share his love of photography and music.

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