On the 20th of April, Kanye had decided to spice up his usual tweetstorms by announcing the release date of his 8th solo album (June 1st). This was the same day that J Cole’s K.O.D. dropped, who coincidentally in 2013, had once challenged Kanye head-on in an album sales duel. His Born Sinner against Kanye’s Yeezus.
At that point in his career, Kanye was perched upon the Mt. Olympus of the rap game. Following his 2010 critically lauded magnum opus – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the wonderfully lavish Jay Z collaborative album – Watch the Throne, and the victory lap that was the G.O.O.D. Music compilation – Cruel Summer; the world held its breath in anticipation for the next offering that Kanye would bestow upon them.
On the other hand, J Cole faced an uphill battle. Born Sinner had to overcome the sophomore jinx while also attempting to justify Cole’s ambitions of solidifying his position in the pantheon of rap royalty.
“I’ma drop the album same day as Kanye,
Just to show the Boyz the man now like Wanyá.”
– J Cole, “Forbidden Fruit”
To no one’s surprise, Yeezus was able to outsell Born Sinner by nearly 30,000 copies. Kanye kept his throne but J Cole had put up a good fight and the world of rap was at balance once again. However, gone was the charismatic, soul-sampling Yeezy. Instead, we were introduced to the cynical and enigmatic Kanye that was a victim of his overinflated ego. A rapper that self-anointed himself as a god and compared himself to Jesus. A notion which seeds had probably been sowed over 10 years ago. Kanye knew he was untouchable and he wanted people to know, no, he needed them to know. He was on his cocky shit.
But in an unlikely turn of events, Born Sinner became the #1 album in the US in its third week of release whereas Yeezus had fallen to #3. Surprisingly, Cole had also cumulatively outsold Kanye by a significant margin. Cracks were forming on his throne. Then came his absolutely horrendous album rollout with The Life of Pablo in 2016. Followed by an extremely publicised mental breakdown while on tour in support of Pablo. It was then that we were introduced to the controversy-seeking conservative Kanye, where he claimed he would have voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Once accusing George Bush of not caring about Black people, this hypocritical stance wasn’t the best route for him to curry the favor of his fans. As he was booed and ridiculed week after week, he would launch into extended rants on anything and everything. The music industry, his fashion line, similarities between him and his contemporaries, his political beliefs. Nothing was safe from his antagonization. The king had succumbed to the pressure of his subjects. Not long after, news broke of him being admitted to a psychiatric ward. He slinked into the shadows and faded into obscurity. Just like Icarus, he had flown too close to the sun.
But unlike Icarus, he came right back and aimed once more to soar the skies. Fast forward to 2018, Kanye broke radio silence and resurfaced on Twitter, doubling down on his Trump rhetoric.
However, Kanye the man had always been dwarfed by Kanye the artist. Even in the cesspool that is today’s American political climate, his fans stuck by him because our favourite lightning rod for controversy has always been able to feed off it and deliver a project that would surpass all expectations. Controversy to Kanye West was what cake is to a fat kid.
But the Trump tweets kept coming and coming. A Candice Owens co-sign here. Then a co-sign for alt-right icon, Scott Adams there. Kanye had gone off the deep end and the calls for the #kanyeiscancelledparty grew ever louder. Even the most devout of his fans found it hard to defend him. How could we when our idol had decided to go against everything he had stood for over the past 20 years in the name of “independent thought”? Finally, it seemed like his career had one foot in the grave when he went onto TMZ to insist that “slavery was a choice“.
Still, Kanye himself wasn’t able to end Kanye’s career.
On May 31st, Kanye announced an album listening party for ye. The general public was indifferent to the news. To many, if slavery was a choice then so was choosing to listen to his album. As for his fans, instead of anticipation, we twiddled our thumbs and waited with bated breath. We needed answers, we needed to know what the two months of tomfoolery would lead to, we needed to know if we were going to be given an excuse to fall in love with Kanye all over again.
At the very start, the music was what drew us to Kanye. His larger than life personality just happened to be a welcome distraction in between his album cycles on most occasions. His cockiness was refreshing as a hip-hop freshman. Coming onto the scene as a conscious rapper that was above the money and gangster themes that reflected hip-hop of the time. Single-handedly shifting the zeitgeist of the rap world and bringing a whole new wave of rappers with him. He ushered in an age of vulnerability, in defiance of traditional black masculinity.
“People ask me what I would do if I didn’t win this award…I guess we’ll never know.”
– Kanye West on his Best Rap Album Grammy win, 2004
But it is this intimacy from Kanye which we yearned for that trapped him in the position where he is today. We adoringly consume his music as he lays his soul bare on numerous tracks (at least in his early work). He allowed us insight into his insecurities (“Big Brother”), faith (“Jesus Walks”), regrets (“Roses”) and paternal love (“Only One”). But Kanye wasn’t perfect and with these came the less appealing parts of his personality. Though, it’s arguable that the polarising opinions that he brings out of people are what makes him such an iconic figure in pop culture history.
Still, we needed closure with ye. As much as we wanted to ride the wave of controversy alongside Kanye as his stout defenders, we’d rather be first given a purpose to do so. A simple excuse of wanting to ‘love everyone‘ wasn’t enough to justify the people he endorses nor does it give a free pass for fans to sweep his actions under the rug. Kanye had to provide answers. And then ye dropped.
Reception to the album from fans and critics alike were decidedly muted. In classic Kanye fashion, he left us hanging. Pusha T claimed Kanye would address his “true perspective” on this album, and turns out this meant that ye was used as a meditation for his struggle with mental illness. Instead of expanding on the rhetoric that he had been driving at for the past few months, he chose to look inwards and humanize the entity that is Kanye. And all we got out of this time of apprehensive support was just a throwaway punchline that explained nothing.
“They say, ‘Build your own’—I said, ‘How, Sway?’
I said, ‘Slavery a choice’—they said, ‘How, Ye?’
Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day”
– Kanye West, “Wouldn’t Leave”
Putting the quality of ye aside, it was a disappointing sidestep from a potential opportunity to clear the air. Public attitude towards Kanye was still abysmal but to the fans, it was a long overdue look into the inner workings of his mind. Though the lyrical direction of the album was lackluster, he made up for it with raw emotional vulnerability that insinuated at the mind state he was in leading up to his numerous problematic comments.
Breaching topics such as his past misogynist attitudes, lack of confidence as a father, the actions that led to the near crumbling of his marriage and his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Kanye doesn’t find a reason nor any solutions for these issues that he brings up. He just leaves it out for the world to judge and dissect. Allowing Yeezus became mortal once again. By admitting to his flaws and reflecting on his mistakes (as much as people don’t like to admit it, supporting Trump isn’t exactly counted as a “mistake”), Kanye brought himself back to Earth, to a point of relatability that hasn’t been seen since his College Dropout days.
Although he wasn’t exactly the “I pay bills and wear the same pair of jeans for 3 weeks” kind of relatable, for once in his career, it feels like Kanye has something to lose. Now a father of a family of three with a loving wife, he no longer has the liberty to be brash and abrasive. He doesn’t need to be a role model for his fans but he has to be one for his children. On ye, he had given up on the aggressiveness that defined him during the Yeezus and Pablo era. Despite his many, many flaws and problematic opinions that are neigh impossible to defend, it is obvious he’s taking steps to change and better himself.
And as he signals for everyone to start loving themselves and the people around them, he descends from his ivory tower and attempts to reconnect with the people of the world. Although I wouldn’t call ye a strong start, it does represent the beginning of Kanye’s redemption arc to show everyone that he can be just as human as we are.