Shirley Ann Lee traveled the country singing gospel songs, her soul-piercing bellow preaching the word of God. Her voice eventually caught the attention of Revival Records founder Felton Williams, and Lee went on to perform on the Shirley Ann Lee Revival Hour. I discovered her music thanks to Kanye West’s newest record, Ye, where he samples her voice. Religious symbolism has long had a place in West’s music, and this once-forgotten gospel performer fits well within his catalog. In a normal year, I would be excited that a Kanye project once again led me down a musical rabbit hole. But it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything Yeezy-related in 2018. As we recently learned with Roseanne Barr, when stars say terrible things, they don’t just affect the individual, they blot out everyone in their orbit.
For the last two months, many have been expecting the worst. Following his very public embrace of hard-right conservatism and dangerous ahistorical POVs (first at the end of 2017, and once again in April), the greatest fear was a new Kanye record filled with more of the same dogma: The Slavery was a choice Kanye, the I love Trump Kanye. Maybe he would go a step further and make a beat composed of Alex Jones’s monsterish wails or bring the dudes holding tiki torches in Charlottesville in for a guest spot. None of those theoretical nightmare scenarios proved true. Instead, we got a shockingly anodyne, non-political, half-finished piece of work.
Like Pusha T’s Daytona, which West also produced, Ye is just seven tracks. It’s a brisk 23-minute trek into bipolarism, DMT, fear of his daughter growing up to do Pilates, how much he loves breasts, Kerry Washington, SMACK DVD, and a whole lot more. This long list of topics feels communal in a way, closer to the populist, “love everyone” approach Kanye has been touting in the aftermath of his TMZ Live comments and their inevitable backlash. It’s a sentiment that stretches to the album title, too. We learned over the weekend that there’s a double meaning to “ye.” As he told radio host Big Boy, “I believe ‘ye’ is the most commonly used word in the Bible.” (It’s not, but go on.) “And in the Bible it means ‘you,’ so I’m you, I’m us, it’s us… The album is a reflection of who we are.” It’s a nice notion, but it doesn’t track. In the end, this album is about one person and one person only.
Ye kicks off this sitcom-episode-length journey with the half-spoken word, half-rap, “I Thought About Killing You.” Here, he tells us the most beautiful thoughts exist beside the darkest, all over a hurried, partially finished beat. Things take a more pointed turn on “Yikes” as Kanye furthers the recent trend of rappers speaking out about their difficulties with depression (“S— can get / Menacing / Frightening / Find help / Sometimes / I scare / Myself”). His vulnerability here is admirable, even if the production feels like a discarded Life of Pablo B-side.
While the songwriting improves on the intimate “Wouldn’t Leave,” the topics are just as dour. It’s the only place on the record Kanye talks about his abhorrent slavery quotes, yet it deals more with their aftermath (specifically, his wife Kim’s reaction) than the actual meaning behind them, making their inclusion here feel toothless: “They say build your own / I said, How Sway? / I said, ‘Slavery a choice’ / They said, ‘How, Ye?” And later, “My wife callin’ screamin’, say, ‘We ’bout to lose it all!’” Kanye admitted in the interview with Big Boy that there was more he wanted to add to that first line, but he ended up taking it out. “It was just too sensitive,” he said. ” I was like, ‘I’ma just chill right now.’” I’m not sure what’s worse: Kanye’s inability to speak about the topic in his music at all, or relief that he didn’t.
Listeners do get brief flashes of old Ye on “Ghost Town,” featuring Kid Cudi and newcomer 070 Shake, which resembles My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy opus “Runaway,” with an uplifting choral base and lyrics that tackle issues of self-harm (“Nothing hurts anymore / I feel kind of free”). Album closer “Violent Crimes” is a highlight too — a kind of beautiful dark twisted lullaby for his daughter, showcasing the rapper’s gift for melody, despite devolving into regressive gender politics.
And just like that, Ye ends as quickly as it started, concluding another chapter in the long, frustrating saga of one of music’s greatest producers. The mess he’s left in its wake is large: fans have their first ever subpar Kanye West record and, more pressing, a set of corrosive opinions the man himself seems uninterested in apologizing for.
Of course Kanye has said plenty of batty things before, but never have his thoughts been so antithetical to his previous work, so dangerous to this moment in history. Even if Ye was a good album, those words would still be worth condemning. At least I thought so: press outlets that spent a week mercilessly filleting Kanye are now selling Ye-related merch. Hey, maybe nothing matters. Maybe everything is a joke. Maybe it’s not worth indulging in it at all anymore.