According to Fitzgerald, there are no second acts in American lives. That’s probably true, unless you’re bigger than America. Kanye’s career has gone through so many ducks, pivots and sensational conclusions, we can’t help but look on as the next step could be the last, as rapt as we were almost 20 years ago.
The first half of my quest to understand the man through his music brought us to 2010 and what may stand as his crowning glory. Now, I’m getting into the knotty stuff – the material we can debate till the Kardashians come home.
If you haven’t read Part One, give it a look-in. Otherwise let's continue to walk in boots worth more than your garage . . .
Most of us are lucky if we get into one annual Twitter spat and call it an event. Kanye, conversely, went to war with 2013 on numerous fronts. He became a father, walked into a one-way sign, likened himself to Walt Disney and Google on Sway In The Morning, and signed an Adidas deal worth $10 million. That last conquest came in the wake of an ugly split with Nike, a company he believed wanted his name, not ideas. Thumping to be heard in the fashion scene, boardroom and Chicago’s basketball division, Ye drilled frustrations at anyone doubting his cocked knee over the globe into Yeezus – and the public barely knew what hit it. His harshest, most experimental record to date, these songs rage with long-serving Mike Dean at the mixing desk, yammering at capital ironies (‘New Slaves’), cheap sex with rich compromises (‘Blood On The Leaves’) and feeling controlled while owning someone else (‘Hold My Liquor’). A near-homeless Travis Scott, amongst others, would remain grateful for Yeezus’ hammer blow to hip hop for the rest of the decade.
Key track: ‘Black Skinhead’
Not only one of Ye’s best singles, ‘Black Skinhead’ gets right in the face of people - including those of colour - who believe fitting white norms will make them successful by default. What’s that? Oh, your head was lopped off for poor performance . . . Apocalyptic drum programming throws us against the wall while Kanye careens at 500 miles an hour into our ribcage. It is genuinely barbaric. “Four in the morning, and I’m zoning / I think I’m possessed, it’s an omen,” portrays a give-no-fucks Damien causing outrage for a grand plan.
The Life Of Pablo, 2016
As the US election swelled with a strange and destabilising pregnancy, Mr. West reckoned with his mind. Here, as elsewhere in coarse agreement, was darkness on the edge of town: Kim robbed at gunpoint in Paris; Tweets supporting Bill Cosby; more Taylor baiting. Kanye’s struggles climaxed during an onstage tirade in November, leading him to hospital and out of the public eye for almost a year. Considering everything, it’s a marvel that The Life Of Pablo is even coherent. What’s more impressive is the sonic diversity that has, thanks to another of history’s cruel line breaks, separated classic Kanye from the state of his music today. Yet a return to TLOP yields plenty of gold – ‘Ultralight Beam,’ his strongest opener, and the raw confessions of ‘Wolves’ or ‘Real Friends’ are unmissable. There’s a glare to most cuts, chilled by sparse beats that are thawed by vocal harmonies as they reach and reach for a painted ceiling. It’s as if he’s trying to find comfort in higher powers, left thankless by those on earth.
Key track: ‘No More Parties In L.A’
A leftover Madlib nugget from the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions backs Ye and Kendrick Lamar ripping through glitzy bullshit, skewering the egos they love to order a second martini for. Our headliner flows at the top of his game, crashing into memory or social sentiment when the music loses its thrust, and headlong once more toward the celebrity underbelly.
“In The Bible, it means ‘you’,” explained a mellow Kanye on a sofa, discussing his album’s title. “I’m you. I’m us. It went from being Kanye, which means ‘the only one,’ to just Ye, which is a reflection of our good, our bad, our confused everything.” You can say that again. After wiping his social media and squirelling in a studio on a Wyoming mountain top, our man emerged with a mess of a record. Ye’s beefs are strung thinly over songs that feel like afterthoughts. Bars were snipped and added after the TMZ debacle, while new instrumentals were cobbled together in two weeks. Quickly, it would be eclipsed by Kanye’s impressive work for other artists in 2018, DAYTONA and KIDS SEE GHOSTS first amongst equals. Suddenly, his own material seemed rushed – a hollow substitute for reactive. That holy ‘us’ doesn't hold water. Kanye fretting over Russell Simmons (“I pray for him ‘cos he got MeToo’d / Thinking what if that happened to me too”) and his daughter’s curves (‘Violent Crimes’ assuming that men only change when they have a child) is pig-headed, rife with masculine anxiety that’s too fond of an easy way out. Do you really see yourself in this?
Key track: ‘Ghost Town’
Danielle Balbuena, a.k.a 707 Shake, shines in a tune heavy on Twisted Fantasy-lite guitar samples, erupting in fuzz and pyroclastic bass. ‘Ghost Town’ was wrapped on the day of Ye’s listening party, but shows the most care for any one song. If it sounds like a phantom from KIDS SEE GHOSTS, that’s because it was destined for the sister album; arguably, the effect is more magnificent where it landed. Lyrically, we are assured that any controversy will die under the heels of the music – that Kanye West will be remembered for his art alone.
Jesus Is King, 2019
After visiting The White House, Kanye was wrongfooted by Jimmy Kimmel, who in fairness, gave him all of five seconds to dissect Black America and its president. Primetime is a bitch. Of course, we were expecting car wrecks at every media appearance, so maybe it’s for the best that Kimmel moved swiftly on. But then why ask the question? A healthier answer to Ye’s turmoil appeared to lie in his Sunday Services, and the release of a gospel album – the logical glue for his faith in God and the human voice. The final product, however, has little to say about religion, pain or sacrifice. Jesus is a wagging finger telling you to drop culture for other servitude, unfortunately rapped by a king selling you sneakers for $300. Elsewhere, we should be thankful for funding his lavish existence because God deems it so. Instead of the Lord, maybe he should’ve called Donald Trump daddy – the architect of his $68 million tax rebate. The whole project is a botched baptism.
Key track: ‘On God’
We can’t let his family starve, oh no, and should continue forking out double prices for arena shows. If the crass spiritual co-opting is too much for you, shut this off. ‘On God’ still has a memorable synth run and vague gestures at picking strangers – not just Kanye’s reputation – out of the shit heap.
Donda, Donda, Donda: the chant you may find yourself imitating over the play button, deciding whether you can be arsed. It’s a big ask: 109 minutes of repetitive, glitchy melodies, and a host of co-stars you’d like to see in a Hannibal Lecter mask. Much of the tracklist mashes an idea till it’s broken and crying for vicodin. Mood without form, twin tracks without sense. And yet . . . sporadically, a greater album noses the air. Cool choices flash like tropical lightning, as fast as they are fierce, such as sampling Donda West on ‘Praise God’, Lil Durk’s tribute to his fallen brother, and the beautiful ascendance of ‘Come To Life’s piano. Aching for someone to shield you from the haters and hangers-on is the molten core of Donda, whether that’s Kanye’s late mother or ex wife. When you’re as huge as he is, any figure of deliverance will do.
Key track: ‘Lord I Need You’
Burned by anger and missteps, Ye feels his most essential in years with a vulnerable plea to Kim Kardashian. At last, he’s funny, wise and heartrending again. “The best collab since Taco Bell and KFC,” he winks, before asking her to “speak first, don’t break me.” The choir sounds like they’re in the next room, practising for a reunion, or singing through an air vent to help Kanye out. His vocals, too, suggest complete attention to getting the message just right without a shattered note.