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Apple Music

Kanye West’s ‘ye’ Is Mystifying– For Better Or Worse

Ye is a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

Kanye West broadcasted the "new album" signal late Thursday night (May 31). WAV Media would be the ferryman bringing fans to Wyoming, through Gorilla Glass screens and iPhone stereos. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I downloaded the application, wary of the company’s small Twitter following.

Turning it on, signing up, then logging in, I was greeted to a sight out of Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers — a sea of nameless, vibrant souls moving in unison to an exultant Kanye record, unheard, and unflinching. Celebrities, tastemakers, and, writers of any publication that Kanye felt he could sway with airfare flew to catch the livestream premiere of Kanye’s new album, ye in the wee hours of Friday morning.

The public’s umbrage that was birthed by Kanye's ignorance and circus-like political antics prior to the release of the project seemingly dissipated into thin air. Over the course of the next hour, I watched the crowd intently; 2 Chainz, Teyana Taylor, and a few other paragons trying their hardest to appear jubilant as ye played.

Since then, I’ve been flipping it forward and backward, searching for the bread crumbs to bridge together autonomous ideas. I’ve come to the conclusion that ye is a thorny, shambolic mix of ideas that don’t completely gel together like he believed they would. It’s a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

For starters, we didn’t know the album was named ye until after it dropped. Kim Kardashian-West revealed that the cover for the album was shot on the way to the super-secret listening session. Also, the title was rumored to initially be LOVE EVERYONEye appeared to be a last-minute resolution.

This confusing mess only strengthens the delusion of what’s going on with the album, the (whether purposeful or not) disorientating mess masquerading as a united release. But when it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s not suddenly, a swan.

Ye is a character study of a middle-aged man who, both knowingly and unknowingly, admits to his flaws and, through stream of consciousness-like raps, acknowledges that which he does not understand. While all of this is happening, the absence of more than surface layer lyricism reveals even more about Ye then the album does itself. But that’s the good nature of Mr. West; he makes everything easy to see, whether he realizes it or not. And connecting the dots is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Ye is eldritch- point blank. The album’s opening lines “I thought about killing you,” meant to be avant-garde (later confirmed by him pondering if the “cool” thing to do would be to say something that counterbalances the phrase’s darkness) are repeated a near endless amount of times, looped as if some grand valiant statement were being made. Then it gets to the one of the more prevalent themes that runs through the course of the album which is mental health, for better or worse.

“Yikes” starts off with a list of Mad Lib adjectives and menial observations, making clear the anxiety that Yeezy seems to deal with before breaking into an effervescent Ye track that wouldn’t sound out of place on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But for as loud and explosive as it is, it comes across as pyrrhic— like the majority of the energy went into the shock factor of the anxiety. He even yells senseless nothings toward the end, I’m guessing as an ad-lib of sorts, that have little to no impact.

Ye is a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

Without any segues, ye often switches subjects at the snap of a finger — sometimes in the midst of songs. He starts the album on an introspective kick — then he jumps into the rockiness of his idealistic marriage to Kim Kardashian. “No Mistakes” bridges this gap, with Ye reflecting on his growing frailty both physically and mentally (he references the grey strands in his beard) while the chorus apologizes to Kim for the stuff he’s put her through — I use stuff in place of a certain, less than honorable term because, boy, has he subjected Kim to some filth.

“Wouldn’t Leave” is about as Kanye of an apology as Kim will ever receive publicly. On it, he reflects on his ill-minded quip about slavery being a choice. As absurd as it sounded to the public, Kim, whose career has been built off of the perception of the public, is the one who had to break it to him that he’s damaging her brand as well as his. But of course, we’d never see those conversations public. So Ye gives us his side of their talks which, by the somber production and PARTYNEXTDOOR ‘s over-the-top vocals, must have been pretty serious.

When he exclaims her fear of him “losing it all” for the both of them, echoes of her anguish can be felt through his voice. But through it, the sincerity becomes questionable. His tone on the chorus, explaining how he told his wife that she could leave him but she wouldn’t, sounds snarky, matter-of-factly even.

Perhaps what’s most astounding about it, aside from the zoned-out vibe of it, is the complete absence of the political Ye that’s been a Trump supporter for the better of two years. Ye first endorsed the commander-in-chief in a rant at a Saint Pablo Tour in San Jose back in 2016. Soon after, he posed for a photo op at the Trump Towers, manifesting some serious negative energy from his community of fans.

 We were misled into thinking that the inquisitive rapper who questioned his beliefs would explain himself — the album just proves that Ye, still, doesn’t know the politics he was anxious to understand.

He recently went full fanatic with his support, posting a picture in the "Make America Great Again" hat and seemingly aligning himself with the man at the helm of much of what’s wrong with America. The timing was impeccable. Kanye's new album had to reference it. The closest we got? A tongue-in-cheek reference to his slavery quote about it being a “choice,” which, even after listening to the album, seems random.

Of course, at seven tracks, it’s concise, to a fault even. But we get the full range of veteran Kanye here, conditioned to the game, yet still prone to the same mistakes. We were misled into thinking that the inquisitive rapper who questioned his beliefs would explain himself — the album just proves that Ye, still, doesn’t know the politics he was anxious to understand.

If there’s one, unexplored takeaway from the project, is that Kanye's a big picture guy now, much like rap’s new age prospects. His production is as dauntless and peppy as ever — it’s the message that has changed. It’s more wide and obtuse, not meant to be picked apart and analyzed. And there are no hidden strings…it’s just flat in front of you.

“Violent Crimes” is plain face talk about the fear Ye experiences when he thinks about his daughter North growing into a woman. In plain speak, Ye reflects on his own dealings with women who he didn’t believe to be worth the time of the day and how that’s changed since he now has a daughter. As problematic as it is, we read it for face value, because, that’s all there is to it. No intelligent commentary about the jacked-up connotations that he, along with the many rappers before him who have echoed the same sentiment, has brought to the table.

It's akin to the cringeworthy scene in Atlanta (Robbin Season) where a woman of color confronts a white woman for having a black boyfriend. While this conversation is absolutely necessary, it’s been treaded a near limitless amount of times — without bringing new context to the situation, the conversation is meaningless. Because of this, the idea of respecting women is extracted from the song, but not read at more than the surface level (side bar: you should always respect women).

Ye's sporadic nature is at odds with its concise appearance. For it to be a Kanye album, we expect a narrative that can be extrapolated from the music — not implicitly stated, but present through the concepts presented throughout the songs.

Graduation chronicled the maturity of Ye as a celebrity and adjusting to the tenants of fame, 808s and Heartbreak reveled in turmoil and despair that reflected Kanye's darkest period in his life. Ye may reach for making sense of mental illness, but it jumps randomly to other subjects without any warning. We spend equal amounts of time analyzing his wife’s reception and their rocky marriage as much as we do appreciating his newfound appreciation for women. Somewhere in there, he analyzes his own mistakes. If it sounds longer than seven songs, it can feel like it — even if a few cuts have one verse and last less than three minutes.

Daytona made the most use of its concise structure, while ye feels restrained by it. There’s some hefty ideas here that could have been fleshed out into entire albums. Admittedly, I came into Ye looking to learn more about the inquisitive Ye in “Ye Vs. The People.”

He exposed himself as less than the deity he believes himself to be. T.I.’s conversation on The Breakfast Club painted the track as a throwaway that wouldn't make the album. Due to its hefty subject matter, I can see why. On a thematic level, it would have made more sense due to him bleeding himself dry emotionally.

The end result — a messy journal filled with Kanye’s incessant scrawls, exposing the aspects of his personality that need the most tuning — was the same, anyway.

The brief flashes of sagacity that permeate the album’s spine come in the introduction, and a few guest contributions that align in such a way that they burst through the emptiness that Kanye creates both knowingly and unknowingly.

But the musical brilliance that comprised seven of the eight albums in his discography (sorry Ye, The Life of Pablo didn’t quite meet the mark) appears to be waning with age. There’s a good album somewhere in the scraps of what we’ve gotten and what was left on the cutting room floor, but the expansive sound and exuberant palette of emotions that he tries to portray fall flat. Maybe, next time, Kanye should make a longer album. That’s probably the first time in history that anyone has ever said that.

Trey Alston is a Virginia-based journalist that loves the raw energy of hip-hop. When he's not writing editorials across the web, you can find him on SoundCloud searching for the next best thing. Follow him on Twitter at @treyals.

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Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

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In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

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The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

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Eminem Reignites His Rage With 'Music to Be Murdered By'

It became easy to hate on Eminem going into the 2010s. Starting with 2009’s Relapse, his first album in five years after taking time off to recover from drug addiction, the Detroit legend’s peerless mic wizardry became increasingly overshadowed by plodding production and below-the-belt potshots at pop stars. Never mind that that album contained some of Em’s most pristine, conceptually-driven bars; to a maturing fan base, the retreads of previous themes and a liberally-employed new accent missed the mark. And though Recovery seemed to be just that for him, culminating in some noteworthy hits like the Rihanna-assisted “Love the Way You Lie,” Marshall Mathers spent the rest of the last decade releasing a series of uninspiring missteps leading up to 2017’s forgettable Revival. Fortunately, Music to Be Murdered By is an ably produced late-career triumph, with some of Eminem’s most poignant and exquisitely crafted lyrics in in recent memory.

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“Cause, see, they call me a menace and if the shoe fits, I'll wear it. But if it don't, then y'all will swallow the truth, grin and bear it” #Renegade #MusicToBeMurderedBy pic.twitter.com/2aIFk2kz8a

— Marshall Mathers (@Eminem) January 23, 2020

But those revitalized hijinks of Em’s soon give way to some of the headier material that one one would expect on such a darkly-themed project. “You Gon’ Learn,” with a guest spot from Royce da 5’9”, is a moving meditation on the inevitability of struggle. Whereas his longtime friend recalls his past with alcoholism, Marshall ruminates on the existential dilemma of being white and poor in a Chocolate City: “Didn't have knots, I was so broke/On my last rock, for my slingshot/Better haul ass, don't be no slow poke/Through the tall grass, run your ass off/Oh no, got your pants caught on the fence post/Getting chased, by them Jackboys.” These sepia-toned snapshots, emboldened by world-weary synths and hard snares, bristle with a fuming blue-collar furor, reminding us once again of Em’s remarkable triumphs over adversity.

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That eye-of-the-tiger ferocity is, thankfully, flexed on “Little Engine,” which revisits the zany worldview introduced on his debut some 20 years ago with bars like, “I'm still the one that your parents hate/I’m in your house eatin' carrot-cake/While I sit there and wait and I marinate/I'm irritated, you 'bout to meet a scary fate/And come home to find yourself starin' straight into a fuckin' barrel like Sharon Tate.” Elsewhere, “Marsh” mines a similarly combative mode while showcasing more breathtaking internal rhymes: “A pad and pen'll be great, but a napkin'll do/Return of the whack sicko/Head spinnin' like Invisibl Skratch Piklz/Yeah, Shady's back, see the bat signal.”

But it’s “I Will,” which boasts the remaining Slaughterhouse members, that marks his newfound penchant for score settling. Here, instead of coming for R&B songstresses who are for the most part defenseless against him, Eminem trains his sights, finally, on someone who’s fit for the smoke. In a blistering swipe at former Brand Nubian and frequent VladTV affiliate Lord Jamar, he observes: “Yeah, your group was off the chain, but you were the weakest link.” If it seems like presumption to go at one of the culture’s pioneers like that, it’s thanks to a buildup of bad vibes that have long been brewing between the two. It’s a sentiment he echoes in the aforementioned “Lock It Up,” where he addresses the proverbial elephant in the room, regarding Joe Budden’s exit from Slaughterhouse, degradingly referring to the podcast host as “Trader Joe.” Eminem doesn’t merely get mad here; with Music to Be Murdered By, he also gets even.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Prince’s Unstoppable Creative Process On Display In '1999' Reissue

Upstart Minneapolis musician Prince Rogers Nelson released an album per year after his 1978 debut, For You, each more sophisticated than the last. But 1999 made Prince a star and solidified his place in music history. After its release in October 1982, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and became the fifth-best-selling album of the following year. Singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” peaked in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and their videos were some of the first by a Black artist to be shown on MTV. Prince’s classic has now been reissued by Warner Bros., with a remaster of the original album and hours of previously unreleased material.

The good news is that the record still sounds as fantastic as it did the first time you heard it. The title track’s synth fanfare heralds your entrance into a new world of grinding machinery and pulsing libido. It’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, but everything’s gone from black and white to shades of purple. Across 11 tracks and 70 minutes, Prince uses dance beats, slow jams, ballads, call and response funk, rock guitar solos, all toward one spiritual purpose: sex. It’s not all crude either. He will pretend to be married if you prefer the illusion of propriety, and he uses “Free” to give thanks for a society that allows him to pump out albums worth of filth and funk.

Like the narrator making dedications in bed on “Lady Cab Driver,” each moment on the album points toward a predecessor in pop and funk: James Brown’s yelp, Larry Graham’s slap, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar heroics. Prince threw in the now-iconic sounds he wrung out of a manipulated Linn Drum Computer and pushed American popular music into the future. The warped drum programming was deeply influential on the emerging sounds of Detroit techno and Chicago house, and it’s stayed relevant into the present where the likes of Billie Eilish and FKA twigs top charts and critics’ polls singing over brittle beats.

In line with the other best updates to classic works, the new remaster is hard to notice. In general, the 2019 version of the album is a little clearer and a lot fuller. It’s the equivalent of watching a favorite movie in HD for the first time. The opening notes of “D.M.S.R.” flit across the sides of the song, rather than sitting in the middle of the stereo mix. Rather than blending together, the layers of bass guitar on “International Lover” now curl in on each other like puffs of smoke. Prince’s vocals, like the coos that become shrieks on “Little Red Corvette”’s bridge, are still kept at a remove through reverb, but the effect doesn’t lessen their power.

The reissue’s second part includes B-sides and alternate edits of album cuts. The majority of these tracks would be inessential even if this was their first time available digitally. A mono single edit of “1999” is an interesting relic of another era in major label promotion, but why opt for the watered-down version? The keepers are the B-sides, including one-take studio wonder “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and the eight-minute Special Dance Mix of “Little Red Corvette,” which is a dancefloor filler in addition to a historical artifact; Questlove contends it was one of the first times an artist ever remixed their own track.

For casual fans and completists alike, the heart of the 1999 reissue is the nearly two dozen previously unreleased tracks, recorded between November 1981 and January 1983. Prince was in the middle of an incredibly fertile hot streak, writing and recording songs for himself as well as satellite groups The Time and Vanity 6. As his engineer Peggy McCreary pointed out in a recent interview, without the need for a producer or supplementary musicians, the artist was free to spend his recording budget on studio time. “I think he loved being in that environment, because I know, wherever he was, on tour, if they had a day off he would find a studio in that city,” she said. “That's what he loved to do.”

Listeners can now hear some of Prince’s process at work through these unreleased songs. “Feel U Up” is close to a demo, a groove that runs a few minutes too long and a vocal that’s too sheepish to sound coy. The next track, “Irresistible Bitch” from 1981, builds a new song over the same beat with nimble bass, unfurling synths, and new lyrics. Prince goes all out on his vocals, his voice ragged and hoarse like he’s been driven mad with lust. Those vocals give the earlier version the edge over Prince’s more subdued take of the song, recorded and released in 1983 as the B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It’s compelling to see what Prince found ready to release at any given time, to hear a seed of an idea grow from a rasp to backing vocals from Wendy & Lisa. The artist would regularly repurpose old tunes, none here more obvious than the would-be generational anthem “Bold Generation” morphing into “New Power Generation” eight years after its initial recording.

Prince lays out his own personal manifesto on “Purple Music” over a spare drum loop. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules / I just let the purple music tell my body what to do / And I’m high,” he sings, his voice mixed like he’s found an undiscovered altered state. It’s mesmerizing. The song has been widely bootlegged, but the ancestral hiss of copies of copies of cassettes can’t compare to hearing all 11 minutes in high-quality. 1999 was the first time Prince laid claim to the royal color, including reference to his “purple rock” on “D.M.S.R.” and purple stars on “Automatic.” “Purple Music” makes it clear the color was more than an aesthetic affectation, it was ideal to pursue.

Playing with sexual and gender norms was a cornerstone of Prince’s work, and “Vagina” shows that his most transgressive material went unreleased. Prince sings about the titular person teaching him how to dance in a gay bar over gritty guitars. (No drums, but his beatboxing and other vocal rhythmic cues sound a lot like his peer and rival Michael Jackson.) She’s “half boy, half girl, the best of both worlds,” as he sings on the chorus. It’s a simple love story, complicated by a fluidity that still feels novel today.

All the unreleased material sounds fresh, impressive nearly four decades removed from its recording. (“You’re All I Want” is clearly a recycled “Delirious,” but it gets a pass since it was recorded as a birthday gift to longtime engineer McCreary.) “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is a slice of driving pop-rock with a charmingly anachronistic Fred Astaire reference. On “If It’ll Make U Happy,” hear the artist dabbling in reggae rhythms with a new wave sheen. Released as a single earlier this fall, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” sounds like Prince in his funky prime because that’s basically what it is.

Posthumous releases always occupy a moral gray area, but Prince kept a literal vault anticipating that some of his material would see the light of day. Michael Howe, archivist for Prince’s vault, recently stated his goal is to “shine a light on the entirety of Prince’s creative legacy”, and the 1999 reissue succeeds. The remaster preserves the album’s sound for future generations to draw from. Prince’s unreleased material illuminates the creative process of one of the most important pop musicians in American history. Parties weren’t meant to last, but the deluxe 1999 should keep it going a few hours longer.

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