In another life, we might be talking about how Kanye West's new album, ye, helps destigmatize mental illness. The cover, an iPhone snapshot of a Wyoming mountain range, reads "I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome" in a digital scrawl. And the lyrics, in many ways, see Kanye shedding his shame around bipolar disorder. On "Yikes," he raps that "sh-t could get frightening, menacing," but ends the track with the victorious declaration: "That's my bipolar sh-t, n-gga what? / That's my superpower, ain't no disability."
A top-tier artist candidly opening up about the peaks and valleys of his mental illness could have opened widespread, necessary conversations around mental health, much like Kurt Cobain did in 1995.
But this is Kanye in 2018, when just weeks ago he declared his love for Trump and opined that slavery was a choice. And though we should empathize with his mental illness, and applaud his ability to address it honestly in his music, no amount of soulful production, choral interludes and John Legend and Kid Cudi features can obscure the fact that Kanye—and ye—harbor some seriously retrograde views.
Kanye West has always been unfiltered and self-indulgent, and these qualities have only magnified the more time he spends inside the Kardashian bubble of wealth and privilege. (Some fans joked, referencing Get Out, about Kanye's motivations for sending so many people of color to a ranch in middle-of-nowhere Wyoming for the listening party.)
On "Yikes," a Kanye track at its most elemental, with pounding 808s and a faint vocal sample, Kanye is at his most trollish, making a #MeToo pun to say that he's praying for Russell Simmons, who "got #MeToo'd." "Thinkin' what if that happened to me too / Then I'm on E! News," raps Kanye, in one of the most selfish and chauvinistic takes one could have about a movement against sexual assault.
Perplexingly, on "Violent Crimes," a song dedicated to four-year-old North West, Kanye raps about how men are "pimps and players" and prays that his daughter will never grow curves like her mom. Wouldn't a world where people are held accountable for sexual assault, a.k.a. what the #MeToo movement is trying to accomplish, mitigate some of Kanye's concerns? Instead, he fails to put two-and-two together, and raps obsessively about his daughters not-even-yet-budding sexuality, wishing she grows up to be like Nicki—but "no menage." She's four. Why even take it there, invoking a sex act?
The album opens, disturbingly, with "I Thought About Killing You." "Today I thought about killing you, premeditated murder / You'd only care enough to kill somebody you love / The most beautiful thoughts are always inside the darkest," he raps, ostensibly, about Kim Kardashian. While Kanye appears to be indulging a dark, twisted fantasy, the reality that over half of killings of American women are related to intimate partner violence makes the lines too real for women who know this to be true.
Ye leaves us with more questions than answers. But Kanye has, sadly, reminded us of this: that in dealing with trolls, one should remove the expectation of sincerity. He mentions the slavery comment but instead of explaining himself, he brags about being on 50 blogs and ultimately makes it about Kim and their marriage. Kanye doesn't seem to care that he denigrated hundreds of years of black resistance and glossed over some of the worst human rights abuses in human history. Like the Kardashians and even Trump, he unabashedly exploits the media hype machine, and he's probably laughing on his way to the bank in Wyoming right now.
Throughout ye, Kanye mentions a cornucopia of recreational drugs: coke, 2CB, DMT. Indulging in these substances, plunging into his depressive lows, soaring on astronomical highs—the new album's lyrics ultimately leave listeners asking, is Kanye OK? On "Ghost Town," a soaring track with gauzy instrumental layers, the lyrics conflate self-harm and freedom: "We're still the kids we used to be, yeah, yeah / I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed / Yeah, and nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free." Is this true freedom, or an illusion bolstered by drugs, money and a cadre of yes-men who seem to greenlight Kanye's most problematic ideas?
Despite some reckoning with his bipolar disorder, ye continues to troll. It doesn't go deep enough to become Kanye's "mature" record, like Jay-Z's 4:44. Instead, Kanye seems perfectly happy being an enfant terrible and making a spectacle of himself rather than leaving us with something profound.