Kanye West is the Houdini of hip-hop.
The controversial Chicago rapper and producer often relishes in having his back against the wall due to his questionable behaviour and remarks.
However, he has often extricated himself out of permanent trouble with his brilliant music. Over 15 years and eight albums, the 40-year-old continues to build an unrivalled body of work that has not only begrudgingly won over critics, but went on to already cement him as one of hip-hop’s greatest innovators.
New challenge, new drama
But with each new height scaled, it seems that West needs a bigger challenge and drama from which to emerge. And with his latest release, Ye, West may have executed his most daring manoeuvre yet.
In what has to be one of the most chaotic album promotional campaigns in recent times, West returned from his Twitter hiatus earlier this year with a blizzard of posts praising everyone from US president Donald Trump to Hindi spiritual guru Amma Mata.
Then came that infamous television interview last month in which he suggested that 400-years of African-American slavery “sounds like a choice.”
With some US radio stations enacting a boycott of Kanye West in protest and sections of the press labelling him a celebrity of the Alt Right movement, it is safe to say nothing short of a grand showcase of musical brilliance could alter the stormy clouds surrounding his career.
Ye is brief and on point
And on that score, Ye delivers — but on West's own terms.
The new record is sonically expansive as it touches upon various phases of West’s career, yet it is relentlessly boiled down to a suite of seven songs that clocks in at less than half an hour.
West stated the brief running time was a way to maintain the focus of online listeners, yet at the same time, present a unified body of work. In short — it is an album for the digital era.
That laser-sharp focus definitely helps Ye — as nothing is wasted here. All songs are fully realised and work together in painting a picture of a troubled artist aware of his debilitating shortcomings yet full of hope and love for those near and dear.
A musical paradox
That paradox is clearly illustrated in the opener I Thought About Killing You. Over hushed and treated background vocals, West begins with a spoken work passage illustrating the love and cruelty that coexists within before a marauding trap beat arrives and West launches into full self-analysis that includes the wry declaration: "I done had a bad case of too many bad days."
Yikes is even more wrenching. Over dark and dronish synths and chopped up samples, we are transported into the hospital room where West is recovering from his reported nervous exhaustion in 2016, a period in which he became addicted to opiates.
The lyrics are darkly ominous, with West summoning the spirits of the late Prince and Michael Jackson — both who fatally overdosed — to describe his sorry state: “I think Prince and Mike was tryna warn me, they know I got demons all on me.”
It ends with West’s powerful admission of his bipolar disorder, which he hails as “my superpower…ain't no disability.”
On the home-front
Not that West is using his condition as an excuse. On Wouldn't Leave we are in his mansion in Los Angeles with his wife Kim Kardashian confronting him about his infamous slavery comments.
Needless to say she was livid and in what would have been a tasty episode in Kardashian’s reality show, West gives her an ultimatum: “had to calm her down 'cause she couldn't breathe. Told her she could leave me now, but she wouldn't leave.”
We get a sense on the premium West pays to loyalty. The track is celebration of his partner and is rendered in the type of lush soul we haven't heard from West since 2005's Late Registration — old school fans will be swooning at this development.
West maintains that loved up feel on No Mistakes, which boasts a streamlined RnB sound that recalls West's 2007 album Graduation with guest vocals by veteran crooner Charlie Wilson and West protégé Kid Cudi.
While in the serene final track — with washed out keyboards that wouldn’t sound out of place in an 80s ballad — West is having a difficult conversation with his two young daughters, he warns them of men’s dark impulses while addressing his own: “forgive me, I'm scared of the karma, 'cause now I see women as somethin' to nurture, Not somethin' to conquer.”
The final note
Ye's album is bound to divide listeners. Fans should rejoice at the fact that West returned to his older soulful sounds and more humanistic outlook; while there will be those rightly livid that West hasn't paid a price for his recent damaging comments.
That said, West remains pop music's most interesting paradox, with each album earning and losing him fans with equal passion. Ye is merely another chapter in one of pop's most thrilling journeys.