To review a Kanye West album is always, on some level, to review Kanye West. The rapper’s knack for imploding the separation between art and artist has been the connecting thread of his 15-year solo career, from his instantly epochal 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, to 2016’s messy but arresting The Life of Pablo. With Ye, he’s erased that separation entirely—naming the album after himself and scrawling a reference to his mental health (“I hate being bi-polar, its [sic] awesome”) across the cover.
It’s a bold move, if only because Kanye’s stock as a personality has arguably never been lower. His public breakdown in late 2016—which resulted in both his hospitalization for psychiatric care and the cancellation of the Saint Pablo Tour—kept him out of the public eye for the longest time since the year between his notorious outburst at the 2009 VMAs and 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But his reemergence into the spotlight was no less distressing. A December 2016 meeting with then-President-elect Donald Trump drew social media ire, which multiplied exponentially this April after he tweeted (among other things) his renewed support for Trump and right-wing YouTube personality Candace Owens. When he interrupted one of his interminable tweetstorms to drop a release date for his new album—as well as those for Pusha T’s Daytona, a collaboration with off-and-on protégé Kid Cudi, and as-yet-untitled projects by Nas and Teyana Taylor, all produced by Kanye—the hype outside of his most devoted fanbase was muted at best.
Yet not even this would have amounted to much if Ye had delivered the goods. Kanye, after all, has spent the better part of the last decade snatching victory from the jaws of self-created defeat. Instead, the most astonishing thing about his eighth album—really more of an EP, at seven tracks and 24 minutes in length—is that it stumbles for reasons entirely outside of his disheartening embrace of MAGA sloganeering in the name of “free thinking.”
There are no Jordan Peterson features, #Pizzagate references, or double-downs on “slavery was a choice”—though we do learn, on the emotional “Wouldn’t Leave,” that this most nuclear of takes almost ended his marriage to Kim Kardashian. Aside from a few forced-timely references to Stormy Daniels (on “All Mine”) and the “Me Too” movement (on the aptly named “Yikes”), there’s scarcely any acknowledgment of a world outside of Kanye’s head—which would be a kind of relief had the last month and a half not amply demonstrated that Kanye’s head is a sad, exhausting place to be.
Ye‘s emotional claustrophobia is at times effective: As a chronicle of living with mental illness, this is Kanye’s most unsparing work to date. “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he confesses on the stark, harrowing opener “I Thought About Killing You,” his voice dipping into an artificial chopped-and-screwed baritone. “Really, really, really bad things.” But when he departs from quasi-unfiltered monologues to structured verses, the results are uninspired. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington, that’s gon’ be an enormous scandal,” from “All Mine,” is a clunker of a line, even coming from the guy who struck internet-meme gold by rhyming “croissant” with “French-ass restaurant.”
Kanye’s most heartfelt lyrics—for Kim on “Wouldn’t Leave,” and for their daughters North and Chicago on “Violent Crimes”—are long-winded banalities on the tribulations of being married to Kanye West and the justifiable fears of raising girls who might be treated the way he treats women. Which is to say, nothing that we haven’t already heard on, respectively, “Bound 2” (from 2013’s Yeezus) and “Wolves” (from The Life of Pablo). “Ghost Town”—otherwise the album’s most polished song, with Mike Dean’s psych-rock guitar and Kid Cudi’s crooned interpolation of Evie Sands’s “Take Me for a Little While”—doesn’t even deign to give us an actual opening verse; instead, Kanye hums halfway through his lines like it’s a scratch vocal he didn’t bother replacing.
Since Yeezus, Kanye has trafficked in minimalism, paring back his once-grandiose arrangements until the seams are visible and selling the results as raw unfiltered honesty. But Ye just feels unfinished, as if he wanted to avoid another debacle like the rollout of the also-unfinished The Life of Pablo and turned in a rough draft to make deadline. Unlike Pusha’s Daytona, which is all muscle and sinew, Ye feels like a mix of the weakest moments from The Life of Pablo. For the first time in his career, Kanye hasn’t saved the best beats for himself. He hasn’t even saved the best verses for himself. In many cases, it’s debatable if what he did save qualifies as “verses” at all.
Ye‘s slapdash construction feels less like an artistic choice and more like a cry for help. The reference to bipolar disorder on the cover, novelty-T-shirt-worthy though it may be, isn’t a joke; this isn’t an album by a well person, and if it were, its convincingly emulated mania would be exploitative. In the closing seconds of “Yikes,” Kanye refers explicitly to his “bipolar shit” and crows, “Ain’t no disability…I’m a superhero!” before letting loose with a shriek even more unhinged than the one on “I am a God.” Ye feels less like the work of a superhero and more like the work of someone who could use another year off, away from Twitter, the paparazzi, and the recording studio. Kanye makes it clear on “No Mistakes” that he doesn’t “take advice from people less successful than me,” so I won’t offer any. But watching him unravel in public, it’s easy to wish him less time in the spotlight and a little more peace.