Where should we, as listeners, mainstream media consumers and socially minded citizens, stand on Kanye West? It is a question that, in today’s world, flickers in our minds about as often as “what’s for dinner tonight?.”
With every concert hall rant, tweet and piece of Kardashian-related gossip, that spotlight has only grown brighter. Often, his career as an artist is only examined superficially, as if it is second to his worldwide image as an erratic pop star.
This summer, following his support for Trump on twitter and preposterous statement that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice,” Kanye released his G.O.O.D. Music series consisting of five albums.
So where do these five albums fall on the stage of Kardashian gossip, tweets and rant? Is it fair to evaluate Kanye’s music without the context of his personality and erratic behavior? While these answers are complex, we can try to find answers briefly in the music.
Pusha T || Daytona
On Daytona, the first of the five albums, Kanye equips Pusha T with an array of samples and dry cut beats. Most noticeably, as demonstrated in tracks like “Come Back Baby,” Kanye morphs 60s and 70s soul samples with bassy electronic kicks. Here, a sonic space is created for Pusha T to boast colorfully about his road to stardom.
Pusha’s flow is often times dry, repetitive and overly dramatic. On one hand, the simplicity of “King Push’s” humble brags and their collaboration with diverse and thick sampling allows for the collection of tracks to feel high, mighty and fierce. On the other hand, Pusha T makes no symbolic use of Kanye’s samples. “Come Back Baby’s” use of the intro to “The truth shall make you free,” which is a devotion to drug addicts, leads into another ruthless bragging session by Pusha. The production, at times, almost seems corrective to the drab sound of Pusha T’s voice. The constant fluctuation and grandiose sound produced in this album by Kanye fits very well with his varied yet ego-centered personality.
Kanye West || Ye
With the album artwork being a photograph of the Teton Mountains dropped behind neon letters which read “I hate being Bi-Polar, it’s awesome.,” we expected Ye to bring us some closure to Kanye’s antics.
Many of our first thoughts were that Kanye would admit that any of his erroneous statements were made during times of mental instability. But instead, Kanye did something more jarring. The production of this album is much richer than that of Daytona — fewer samples and a more varied use of voice.
The album opens with an interesting commentary on manic thoughts. Kanye laments that “today [he] thought about killing you.” He is unapologetic, and unwilling to balance the evil statement or “compensate [it] so it doesn’t come off bad”.
But most importantly, he says “the most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest”. Throughout the album Kanye addresses his confusing public statements, and even makes several other problematic statements: “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too…Thinking what if that happened to me too.”
On Ye, Kanye demonstrates an unwillingness to repent. He acknowledges his vulnerabilities and his disorder, but explains them as a super-power. Although setting Kanye’s thoughts in deep, harmonic instrumentation allows us to question the way we perceive mental illness and freedom of speech, it is clear that West shows no remorse for those he has offended.
Kanye West and Kid Cudi || Kids See Ghosts
The most unconventional within the collection, Kids See Ghosts, is a rock-rap fusion collaboration between West and Kid Cudi, both of whom have struggled with mental health in the past. We start with a booming, stimulus heavy sound in “Feeling the Love,” which continues in “Fire” and “4th Dimension.”
However, some kind of catharsis is reached in the heavy metal-reminiscent track “Free.” Cudi remarks: “nothing hurts me anymore, guess what babe, I feel free.” After that, the mood changes to slow and reflective, yet constant. The diverse range of emotion expressed through melody and layering is very unique to this album. The album ends with “Cudi Montage,” on which Kanye acts as a civil rights activist. This album overall is reminiscent of the Kanye we knew, and frankly liked much more, on The Life of Pablo — emotionally aware and making music to help someone other than himself.
Nas || Nasir
Kanye and Nas have a musical relationship spanning twenty years. But never before has Kanye been the sole producer on a Nas album. This may have been the most highly anticipated project of all of the Wyoming Sessions, but, unfortunately, it may be the least interesting. Due to Nas’ status as a Hip Hop legend, high expectations may be working to his disadvantage. There will never be another Illmatic. The album starts with a sample of “Hymn for Red October,” a dramatic church choral piece. Nas then begins to preach about his own success and the oppression suffered by the black community in America.
Nas’ biggest strength has always been to bring the little known experiences of a few to the eyes of many. But here he seems to do so less inventively than in his past works. Kanye donates some interesting beats, but many of them (apart from that on “Adam and Eve”) lack the jazz swing that is essential to Nas’ swift, swag-heavy flow. Still, there are a few very memorable tracks. Utilizing samples from Slick Rick and a Richard Pryor comedy routine, “Cops Shot the Kid,” is an aggressive piece discussing police brutality. Nas’ style on this track is reminiscent of his old flow, and he is also especially lyrically clever. Another memorable track is “Everything,” a three-way collaboration between Kanye, Nas and The-Dream. Through a beautiful combination of synthesizers and reverb heavy vocal harmonies, the three talk about the balance between “having everything” and “changing everything” (meaning all of the issues African Americans face). Kanye seems rather hypocritical on this album given his recent statements on racial justice.
Teyana Taylor || K.T.S.E.
The title is perfectly fitting: K.T.S.E. (Keep the Same Vibe). Whether you are in love, have loved or have lost someone you that you love, this record will speak to you. It is 8 tracks of romance, conflict, resolution and sex. The too often forgotten Harlem artist opens over a backdrop of beautiful piano and orchestral sounds. “My hubby my hubby so handsome, I hold him ransom,” she sings. She switches off between lamenting her love, apologizing/explaining wrongdoings in her relationship and expressing her sexuality (see 3Way and WTP). On the album’s single, “Rose in Harlem,” Taylor sings about her experience with love and trust over a sample of The Stylistics’ “Because I Love You Girl.” As much as Taylor delivers love through vocality, Kanye delivers it through his production. Each violin, each R&B guitar riff, each rimshot, each buzzing synthesizer, is tailored to Taylor. The vulnerability demonstrated in Kanye’s instrumentals remind us of the emotions portrayed on 808’s and Heartbreaks.
We often judge Kanye for his most superficial media antics. Perhaps those superficial antics are supported only by his most superficial, manic thoughts. While is important to recognize the harm that West has caused through his recent antics, it still may be important to appreciate his art. Why should we only examine the darkness? “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest”.
Adam Kanwal is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.