Secret Meeting score: 74
by Philip Moss
The links between creativity and mental illness have long been established. Musical greats such as Ludwig Van Beethoven, Syd Barrett, Kurt Cobain and many more battled with psychological issues. Artists Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh were all thought to have fought severe depression, while psychologist, James C. Kaufman, even coined the term, The Sylvia Plath Effect, after his extensive studies into the phenomenon that poets are particularly susceptible to mental illnesses. Never has mental illness been more widely discussed in the media and rightly so. One artist in particular has certainly a lead on the matter.
After weeks of social media ranting, Kanye West finally dropped ye – first unveiling it to a selection of friends, journalists and celebrities at a listening party in Wyoming, where he’d been holed up working on the record. While the state might not be the most obvious location to for a hip-hop megastar to work, West’s desire for seclusion to complete his eighth studio album made it ideal. Following the listening party he delivered it to the world through a synchronised stream on social media and now, nine weeks later, Ye finally gets its physical release – his first long player to be sold on vinyl since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
At just 23-minutes long (across seven tracks) it’s no more than a snapshot into this troubled genius’ mind. But Yeezy wastes no time in profiling the core theme on opening track, I Thought About Killing You. Layered vocoders and falsettos – reminiscent of his work with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon – twist, turn and pulsate before Kanye lays his thoughts out plainly – ‘the most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest’. He then chronicles these schizophrenic thoughts in the first person, ‘Today I seriously thought about killing you – I contemplated pre-meditated murder. And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you’. On one hand, this juxtaposing narrative – being played out on what is essentially a crossover pop/hip hop record – could show Kanye hasn’t lost his sense of humour. And that would be the case if it didn’t feel so brutally honest. A point emphasised by the beat and melody that enters in the final third of the song – one that would fit quite comfortably onto Kendrick Lamar’s genre defining album, DAMN. But where Kung Fu Kenny’s work has a wide eyed, cinematic feel, this in comparison carries an uncomfortable claustrophobia.
Yikes’ choral refrain – ‘Shit could get menacin’, frightenin’, find help / Sometimes I scare myself, myself’ – puts it just as plain. However, as is the case across much of the lyrical content, his schizophrenic personality is never far away and the feeling is that this isn’t just positive spin, but actually how he feels – ‘See that was my third person / That’s my bipolar shit… That’s my superpower… ain’t no disability / I’m a superhero!’ It is very easy for such conflicting lines to be construed as a mish-mash of unconnected, lazy ideas, but in this case these tightly-wound juxtapositions give us an insight into the whirlwind of feelings that this bipolar sufferer is often struggling to process.
Nestled in the middle of the album comes the emergence of his infamous and ill-thought ‘Slavery a choice’ concept. But on closer examination, the lyric – in the context of Wouldn’t Leave – seemingly seeks to praise women who ‘stuck with they dude through the best times, through the worst times’. And this is the beauty and the beast in a snapshot. In isolation, lines seem to mean one thing (and may well do), yet pair them next to another, and the can of worms is reopened and the riddle continues.
Some critics have dismissed the record as nothing more than a lazy extended play. At times, ye – despite featuring an army of collaborative producers – does sound like what it is: the work of a forty-year-old man mucking about on Garageband in his bedroom. But Kanye West is one of the most important musical icons of our time. ‘We the new Jacksons’, he boldly stated on Highlights from 2016’s brilliantly overblown, The Life of Pablo. And just as was the case with his hero, Michael, we should embrace the rough with the smooth; the world’s a much more interesting place with his polarising views, his willingness to openly share his feelings, and the intellectual debate that his beautiful, dark, twisted genius provokes.