"Ye": A Closer Look at 3 Important Songs
Kanye has been a well-contested public figure for a long time. From his interruption of Taylor Swift’s speech at the 2009 VMA’s to the recent comments he made at TMZ headquarters stating that “400 years of slavery… sound like a choice,” Kanye is no stranger to controversy and widespread animosity. What is particularly interesting about him and his work is the question his listeners are constantly forced to grapple with: to what extent can we separate the art from the artist? While nothing should invalidate an individual’s work, how can we deal with Kanye’s uninformed and blatantly ignorant comments amidst his extensive discography, a long demonstration of his talent in music production and song quilting? The answers are murky. This, along with the music industry’s competitive nature and the strange advertisements artists take upon themselves to propagate news of their latest work, makes the story around Kanye convoluted. In my opinion, Kanye’s words have consistently promoted an anti-blackness agenda; and yet, his role as a black man whose mental health has largely been made public can be seen as progressive at the same time.
In response to the rightful rancor from his audience--specifically his listeners of color--Kanye quickly produced an album that, while not completely responsive to the thoughts and questions of the general public, speaks on his mental illness, his individuality, the effects that his words have made on both his fans and the people around him, and his role as a father. With its ridiculously simple album cover (shot on an iPhone enroute to a Wyoming listening party, as revealed by Kim Kardashian) and its short, 7-song repertoire that clocks at just over 23 minutes in length, “Ye” is a raw and honest yet perplexing and semi-reticent look into Kanye’s psyche at this moment in time. It is, at its heart, a cry for help. Here is a closer look at my three favorite songs on the album: “I Thought About Killing You,” “Yikes,” and “Wouldn’t Leave.”
“I Thought About Killing You” - 4:34
The first half of this introduction sounds like a combination of a letter addressed to his listeners and something reminiscent of spoken word, carried over a warped series of beats and deep harmonizations. A common thread in these first lines is Ye’s regularly frequented theme of the linked dichotomies between light and darkness, beauty and tragedy (or imperfection), and love and hate, with the repeated line, “The most beautiful thoughts are always inside the darkest”--an illustration of his bipolarity and Ye’s frustrating dualities. Accompanying this line is a feeling of triumph, triumph in Kanye for creating this album and producing art about his bleak state of mind: something “beautiful” created from the darkness. The soft, breathtaking hums in the background that seem to cascade around Kanye’s voice, which speaks on the truth of Kanye’s recent nightmares, only continue to work as thematic elements, a demonstration of what is being said in the lyrics.
Most importantly, this song aims to express--with brutal honesty--Kanye’s convoluted thoughts surrounding himself. He insists that he actively practices self-love, going against the grain of many artists’ themes surrounding the struggle to do so in the first place, and yet he describes his own fair share of struggles (“I done had a bad case of too many bad days / Got too many bad traits, used the floor for ashtrays”). Through and through, however, he continues to boast in his self-proclaimed role as “the number one human being in music” (“If I wasn’t shinin’ so hard / Wouldn’t be no shade”), then continues along that same thread of duality in both his mental state and in the public’s comments by referencing his disrespectful speech on TMZ (“Sorry, but I chose not to be no slave”) while making pointed references to the black community (“How you gon’ hate / N**** we go way back / To when I had the braids and you had the wave cap”, a possible reference to his strained relationship with Jay-Z or a reference to Drake’s track in response to Pusha T’s diss, one of Drake’s lines being “‘Cause I remember way, way back / With the waves under the wave cap”). Honest duality, honest duality, honest duality. That is key here, along with the expression of a message along the lines of, “I’m depressed, and now I got something to say.”
But Kanye- “Just say it out loud / Nothing’s off the table”? Some things should be kept off the table, my guy. No shade.
“Yikes” - 3:08
“Ye”’s second track is very reminiscent of Kanye’s other projects, the sound that his listeners have grown quite familiar with. Here, he delves even further into his darkness, discussing the dangers of drug addiction and the effects that substance abuse can have on people. The hook is scary and sad: “Shit could get menacing / Frightening / Find help / Sometimes I scare / Myself”, lines that in and of themselves speak on the horrors of the world and the horrors of his mind. However, his stances on the horrors of the world are pretty bizarre; he discusses (and even sympathizes with the accused in) the #MeToo movement, while, again, mentioning the outcome of (and arguably boasting about) his comments on TMZ. The beginning of this first verse, however, reads, “Tweaking, tweaking on that 2CB, huh… I done died and lived again on DMT, huh,” which mentions the involvement of psychedelic drugs, the result of which, while initially used to perhaps numb pain or chase away bad thoughts, involves addiction and hallucinations. The repeated hook brings us back, reminding us that Kanye is steeped in a dark battle with his mind, and that this may all be a result of not only experiencing a different reality while on drugs, but as a response to the internal battle he is fighting with his dark side. This doesn’t really excuse his comment (which is still just as anti-black as when he said it) or his disconcerting sympathies with accused men in #MeToo, but these lines do give us a bit of context. Again, repeated: the dangers of drugs.
I mean, in Kanye’s second verse, the song states the dangers of the involvement of drugs even more blatantly, doing more to bring up popular controversy. He references Pusha T and Drake’s calls to Kanye in their recent diss tracks and goes off about the crazy ish he’d be down with in his warped state of mind, simultaneously demonstrating the effects of drugs while proving that Kanye’s mind might just work differently. He even discusses the prospects of cheating on his wife and kicking it with Wiz Khalifa (who Kanye had tensions with after Wiz tweeted this (tweet), which Kanye thought was about Kim Kardashian).
The last verse only seals that deal. My favorite lines on the whole album go “I can feel the spirits all around me / I think Prince and Mike was tryna warn me / They know I got demons all on me / Devil been tryna make an army / They been strategizin’ to harm me / They don’t know they dealin’ with a zombie.” It’s a long few lines, but if you look at the progression of Kanye’s voice, the lines unravel from what we would think is a reiteration of the message that drugs are dangerous, to a more sinister image of Kanye’s inner demons overtaking him. As someone who’s suffered from depression and anxiety for a long time, this feeling of both attempting to take emotional precaution while remaining in fear of having no emotional control is all too familiar.
All in all, the song is terrifying. And the title of the work--”Yikes”--makes the whole song darkly ironic.
“Wouldn’t Leave” - 3:19
Here, Kanye throws it back to gospel references made in “The Life of Pablo,” issuing a moving statement not only on his relationship to the women in his family (his daughter North and his deceased mother Donda) but to suicide and self harm. The hook reads, “Butterfly in my wrist / You make pretty women out of my skin,” from which the song continues to describe, in the first verse, Kim’s reactions to his TMZ comments on slavery. The hook brings whatever is said in his verses back to Kanye’s roots and priorities, as North and Donda’s birthdays are tattooed on the insides of his wrists: a part of the body that is often targeted in practices of self harm. Thus, this song is not only a tribute to the women in his life for sticking with him through tough times (namely, Kim), but a personal assertion on the ways in which one’s mental health can affect everyone around the individual.
Verse 2 reads like a letter to the women in Kanye’s life who have been affected by his recent behaviors. Here lies a chance for Kanye to be apologetic for the effect of his words on his listeners; but instead, he writes his comments off as being misunderstood by the public (“You want me workin’ on my messaging / When I’m thinking like George Jetson / But soundin’ like George Jefferson / Then they questioning my methods then”). We must remember that there is a difference between effect and intent. No matter what Kanye “truly” meant by his comments on TMZ, his words were received and reacted to by the general public: his listeners. His black listeners. And declaiming 400 years of slavery as a mere “choice” is disrespectful, regardless of Kanye’s purpose. Again, however, Kanye brings the song back to the women in his life, and in the outro, accompanied by Ty Dolla Sign, he leads an ode to “every damn female that stuck with they dude / Through the best times, through the worst times.”
Ye’s album isn’t a masterpiece. This EP-like collection of songs was likely completed in about a month or two, and it shows: in the relevant pop culture references, reflections on his own recent behaviors, and the album cover that looks as if it came right off Snapchat. But the album has depth, like all art does, and that fact alone means it should be taken seriously. Kanye’s production skills match his ability to self-promote, and “Ye” is just interesting enough to keep him on the map. His notion of “free thought” is real, at least on this album.. however, there are some free thoughts that are more damaging than they are productive. As an influential artist and an almost god-like public icon, we should hope that Kanye learns this soon enough.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.