The thing about watching Kanye West’s train repeatedly go off the rails over the years is that, at some point, West realized the world would never turn its eyes away.
By now, none of West’s formulaic chaos should be jarring.
When he sunk into a deep depression after the death of his mother, Donda West, in 2007 and emerged with the genre-bending “808’s and Heartbreak,” there was something genuine about sincere pain producing worthwhile art.
His microphone-snatching episode with Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs was so disastrous at the time — even if it was the underappreciated precursor to #OscarsSoWhite and #GrammysSoWhite years later — that West’s only option was to go dark and ultimately return with his most bulletproof body of work, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
In each instance, West’s music was good enough to cut through all the other noise.
But over the past five years, both the noise and the music have felt more and more manufactured.
After more than a month of poking political bears and stirring social pots, the run-up to West’s eighth studio album “Ye” — officially unveiled late Thursday night at an impromptu listening party that had industry types flocking to the hip-hop mecca of . . . Jackson Hole, Wyo. — was neither an unraveling of the artist nor a crescendo for all the confusion he had created.
It was merely West cashing in on all the attention he had spent weeks banking with some calculated trolling.
On the heels of Pusha T’s airtight opus “DAYTONA,” West’s album is intended to be the second of five weekly releases from his G.O.O.D Music imprint. The dust West kicked up by throwing his support behind President Trump, wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, and making, arguably, the worst foot-in-mouth statement of his career by saying that slavery was a choice demanded more than an album’s worth of explanation.
Over seven songs spanning 24 minutes, “Ye” is immediately disturbing (“I Thought About Killing You”), slightly exhilarating (“Yikes”), bafflingly underwhelming (“All Mine,” “Wouldn’t Leave,” and “No Mistakes”), and fleetingly brilliant (“Ghost Town”).
The one thing it’s not is coherent.
West hopscotches from talking points like suicide, murder, and mental health (“I think about killing myself and I love myself way more than I love you, so today I thought about killing you”) to tabloid fodder like Cleveland Cavalier Tristan Thompson’s cheating scandal (“All these thots on Christian Mingle/That’s what almost got Tristan single”).
He makes passing references to the wave of celebrity friends who contacted him during a spree of puzzling tweets, including an apparent exchange with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, who has been accused of more than a dozen cases of sexual assault. “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too. I’ma pray for him ’cause he got #MeToo’d. Thinking what if that happened to me too. Then I’m on E! News.”
As for slavery being a choice? West essentially glosses over it. “I say ‘slavery a choice,’ they say ‘How, Ye?’ Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.”
With so many examples of hip-hop artists maturing alongside the art form — from Jay-Z’s “4:44” to Phonte’s “No News Is Good News” to Royce Da 5’9’s “The Book Of Ryan” — West embraces going in the other direction.
Way before trolling became a presidential campaign strategy, Kanye West made cashing in on craziness an art form. If he and the president have anything in common, it’s a frightening savvy for grabbing attention at a time when attention is currency. Mostly, West just seems amazed at how much drama he could stir up.
“Turned TMZ to Smack DVD, huh?”
After all that, the explanation is that there isn’t one. The question for West and his listeners is whether it was worth it.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.