A Roundtable Discussion of Kanye West’s Tumultuous Year

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It is not uncommon to talk about how bad, weird, off-putting, and surreal 2018 was. When we speak this way, we are usually speaking in the context of political moments, or seismic changes to the America we’ve told ourselves we’re familiar with, but a number of people were also talking about Kanye West, the once-in-a-generation artist who has repeatedly changed the sound of rap and released albums that are consistently worthy of intricate analysis and debate. This year, Kanye still did that, but he also met with President Donald Trump and began to inhabit some pretty unexpected corners of Twitter. Now, with an extremely small amount of space between what happened, what is currently happening, and what may happen soon, music editor Sam Hockley-Smith, music columnist Craig Jenkins, and music writer Dee Lockett attempt to pick apart Kanye’s year from the standpoint of the music that he had a hand in.

Briefly putting aside all of the things Kanye said and did this summer — his meeting with Trump, his embrace of toxic viewpoints, his frequent outbursts on Twitter — did Kanye the artist succeed at producing five distinct albums?
Dee Lockett: I’m not entirely sure the thinking was to make them all distinct, stand-alone projects. Ye, for example, doesn’t work without Kids See Ghosts as the main course. Meanwhile, Nasir never worked at all and is distinct for being Nas’s worst album. But I think as a collection — let’s call them the Wyoming Sessions — they mostly work. And I’m still fully onboard with seven-song, 20-ish-minute albums as a new rule, specifically for Kanye. As some sort of think-tank experiment, though, I think you see where things did and didn’t work. The Hawaii Sessions were a much different story.

Craig Jenkins: I don’t really know that Kanye works best in sevens. Teyana’s album, for instance, needed more meat. Both Ye and Kids See Ghosts feel like a few too many ideas in too little time in spots, for better in the case of KSG and possibly for worse in the case of Ye. Both the Kanye albums in this cycle felt like they could’ve used more time and polish. Maybe the answer was to jam them together.

Sam Hockley-Smith: He pulled it off. And by pulled it off, I mean he more or less released five albums in five weeks, a couple of which were actually good. But by and large, these projects were victims of their own hype. Some of Kanye’s production work on these records — specifically Pusha T’s Daytona, Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. and, sure, even some of Ye — was inspired.

Since we can’t actually separate the art from the artist, are these albums forever tied to Kanye’s actions? In other words, can you listen to Pusha T’s Daytona and not think about what else was happening at the time, or can that exist separately?
CJ: Does this stunt happen if Kanye is in a good place with the press, or did Kanye set about shaking up the press because he had something under his sleeve in the studio? I can’t tell if he’s a genuine agitator or someone who agitates because there’s something to sell. After the last few Twitter logjams landed conveniently close to new Yeezy colorway releases, I don’t know which way is up.

SHS: It seems like that does a disservice to the artists he’s working with. By the time Teyana Taylor’s album came out, Kanye had so dominated the hype cycle that it came and went.

DL: I don’t think much about the context for the Teyana and Push albums during listens, then and now. They got caught up in the firestorm, but they didn’t light the match, so I think they remain unscathed. And Teyana made very clear, she wasn’t with the shits. Also, if memory serves, much of Daytona was done before Kanye really started Kanye-ing this year, as was Kids See Ghosts, which was mostly made a year in advance. The Nas album, though, is another case where the work couldn’t be separated from the context. Part of me wishes the album were better so he wouldn’t have had such an easy out from that whole narrative. Talk about a moment that really came and went under our noses.

Which of the five albums was the best? Which was the worst?
CJ: Daytona’s the best. Nadir — oops I meant Nasir — is the worst.

DL: The first mistake Kanye made during this little exercise was leading with the best. And then he burnt us all out by the time we reached the second-best album of the bunch, K.T.S.E., which he rudely saved for last, regrettably as an afterthought. I think Kanye was over it by then, which wasn’t fair to Teyana, but so it goes when you put your career in that man’s hands.

CJ: I think a lot about the structuring of the Wyoming campaign because it doesn’t make a lot of logistical sense unless Pusha went first because he works the cleanest, and he was most willing to hold the label down under fire. Scheduling K.T.S.E. last situated Teyana’s drop the furthest from the mess Ye kicked up in April on Twitter, but also the furthest from the excitement about the rollout. It should’ve come out before people had a chance to doubt the campaign. Releasing K.T.S.E. after Ye and KSG was like the time Kanye let Vic Mensa perform at the Madison Square Garden Yeezy Season 3 unveil after he played the whole Life of Pablo album in full. Vic finally gets the audience’s attention as they start to leave. The ideal sequence would’ve been Daytona, K.T.S.E., Nasir, KSG, then Ye. Or maybe you slide Nasir into the last spot, it being the worst record.

SHS: Or Nasir could have just never come out at all. It’s such a minor work from both artists that I imagine I’ll only return to it one time in a few years when I get it into my head that maybe I missed something about it, only to realize I didn’t. Daytona was undeniably my favorite, and K.T.S.E. was a close second, but I do think that Ye and KSG are both fascinating, mercurial records. Not so much for how they sound or, in the case of Ye, what Kanye is saying, but because they’re tumultuous documents of a tumultuous time for Kanye. More than anything else, they are all tangled up with the Kanye we saw on Twitter.

DL: I know it was some dumb promise Kanye supposedly made to Obama, but I still can’t wrap my head around why Nas was ever a part of this. Even aside from being outside the label, what business did he have, logistically and creatively, bogarting his way into this experiment and taking precious time and focus away from Teyana? Someone make it make sense! (Yeah, I’m bitter.)

CJ: Low-key, I’m thankful for Nasir, because next year when I Am … and Nastradamus turn 20, I don’t have to listen to anyone call either one Nas’s worst.

Ye had the potential to be the flagship album from this crop of releases, but it ended up being one of the worst ones. Why is that?
CJ: Overcooked? Like the video game where you struggle to churn out a steady stream of dishes to meet restaurant demand and eventually burn out because you’re moving too fast. I don’t think that Ye is a bad album, necessarily. It is not Kanye’s best work. Might even be the worst. I don’t know if that’s by force of expectations, since we always get a big, weird slab of intense ideas from him that require some parsing, and this one felt lesser and sillier and more disjointed, or if his process suffers when he’s distracted. But the Pablo campaign was a universe of distractions, and that one came out all right. I feel like there are internal factors we could never understand.

DL: Because you can’t really set a Twitter feed to music and expect people not to see it for just that. These are raw, unedited, unprocessed thoughts and outbursts barely threaded by anything other than Ty Dolla $ign’s presence to keep things cohesive at least on the surface. (Never forget, something like half the project was finished 20 minutes before it was played for the public; Kanye snapped its cover on his iPhone on the way to that campfire listening party.) Like I said before, Ye does not stand alone without KSG. I really would love to know what contributions Chance the Rapper made to the former that Kanye left on the cutting-room floor. Seems like maybe the only real editing he did on the project. I think it’s safe to say Ye was the most real-time album of the bunch and suffered for it. It does a real disservice to these grand and genuinely valid ideas Kanye was trying to make about mental illness as superpower versus defect to present them this frantically and unfinished. Though, to be fair, personal epiphanies about your own mind do come in spurts. Again, that’s why it took being with someone further along in the process, Kid Cudi, to really polish those thoughts into something less … manic, for lack of a better word.

CJ: I think that Ye is a fascinating piece about the experience of being unwell that I do not want to listen to very much.

SHS: Ye is also the Kanye album that feels the least defined. Everything that came before it worked as a spin on what Kanye was listening to or thinking about or trying to figure out. Even TLOP, as scattered as it was, felt like a reflection of the way we consumed music. But what is Ye, sonically? Some of the production really works for me. I love all the silence and empty space in “All Mine” and how weirdly lo-fi “Yikes” sounds, but otherwise the album felt like a collection of cutting-room-floor ideas Kanye wasn’t planning to use until he decided he needed to put an album out right away.

CJ: The only spots where it feels like a proper Kanye album — you know that cinematic, heavy-handed earnestness and hammy profundity the best ones give off — are “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Ghost Town,” and I think that’s because those are the ones that feel most deliberately constructed? I’m still confused about the track where Charlie Wilson sings about love, and the beat quiets down, and Kanye talks a bunch of subliminal shit he later claims to not have been a diss. Why is that in there? Ye had too many fires to put out. Kanye started too many. Making the pains of being Kanye West the center of the music means his records feel less relatable and less in tune with the world they’re being served to. Nobody’s feeling the 2C-B bars.

DL: The whole Drake subtext is also entirely too bonkers not to think about when considering Ye. I can’t help but chuckle knowing he wrote the hook to “Yikes” and how that one Wyoming trip torpedoed his whole personal life, or at least as far as he’s convinced it did.

CJ: Kanye is at a crossroads where if he’s not careful, he could lose his edge, and I think that all of the chasing after XXXTentacion and Tekashi and Lil Pump and even Drake speaks to the fact that he wants to make sure he’s seen as adjacent to the new hot shit. The gag is … the chasing trends is what’s dulling his edge.

SHS: A lot of Ye felt to me like the work of someone who got too confident in being great, and as a result, didn’t bother to put much effort into the thing he was working on, and just trusting that everyone would love it, because why wouldn’t they? That we didn’t probably shook him and pushed him toward guys like Tekashi and XXX.

CJ: I believe that he looks at X and Tekashi (and Bari and Ian …) and sees young, talented, misunderstood men, and because he never did anything egregious in his tenure (that we know of), he’s willing to believe in their innocence. I think he keeps alleged abusers as friends and affiliates because he believes more in the attraction of liars and scammers to rich folks’ wealth than he believes in the lack of consequences for rich and well-connected people who abuse their power and access in all of the ways we’re continuing to find out many of them have. That Betsy DeVos shit. That “Who accuses the accusers?” shit.

So where does Kanye go from here?
DL: To bed, I hope. But I suppose he won’t rest until he’s put this Yandhi thing out because the man hates to completely miss a deadline. Push it back indefinitely, but never let it pass him by entirely. So whatever the hell he’s cooking up on that album is what we have to deal with, if we choose to. Or we could all just collectively agree to stop giving him attention. Sometimes it’s okay to let the baby whine all night.

SHS: There’s a certain aura of exhaustion around all these releases. The good ones transcend it, but the less good ones are mired in it. I cannot imagine that was Kanye’s intention when he decided to do this, but he really did take control of the promotional cycle for more than a month. Not many people can do that (maybe that’s why he admires Trump?). Still, it all felt like a protracted case of burnout that he attempted to circumvent through prolificacy.

CJ: At the end of the day, Wyoming was an intriguing experiment, and maybe there’s some value from a business and marketing standpoint. Labels run by rappers have a habit of staggering releases to keep from oversaturating the market, which has the cruel side effect of making everyone on the roster wait several months for a release date. (Remember when SZA couldn’t get a date for Ctrl?) G.O.O.D. Music cleared the vaults in a month, and most of the releases did well and got attention. Maybe the next label will give a benchwarmer a shot. Maybe we’ll see fewer 25-track albums because a couple of these did rather well on lists and charts with just 7. Or maybe we’ll forget all of this happened when the earth burns up next year. Dee, you’re onto something about giving less attention to the mess. I wish we, as an internet, could agree to not melt down every time Kanye Does a Thing. It makes social media draining, and it makes Kanye feel emboldened to be louder and more annoying, and that doesn’t serve anyone.

DL: I do hope the Wyoming Sessions cleared Kanye’s conscience about being a bad boss. Though he handed over the label to Push years ago, that alpha-dog responsibility to provide is hard to shake. For years, he did nothing to nurture his artists’ careers, especially Teyana’s. Wyoming gave her shine, it gave Push more shine, it gave Cudi a full glow, and it gave Cyhi the Prynce small glimmers of shine (he co-wrote a good chunk of these albums). But how much of Kanye’s antics outside the studio actually worked against them to dim their light? I’m mostly just waiting to see who’ll still be in his corner this next cycle to find that answer.

CJ: No one’s ever leaving. The beats are too fire.

DL: Maybe it’s time to find a new muse

CJ: He’ll have to flop first. He and Trump have that in common. He’s the bag in perpetuity. Folk’ll jump ship as soon as it’s no longer a lucrative partnership. Well, that’s not fully fair. Folk stick around because they see something worth saving too. The real question in the current climate is what Kanye could possibly do to even lose his platform. Does de-platforming still exist in a climate where real outrage gets pawned off as “cancel culture”? Hmm. No?

SHS: You can’t really vote with your wallet anymore. It’s not hard to hate-listen to something. Kanye’s not going anywhere, but I do wonder if he’ll be able to find his musical center again. He does seem to be looking for it.

CJ: The day he got sick of blazing trails and decided he wanted to make hit records again was a dark day. Fishing for hits worked wonders for the clout but not for the creativity. The songs on the X and Tekashi albums are embarrassments to the talent people signed on for in the first place. (Note that none of them broke Top 40.)

Is there any insight to be gained by listening to all five of these albums in a row? Any larger themes that become clear?
CJ: We should throw the whole year in some kind of museum of extraordinary circumstances for beating out Katy Perry’s 72-hour live YouTube experiment as the purest modern exercise in celebrities handling internet scrutiny poorly. Watching it unfold the first time was so stressful, I literally shivered at the idea posed in the question here. Full disclosure: I got a couple Daytona and K.T.S.E. slaps in a running party playlist I hear weekly. I listened to Ye and Ghosts to prep for this roundtable, and something still felt missing. Beautiful beats … RIP Aretha.

DL: There’s only a real connective tissue between Ye and KSG — they probably could’ve been a double album if Kanye really wanted to torture us any more than he already did — so that’s all I’d recommend for a back-to-back listening. The largest theme would’ve been revealed while processing this data dump in real time, which is that no one knows what the fuck to do with the idea of an album anymore and it’s doing a real number on the consumer. And maybe it’s what consumerism deserves. The fan, though — and I’m talking both the Yeezy hypebeasts who’ll buy into anything Kanye is selling and the purists who still hold real affection for Kanye’s production style — will happily adapt and go whichever direction the herd is moving. This much I’m sure of: Kanye wins. Maybe he’ll even win that Grammy for Producer of the Year, and that’s what all this fuss was really for.

A Roundtable Discussion of Kanye West’s Tumultuous Year