Felix Quinonez Jr.
Kanye West is one of the rare stars whose every move triggers a response. So, it’s no surprise that when he announced his ambitious plan to produce and release five albums (seven songs each) over the span of five weeks, people took notice. But during the buzz of his announcement, it seems that no one thought to ask if this was even a good idea. Or was it simply too much music, too fast?
Understandably some people greeted his plans with an “I’ll believe it when I see” attitude. His last album, The Life of Pablo, came out over two years ago and he kept making changes to it even after it was released. So, it could be fair to say that punctuality is not his strongest suit. But as usual, he managed to commandeer the collective conversation and people wondered if he would actually deliver these albums on time, if at all? But then a funny thing happened, Kanye proved he could still surprise us by actually sticking to his plan. He delivered the albums and on time, no less.
But the defining characteristic of this experiment may have been its biggest weakness. The fast-paced schedule works against the releases. It doesn’t give people enough time to get into the album before the next one comes out and steals the spotlight. So even though he did silence all the doubters by meeting his self-imposed deadlines, was that ultimately a good thing?
Regardless of Kanye West’s public persona, it’s hard to deny the fact that he’s put out a lot of really powerful and influential music. When looked at, objectively, his body of work can easily stand next to any of the artists, in any genre, that we have collectively labeled geniuses.
He’s reshaped hip hop and even popular culture in his own image at least several times during his career. He’s even pushed the boundaries on what we collectively consider hip hop. He has so often been fearless enough to take his music into new territory even if the results were initially polarizing. But once people caught up, it became evident that he was blazing a trail for others to follow. A whole book could be written about the influence 808’s & Heartbreak had on hip hop and popular music. It wouldn’t be overstating it to say that popular music could be divided into before and after 808s & Heartbreak.
Unfortunately, for a while now, his public persona has been overshadowing his music. This is of course nothing new, he’s been a provocateur almost his entire career. But being an enfant terrible is a tight rope act that requires skill to strike the right balance. For a while he seemed to have found the formula. He annoyed people and got the headlines but his music was still at the forefront. His music was our reward for putting up with his egomania and ridiculous stunts. And the music was always worth it.
Whether or not we should be looking to our pop stars for role models or for political guidance is another question entirely. But if we look to Kanye West to give us great music, he delivers every time. However, that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world that if someone makes song, or movie, etc. that we like, we demand that they be everything we need. An argument could be made that we seem to hold pop stars to higher standards than we do for our president.
But whatever the case, at one point, Kanye lost control of the antagonist narrative he had been intricately weaving. It’s hard to say what specific thing made people finally lose their patience with him. But it’s clear that a lot of people have completely written him off, some of them even used to be fans.
That’s not to say that he’s become an artist without an audience. There are still plenty of people who still believe in his ability to make great, often cathartic music. Unfortunately, for a while it seemed that there wasn’t any new music on the horizon. His last album, the underrated, The Life of Pablo came out over two years ago. And in the time since then, he seemed less and less interested in putting out another album.
But because he’s the kind of artist that inspires feverish devotion, fans have been dissecting any public statements hoping to find any clues hinting at new music. So, no matter what, his new music was going to get attention. But the amount of music is what really got people talking. And even people who probably didn’t care about Kanye West anymore took notice. But the very nature of what made the experiment so attention grabbing was also what made it inherently self-sabotaging.
And even for someone who doesn’t over think things as much as Kanye tends to, it would have been a stressful task. So, a lot of people thought it was just an attention seeking, publicity stunt.
But Daytona, by Pusha T, the first of the bunch to be released, and on time no less, was an unqualified success. The album was, almost unanimously, praised and has already made a strong claim for album of the year. In hindsight, Daytona was the best way to start the slew of releases from the G.O.O.D music Wyoming sessions. The album found Pusha T in peak form and it validated the experiment’s arbitrary, self-imposed, seven song limit. The brief running time worked to the album’s benefit. Its brevity leaves no room for filler and the result is an album that is airtight and polished. It’s the rare case where it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite track simply because they are all so good.
And Daytona garnered all the acclaim it deserves. It also put Pusha T in the spotlight as he should be. And it, at least temporarily, silenced the people who were still suspicious of this experiment. But unfortunately, it set the bar really high for the rest of the albums.
Ye, by Kanye West himself, followed as the next release. And let’s face it, no matter what, a lot of people had already made up their minds about the album before even hearing one song.
Since The Life of the Pablo, his 2016 release, Kanye West had been mired in almost constant drama and other genuinely concerning issues. And his political views had become polarizing, off putting and downright disappointing.
Many fans struggled to accept the fact that the man who once, boldly, declared that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, on live television was now walking around wearing a MAGA hat. (In 2005, during a live telethon event to help with the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West used his platform to call out the president for the government’s disastrous response after the hurricane) And reading some of the reviews on the album makes it clear that when talking about Ye, both the person and album, the music is almost beside the point.
And while Ye is obviously not his crowning achievement, it’s still a great album. Although it’s not groundbreaking or a reinvention in the way we, perhaps unfairly, expect from Kanye West, it’s a distillation of his past work that rewards the listeners with some great music.
It may be uneven but it is still a worthy addition to an already incredibly strong discography. And more importantly it has at least one song that is a straight up classic. (Ghost town) And Kanye once again makes great use of his uncanny ability to bring out the best in his collaborators. He plays to their individual strengths in the same way a great painter knows how to perfectly use different materials to come up with a something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
The third release, Kids See Ghosts, a collaboration between Kanye West and Kid Cudi is arguably the highlight of the bunch. (Although Daytona could credibly make a claim for that as well) It is the most experimental but, at least initially, also a bit off putting.
But once you get your head around it, the album reveals itself to be a haunting, equally beautiful and melancholy album in which both artists push each other and bring out the best in one another. It is an intriguing, atmospheric album that touches on heavy subject matter like depression and mental stability. Like Daytona it’s an album that makes it hard to pick a favorite song because the album is so strong. A credible argument could easily be made for at least three of its songs, Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2.) Reborn, and Cudi Montage.
And the artists prove what a strong team they make. Cudi’s emotional sincerity is a wonderful balance to Kanye’s often brash, domineering presence. The album also reminds you that, together, they helped make 808s & Heartbreak one of the most influential albums of the last decade. That was clearly a Kanye album but Kid Cudi’s undeniable contributions played a big part in making that album the classic it is.
Nasir by Nas followed. Unfortunately, no one will argue that this is Nas’ best album. But it still has some great moments. Cops Shot the kid is as powerful as it is catchy. But Nas doesn’t exactly bring his A game to the entire album. It could even be said that, at times, he sounds lost or uninspired.
Perhaps this is a release pattern that does not play to his strengths. And it manages to diminish what should have been a triumphant return for the rapper. It’s hard to believe that the collective shrug the album received was what Nas was aiming for. On the other hand, Kanye sounds very inspired to be working on with Nas, someone who was clearly very influential to him. And he makes some of his best beats.
And the last album was K.T.S.E by Teyana Taylor. It is a great album that showcases her strong voice and blends different eras of R&B to create something really enjoyable. It also inspired Kanye to make some “old Kanye” type beats that a certain sector of his audience has been clamoring for close to a decade now.
But the rapid-fire release rate at the center of the experiment was a double-edged sword. It was no doubt thrilling to see it happen but at the same time it turned out to be a bit self-sabotaging. Pusha T’s album was a solo career highlight for the rapper. But it barely got a week in the spotlight before it was overshadowed by the next release. Daytona is a complete artistic triumph that didn’t sacrifice any street cred. But it was also so damn catchy that it’s not inconceivable to think that, given the chance, it could have become a crossover success. If it had the time, its buzz could have caught on and the album could have found a larger audience through the ecstatic word of mouth. But it never did get that time because Kanye West’s own, much more hyped, album Ye came in a week later and sucked all the air out of the room.
And in the case of Ye, the deadline seems to have resulted in an album that, despite all its strengths, at times feels rushed and arguably unfinished. Because people are so used to a Kanye West album feeling like a big event onto itself. The fact that Ye was released as part of a package, made the album feel minor or somehow less important.
On the other hand, Kids See Ghosts is the kind of album that requires a few listens for it to really grow on you. But Nasir was released just a week later and stole the spotlight from it. And that’s too bad because it’s an amazing collection of songs.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue that this release strategy was a good fit for Nas but if it weren’t for this, maybe we wouldn’t have had a new Nas album at all. As for Teyana Tailor, it seemed that it was finally time for her to take the spotlight and earn the recognition she deserves but by the time K.T.S.E came out it audiences had collectively lost interest in this experiment and the album was unfairly overlooked.
But that is not all that surprising. In the end, the event overshadowed the albums themselves. And they became just a part of a stunt that by its very design made the albums feel a little less special.