In excavating one’s self for art, I imagine there comes a time when the cupboard seems bare. Where the way you synthesize the zeitgeist starts to spark and flash; your successful experiments encircling you, fully matured and expecting. In that way, creation is its own shimmering sea begging you to fashion your boat as you swim. No wonder we marvel at creators. No wonder we shower them with ourselves; our expectations, our regrets, our hands turned out for a way through the humbling dark of our thoughts. Yet through all the irrationality of the last few weeks with Kanye West, we are given an album that forces us to process notions that feel circular.
Maybe there isn’t a way to encapsulate the maelstrom that is Kanye West. Part of being along with him on this journey has been experiencing the gravity of his many personas, each an indentation upon where he stands in this life. It’s an intimate coupling he’s allowed us, a look into the dusty corners of his tumult. And he’s granted us this access because, I think, in his heart, Kanye West is a lover. What he believed in seemed to be more than mere sentimentality — that brutal pitfall of the self — but something more akin to a Rousseauian disdain for wealth apologists ready to bury their heads in the sand. “All Falls Down” from his debut, The College Dropout is a song that feels much different now, when he rapped, “The prettiest people do the ugliest things/ All for the road to riches and diamond rings.” He spoke of us trying to buy back “our 40 acres.” It was an important critique.
Yet one made simply, in a way that felt, almost, pure at times and puerile at others. The love is missing from Ye. On his newest gambit, he seems to have come face to face with his own firing squad. And perhaps his agitation is of a chemical nature. I remember watching Nina Simone’s Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and wanting to lash out, to protect her. She suffered from the manic highs and depressive lows of bipolar disorder it was suggested, and sometimes sadly, the film showed her through that lens, all the way to Sierra Leone. On the outro of “Yikes,” West seems to be calling out to some future self when he says, “That’s why I fuck wit’ Ye/ That’s my third person/ That’s my bipolar shit, nigga what?/That’s my superpower, nigga ain’t no disability/I’m a superhero!” My blood leaped the same way to protect him from some future misunderstanding around his condition. From the confusion around what it means to bipolar in the public imagination.
It’s a narrative reversal that’s signature West. On “Touch The Sky” we remember him saying, “I’m tryin’ to right my wrongs, but it’s funny them same wrongs helped me write this song.” We felt that. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he made up for the critique of his meanness to Taylor Swift by doubling down on beauty. Of course, the demons were there, too. Monstrous thoughts and a Nicki Minaj breakout verse on “Monster.” A return to crab-like hubris on “Power” (though still one of the most beautiful music videos I’ve ever seen). But there was abundance, even after he’d asked Complex EIC Noah Callahan-Bever if he’d looked “at my eyes” on the “Run This Town” video. After, maybe, a self-sabotaging thought almost became the signature moment of his career.
On this short, sparse record, Kanye sounds the most in love when he’s talking about his wife and daughter. Of the media and space he inhabits within culture he seems to have had his fill. Of his previous selves, too, there wishes to be longing, but instead, there’s a tiny rush of lament. “Ghost Town,” by far the most beautiful record on the album, sees Ye fulfill an ambition it didn’t know it had: to be clear-eyed and in love. Yet, I wish he’d have read the foreword to Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias for a few notions. Namely, “To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps, to God; or to Gods,” she wrote. West’s line goes way, way back. Rooted in that lineage, he can reach for what’s new. Without it, he feels like a torn sail in the wind. Similarly, on the well-meaning “Violent Crimes,” he seems to want to say he needs to protect his daughter from our collective, poisoned manhood, yet he settles for “Niggas is savage/Niggas is monsters/ Niggas is pimps, Niggas is players/Till Niggas have daughters.”
“These poems are about Revolutionaries and Lovers; and about the loss of compassion, trust, and the ability to expand in love that marks the end of hopeful strategy,” wrote Walker of, in my imagination, Kanye West. “Whether in love or revolution. They are also about (and for) those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty and to love even while facing the firing squad.”
Maybe I’m making too much of this, to be sure, but Ye feels like a revolutionary who was once a lover. And wherever his love has gone, I hope it returns. Until then, I think, we may be forced to say goodbye to the revolutionary lover we once knew.