2010s: In Kanye's Wake A journey to the ends of the pop star

Screenshot from an unreleased video game by Kanye West, titled Only One

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I. On November 22, 2010, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received the distinction of Best New Music with a score of 10 from Pitchfork, an award more elusive to musicians in the 2010s than the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and the National Medal of Freedom. While artists like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, and Bob Dylan won honors in the latter categories during that time, Kanye West is the only musician who received a perfect score this decade from the critical website for a new studio album. It may seem arbitrary to point this out, but it means something. It means that according to the most influential music website in the world — or, in its words, “the most trusted voice in music” — no artist has since expressed the ethos of their moment in sound as well as Kanye did in 2010.

What My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy achieved above all else was that it was able to portray in a new way the failure of contemporary America to provide the type of life it had always seemed to promise. For Kanye, gone was the excitement of the college years, metaphor or not. Gone was the possibility of, in the words of his working title for the album, “a good ass job.” Even the violence and agony of love lost had been worked out by Kanye in 2010, processed to beautiful auto-tuned effect with 808s & Heartbreak (2008). Leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye was dealing with the emotional fallout from his mother’s death, the end of a romantic relationship, and an increasing number of public relations disasters, from his 2009 VMAs outburst during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, to a weird 4:45 AM performance at Bonnaroo in 2008, to countless industry rants on Twitter. In spite of it all, he was the most visible and successful he’d ever been. It would prove to be the perfect storm.

With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye explored a feeling he shared with many: the forlorn acceptance that the Obama administration would fall devastatingly short of the change it had guaranteed. While America was in a recession and unemployment was around 10%, politicians remained deeply committed to the protection of Wall Street bankers and continued to ignore the needs of the 99%. They ramped up the mass deportation of immigrants; drone strikes and torture overseas became normalized in American media and culture. “Obama was in office for eight years and nothing in Chicago changed,” Kanye would tweet in 2018. Today, especially in light of our current political moment, many people look back on that time as a simpler, happier one. But the truth is that nobody felt good in 2010.

His disillusionment was ours. His experience of the vacuity of the American dream was ours. Whether it was crime and violence (“All of the Lights”), wealth (“So Appalled”), the male ego (“Runaway”), or the antinomies of love itself (“Lost in the Woods”), Kanye was plugged into something fundamental about living under late capitalism. In “Power,” he summed up our frustration and ambivalence with, “The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open/ We ain’t got nothing to lose, motherfucker, we rollin’.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an arresting statement on the intertwining fates of excess and despair, success and desolation, confidence and shame. More than anything, it felt true.

Musically, the album brought Kanye’s 2000s style to its fulfillment. Tracks like “Monster” and “Power” saw his creativity reach new heights with aggressive beats, career-making features, and some of his most athletic lyricism to date, while the one-two punch of “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America” showcased a total wizardry of sampling and the repurposing and recontextualizing of that borrowed material, taking lyrics from Bon Iver and Gil Scott-Heron and offering us new ways to hear them. Across the album, he sampled Aphex Twin, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, and Smokey Robinson. “Runaway” sought to break the form of the rap song with its dramatically long (but somehow simple) ostinato keyboard hook, explicitly self-conscious lyrics, and a sprawling three-minute outro, complete with emotionally-fuelled, nearly unintelligible auto-tuned vocals.

If Kanye’s first four albums were classical exercises in modern hip-hop, his fifth was his Romantic turn. In other words, it was where he really started breaking away from the styles and techniques of idols like 2Pac, Nas, JAY-Z, and Ma$e. When My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received Pitchfork’s 10 rating, it signified a new chapter in American popular music. Kanye had rounded up aspects of indie rock, hip-hop, R&B, spoken word, and soul, put them in a box, and taken a bat to it.

As important as the album was for the development of popular music, it also represented a landmark in the category of the popular artist. What did it mean to be a pop star in 2010? What were our expectations from one, and what was their duty to us? In addition to maintaining a heavy presence in culture at large, from awards shows and magazines to social media and commercial products, we wanted the pop star to represent our own values to us in digestible ways. The pop star has always been meant to be a mirror of sorts, a thing to both aspire to and criticize; with this album, Kanye started to seem uniquely in touch with his role as such a figure. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was portentous of a class of modern musicians that would become increasingly political and reactive. All of Kanye’s music going forward would hold within it the conversation of what it meant to be a pop star in this decade. It was as if, starting here, he was working to not only fulfill the category of the pop star, but also destroy it.


II. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received many accolades, including winning Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song (“All of the Lights”), and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (with Rihanna, Kid Cudi, and Fergie for “All of the Lights”). Kanye also won Best Rap Performance with JAY-Z for “Otis” (from 2011’s Watch the Throne). It was an unprecedented level of exposure for the musician, who, a contrarian through and through, would take a violent left turn for the album’s follow-up. To begin, he left America and went to France.

“I lived in Paris in this loft space and recorded in my living room,” he told Jon Carmanica at The New York Times in 2013. “And it just had the worst acoustics possible, but also the songs had to be super simple, because if you turned up some complicated sound and a track with too much bass, it’s not going to work in that space.” He went on to talk about how he was inspired by minimalism and the Louvre. He was moved by the work of Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier. “This one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration,” he told Carmanica. The music promised to be more personal and more conceptual. Collaborations for his next album would include a mix of electronic, avant-garde, and indie artists, young hip-hop underdogs, and veteran producers: Daft Punk, Arca, Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, Chief Keef, Charlie Wilson, Travis Scott, Mike Dean, Hudson Mohawke, and more. After a whiplash series of sessions with Def Jam Recordings sorcerer Rick Rubin in the week before its release, Kanye dropped Yeezus on June 18, 2013.

With album art consisting of a clear jewel box adorned only with a single strip of red tape, showing a silver CD inside, the album alluded to its own sparseness before the listener even hit play. The opening seconds of the album’s first track, “On Sight,” saw flailing, detuned synths spiraling quicker and quicker out of control, eventually settling into a horrifically gnarly beat. It was a violent moment for Kanye’s fans. “Yeezy season approachin’,” he started. “Fuck whatever y’all been hearin’/ Fuck what, fuck whatever y’all been wearin’/ A monster about to come alive again.” The song, produced by Daft Punk, was an urgent, radical departure from the sound of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “How much do I not give a fuck?” he asked later in that song. “Let me show you right now, before you give it up.” The opening moments of Yeezus signalled a new Kanye to the world. The truly despairing could sense it immediately, because we can smell our own. This was the sound of someone beginning to unravel.

You know what followed. Car crashes, blowjobs, MDMA, running naked through the lobby, putting a fist in her like a civil rights sign, Michael Douglas out the car now, black dick all in your spouse again, soul mates become soulless, all that cocaine on the table, you can’t snort that, doing 500 I’m out of the control. There’s an immense amount of violence, drugs, destruction, and straight-up fucking on this album, whose themes of doom find a perfect match in the skeletal, bombastic musical frame they overlay. But it wasn’t only doom and gloom — there was some hope, right at the end, in the form of “Bound 2,” a loving and explicit tribute to his then girlfriend, Kim Kardashian.

Kanye has always been sensitive to the pitfalls of success, but Yeezus was where we really started to see it unfold. From the album’s art to its sound and lyrics, Kanye was reacting to the feeling that he’d become a commodity, a thing, a character in the news, consumable in the same way that a TV show, a pair of shoes, or an Instagram story is. Yeezus dealt with both Kanye’s specific experience in the world and his attempts to subvert the commercial aspects of his work. Something about the success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had pissed him off and left him feeling lonely and destructive — it’s in the DNA of Yeezus. If everybody liked My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, something about it must have been false.

“As soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” Kanye rapped on “I Am A God.” If there’s any line in Yeezus that looms over the whole album, it’s probably that one. With Yeezus, Kanye wanted to press our idea of him as a pop star into new territory. He wanted to make us unlike him. It backfired. We liked him even more.


III. John Coltrane’s last few albums were really out there, especially everything after A Love Supreme (1964). The following year’s Ascension was a cacophony of broken melodies and wacked-out polyphony, while the same year’s chaotic Meditations saw the almost total disintegration of composition. It was the sound of a jazz orchestra out to sea, and the man who should have been steering it to cohesion was in fact the one charting increasingly treacherous courses, as he found, more and more, that the bebop-rooted styles of albums like My Favorite Things (1961), Ballads (1963), and Crescent (1964) were no longer appropriate for what he needed to express.

As Coltrane’s spiritual turn continued to amp up, his crew started to drop out. By 1967, Coltrane’s last year on earth, only drummer Rashied Ali remained in the studio with him. Together, they recorded Interstellar Space, which felt like free-jazz, but a free-jazz deconstructed beyond any functionality at all. The gestures of jazz — swing, rhythm, syncopation, harmony — felt all but gone; in their place, endless improvised melody and permanent drum solo. It was the popular version of a controlled, Wagnerian pressing of everything to its natural extreme. Fifteen years earlier, John Cage reached a similar conclusion about music and wrote a score with no musical notes in it at all (4’33”); here was the jazz musician, taking the louder route. The album felt like Coltrane lifting his fists to the cosmos and yelling, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore!” And what was left to do? Modal jazz had appeared to make teleological chord progressions obsolete, but Ornette Coleman’s free-jazz didn’t seem to push things far enough ahead. What needed to happen was unclear, but nevertheless, many jazzers kept going. Even Miles Davis continued to experiment, but he became dissatisfied with the increasingly regressive nature of jazz, calling the 1980s neo-bop trend — a predominant style at that time — “warmed-over turkey.”

Why bring up Coltrane? Because he’s a rare example of a popular musician who pushed his form to its edge and was forced to confront the wall he hit there. Sometimes I think about where he might have gone if he’d lived beyond 1967. I’m sure many will feel differently, but to me, Interstellar Space — and Coltrane’s death after recording it — basically represents the conclusion of bebop — via hard bop, modal jazz, and free-jazz — and thus a major turning point for the form. That isn’t to say that everything after it was bad; it wasn’t. But nothing after it felt as original or as extreme. I won’t say that Kanye’s follow-up to Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, was the end of rap, because it wasn’t, but it definitely represented the culmination of a crisis in Kanye’s relationship to both his own work and the musical heritage it came out of. The man had something powerful to express and was reaching the point where he could no longer find the most appropriate way to say it. There was a synthesis of idea and form that came about in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, found full voice in Yeezus, and started to rip its own seams in The Life of Pablo.

With Yeezus, Kanye had found a dissonant, personal, and hugely alienated new path forward, jettisoning the soul samples and the groovy beats, and largely trying to leave behind the radio-friendly pop hooks and the explicit social commentary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But the initial tracks Kanye recorded after Yeezus didn’t feel like the right way forward. He traded in Daft Punk and Rick Rubin for Paul McCartney, recording the soulful “Only One” and “All Day,” the latter of which felt like a Watch the Throne leftover that he saved for himself; meanwhile, the folky (and super catchy) Rihanna- and McCartney-featuring “FourFiveSeconds” felt like a step backwards toward radio play and Billboard charts, where, naturally, it was immensely successful. But none of those tracks bore anything of the growing heaviness of what it meant to be Kanye West. And perhaps he knew it, because none of those songs were put on The Life of Pablo. On January 8, 2016, he unveiled the first official taste of his Yeezus follow-up with “Real Friends,” a devastatingly melancholy song about the loneliness that came with his growing success. “Guess I get what I deserve, don’t I?” he asked, reflecting on both his own selfishness and that of his family members and friends. More money, more problems.

As Kanye was wont to do, he started drumming up attention by acting out on social media and in public — this has always been his unique advertising technique going into a new album, one where excitement and anxiety converge into a destructive force possible only in the age of the internet. He tweeted “Bill Cosby Innocent !!!!!!!!!!” He got into a Twitter feud with Wiz Khalifa after Khalifa insulted his use of the word “waves” on the album; Khalifa’s girlfriend and Kanye’s ex Amber Rose responded, “Are u mad I’m not around to play in ur asshole anymore? #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch.” Kanye got skewered online by a prude public who turned Rose’s mobilization of his sexual fetish into some kind of slam dunk on his masculinity. He brought the 2009 VMAs incident with Taylor Swift back into consciousness with his “Famous” lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous (Goddamn).” To be sure, it was aggressive.

When The Life of Pablo was released on Valentine’s Day, it saw Kanye going further into himself than ever before. In this album, he wanted us to really see him, to understand what his life had become. He showed us the true particularities of his life as a popular artist and entrepreneur, a man who had benefited from capitalism more than almost anyone, who was part of one of the most famous and profitable families on the planet, who had in fact monetized in some way most of the corners of his life. Whereas he had once advertised the frenzied passions of a life of excess, he now seemed unhappy, as if the supposed freedom achieved by his success felt insufficient and empty. Were these the values we wanted to see from our hero? Was he still someone to aspire to? And if he wasn’t, did he care that he might be starting to void his contract as a pop star?

In this album, Kanye divulged new parts of his story, from the cousin who stole his laptop and demanded $250,000 to the fact that he had been taking the antidepressant Lexapro. Politics in his music has always been woven into the narrative of his life, but by shifting the main focus of his music to his own inner life, he was actually able to offer a deeper kind of social critique; instead of talking explicitly about society and its institutions, like he did on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he mostly talked about his own day-to-day operations and how bad he felt. What made The Life of Pablo so powerful was that its political aspect came not from the angle of identity politics or class, but from the standpoint of the social activities and modes of exchange that we all participate in. He traded in the schools and jails, the presidency and the African-American experience of the 2000s for the mundanities of American life as Kanye West knew it: church, marriage, taking pills, running a company, having sex, making smoothies, staying in touch with friends, working on music, going on vacation. It was his way of commenting on the fallacy of the fantasy of capitalism and the gift-wrapping of neoliberalism, the idea that happiness is bound up with wealth and success; that anybody who works hard can raise themselves up, accumulate money, and lead a pleasant life; and that the government’s role is to facilitate this.

Dissonance in his music had reached an apex, both musically and lyrically, constantly shifting mood, tempo, mode, tone, and texture. In “FML,” anxiety about his family and success concludes with a detuned, doleful sample from Section 25’s “Hit”: “See through the veil/ And forget all your cares/ Throw them, throw them away.” The sample gives way to a distant thought in a distant key: “Ooh, life’s a feeling and/ Ooh, the body is a feeling, yeah.” One of the weirdest songs of Kanye’s career, “Freestyle 4” opens with spooky strings and a man growling, which leads to Kanye wondering what would happen if he fucked Kim on a dinner table at a Vogue party. The song ends abruptly, with everything devolving into a bizarre percussion and synth outtro that sounds like an alarm from a sci-fi film.

While the album opened with the encouraging “Ultralight Beam,” which featured gospel-tinged production, compassionate lyrics from Kanye and The-Dream, and a status-elevating contribution from Chance The Rapper, The Life of Pablo ended on a significantly darker note. “Saint Pablo,” which is probably Kanye’s most underrated song of the decade, pulled all the highs and lows of Kanye’s life into a six-minute rollercoaster of emotion. “I know I’m the most influential,” he rapped. “That Time cover was just confirmation/ This generation’s closest thing to Einstein/ So don’t worry about me, I’m fine.” But was he? Sampha’s chorus suggested otherwise: “Yeah, you’re lookin’ at the church in the night sky/ Wonderin’ whether God’s gonna say hi/ Oh, you’re lookin’ at the church in the night sky/ And you wonder where is God in your nightlife.” Kanye continued with another verse, punctuated by “I am one with the people (Real!),” which is halted by a stream of gunshots. He re-entered: “I’ve been woken from enlightened man’s dream/ Checkin’ Instagram comments to crowdsource my self-esteem.” Soon after, “I’m prayin’ a out-of-body experience will happen/ So the people can see my light/ Now it’s not just rappin’.” If Kanye ever gave us a preview of what was to come, that was it.

The album concluded with a rhapsodic set of bars from Sampha, directed at God himself, which revealed a cosmic sense of loss and a profound need to be seen. It was the most private moment in all of Kanye’s oeuvre.

Please face me when I speak/ Please say to me somethin’ before you leave/ You’ve been treatin’ me like I’m invisible/ Now I’m visible to you/ Oh, the invisible truths they sold/ I can’t quite understand the games you play/ Understand, understand, understand I’m standin’ under oath, and I promised I/ I wouldn’t fall anymore, now I’m cryin’ at the bar/ I’m wishin’ that you saw my scars, man/ I’m wishin’ that you came down here and stood by me/ And looked at me, like you knew me/ But I feel so alone/ Like I don’t know anyone except the night sky above.

In the months following the album’s release, Kanye continued working on and updating the album. He changed some lyrics to “Famous,” created a new version of “Wolves,” and then went ahead and updated most of the tracks in some way or another. He extended “30 Hours” to contain a new outro and eventually tacked on “Saint Pablo” to the end of the album. Eventually, the album had grown to a long 20 tracks. Kanye also plotted a 32-date tour, which opened in Indianapolis, Indiana on August 26, 2016. I was at that show with my friends, and it felt like we were at the center of the universe. As the tour continued, Kanye ranted from his floating stage about everything: Beyoncé, NIKE, Adidas, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, social media, and more. On November 21, he cancelled the tour and was hospitalized shortly after. His personal doctor told the police that “a patient” was suffering from “temporary psychosis as a result of sleep deprivation and dehydration,” as reported in The Los Angeles Times the following day.

The stresses outlined on The Life of Pablo and its tour — during which Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris on October 3 — had officially taken their toll. Kanye the pop star was maxed out. Being admitted for psychiatric observation at the UCLA medical center was the culmination of the unbearable weight of over a decade of success and its discontents. It was almost as if The Life of Pablo, which was filled with so much life and despair, had simply exploded. He remained in the hospital until after Thanksgiving of that year, after which point he was released, dyed his hair blonde, and met the President-elect of the United States at Trump Tower in New York City.


IV. When Kanye had a meeting and a photo op with Donald Trump on December 13, 2016, it started a new chapter in both his life and our understanding of his life. If he hadn’t predicted this in the business-obsessed lyrics of The Life of Pablo, which referenced everyone from Larry Jackson and Tim Cook to Don C and Louis Vuitton, he certainly did in “So Appalled” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy six years earlier with “I’m so appalled, Spalding ball/ Balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y’all,” a valorization veiled as an insult. At a time when Kanye’s entrepreneurial conquests were starting to expand — Adidas’s Yeezy Season 1 had been released the previous year — the rapper had shown in his music and interviews that he was moved and inspired by successful business owners as much as he was by other musicians. Perhaps even more so at this point. Trump was culturally known as a successful businessman and had just been elected as the President of the United States without one shred of political experience. And on top of that, he did it while standing against things that many Americans were committed to, like progressive environmental policies, open borders, and the Affordable Care Act. Trump was hated by much of the country and most of the media, but he still won the election. Why?

Kanye never really supported Trump’s policies, even when he said he would have voted for him if he’d voted. “The Ye version is maybe the Trump campaign and the Bernie Sanders principles,” he said in a lengthy video interview with Charlamagne. “That would be my mix and stuff. But I think both are needed.” Kanye was attracted to the fact that a cultural and economic figure that everyone seemed to hate could not only be successful, but could hold the most powerful position in the world: Commander in Chief, which is the government version of a CEO. For Kanye and over 62 million other people, Trump in 2016 appeared to be a force coming to change the status quo; to create jobs; to continue Obama’s initiative to strengthen the border; to further the welfare reforms supported by Clinton in the 1990s, Bush in the 2000s, and Obama in the 2010s; and to stand against the growing tendencies of identity politics.

At that time, almost 5% of the country was unemployed, or around 7.8 million people. Americans in general were unhappy in 2016, and Trump appealed to something in a lot of them — they believed he could change it. While Kanye obviously had employment, accumulated wealth, healthcare, and other things people need to survive, many didn’t. They felt Trump could give that to them. So he won the election, and that was extremely powerful for Kanye.

The more support Kanye voiced for Trump, the more people began to hate Kanye. The rapper took most of 2017 off, but came back strong in the spring of 2018. He called Trump his “brother in dragon energy” on Twitter and started associating with conservatives like Candace Owens. He recorded a weird song with T.I., a conversation where he tried to explain his support of Trump to the “Whatever You Like” rapper. “I know Obama was heaven sent/ But ever since Trump won, it proved that I could be president,” Kanye said in the song. He went on to challenge the idea that all African-Americans should be Democrats. He likened his newfound “conservatism” to his attempt to bridge political lines, “Like a gang truce, the first Blood to shake a Crip’s hand.” He questioned T.I.: “Is it better if I rap about crack? Huh? ‘Cause it’s cultural?/ Or how about I’ma shoot you? Or fuck your bitch?”

The song was ultimately a joke, but it was precursor to one of the biggest work pushes of Kanye’s career. That spring, he moved to Wyoming and produced five albums for his label, G.O.O.D. Music: Pusha T’s Daytona, Nas’s Nasir, Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E., his own ye, and a collaborative, self-titled album with Kid Cudi as Kids See Ghosts. The albums were relatively well-received, especially Pusha T’s, which was considered by many to be a career high for the Clipse rapper.

I reviewed ye for Tiny Mix Tapes and won’t repeat much of it here; instead, I’ll talk about how it has aged. When it came out, I gave the album a high score. At the time, I felt that it was a bold exploration of Kanye’s psyche, a rich immersion into his experience of the Other. I still think that’s somewhat right, but I’ve also come to see the album as a misfire, though a necessary one. Its production is excellent, and it contains powerful imagery and experiences from Kanye regarding the state of his family and mental health — he used the album’s cover art to announce his bi-polar diagnosis — but in the end, ye failed to address the formal and stylistic crises that the musician had arrived at in The Life of Pablo. ye was an opportunity for Kanye to figure out how to move forward. Could he continue working in the old ways, with the old team? Could he continue filling his beats with dark narrations of his own life? Was impeccable production — and ye has that — enough to make a song? Did it really express his struggle?

Because of Kanye’s support of Trump and his comments about slavery on TMZ — “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” — even more people were turning on him, yielding calls of cancellation from many fans, as well as a number of hateful reviews of ye that never moved beyond an aversion to his “politics.” They were right to be skeptical of the album, but they were skeptical for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, ye didn’t move Kanye’s project forward, nor did it really evidence new moves in his self-critique as a pop artist — something that he’d done with every previous record. ye shows now that Kanye really didn’t know how to move forward from The Life of Pablo.

But his attempts accelerated nonetheless. Toward the end of the year, he announced that an album called Yandhi would be released on September 29. It never appeared. Kim Kardashian then tweeted that the album would actually be coming out on November 23, Black Friday. Talking to TMZ shortly after, Kanye said he was going to Africa to record more of the album. Black Friday came and went without Yandhi surfacing.


V. At the beginning of 2019, Kanye became increasingly devoted to his Christianity. He began the Sunday Service, a weekly worship event that featured new and old music, sermons, and guest musicians. Over the course of the year, the group would perform everywhere from L.A. to New York, with special events at Coachella, in Detroit and Chicago, and more. On August 29, 2019, Kim Kardashaian posted a photo on Instagram with a tracklisting for an album called Jesus Is King, which would ostensibly be released on September 27. Questions about Yandhi resurfaced, with fans wondering whether they were now waiting for two different albums or whether Jesus Is King was just a different appearance of Yandhi. And when Kanye missed the release date, people were enraged; providing no updates about the album, Kanye suffered a further hemorrhaging of his fan base.

Then, versions of Yandhi, which had slowly started to appear online, began popping up more frequently. Fans shared leaked versions of the album, some of which even appeared on Spotify and YouTube. Its tracklist changed occasionally, eventually settling around nine songs. Different versions of the Jesus Is King tracklist floated around the internet as well, with rumors that some Yandhi songs would be remade for Jesus Is King. I’m not sure what the official final state of Yandhi was, but the last version I heard was pretty bad. Thematically, it was all over the place, and musically, it felt regressive, a deepening of the issues present in ye. XXXTentacion, who had been murdered the year before, appeared on the album in “The Storm,” and his work there was weak. “New Body” was a long work in progress, with Nicki Minaj purportedly recording new bars well into the fall of 2019. “Chakras,” which featured magnificent, Yeezus-level production and saw a totally unhinged Kanye, was the sole great song from Yandhi.

Ultimately, though, Yandhi was minor. Kanye must have felt like this too, because he never released the album. Shortly after the final version of Yandhi, Kanye tweeted that Jesus Is King would be released on October 25 and would be accompanied by a film of the same title. This time, it actually came out.

The Christian-themed music of Jesus Is King was part of an attempt to grapple with the stylistic impasse that Kanye had been dealing with since The Life of Pablo. ye and Yandhi had proven that the rapper could no longer work as effectively in the same artistic paradigm as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, and The Life of Pablo, and his Sunday Services showed that the life that needed to be expressed in 2019 was thoroughly different than the one he had been leading during those albums. Furthermore, he had exhausted those methods of production and had expressed those dissonances to the best of his ability. The answer to the question of what was to be done was essentially to leave rap behind, take up gospel, and compose a post-rap album.

It was a genius turn. “Everybody wanted Yandhi/ Then Jesus Christ did the laundry,” he rapped in “Selah.” This lyric holds the key to Kanye’s stylistic revolution: in having Christianity take the place of the bourgeois topics of his last four albums, he effectively found a vessel to actually push his work forward. Kanye could not escape the ills of late capitalism, but Jesus Is King proved that he could find a new way to express them.

In this album, Christianity is hugely fetishized. Of course it is — Jesus Is King isn’t a true Christian album, but rather the aestheticization of performed Christianity. Kanye’s spiritual turn wasn’t private and devout, but the further mobilization and the necessary appearance of his entrepreneurial and musical pursuits. To put it another way, Jesus Is King is not an album about living a Christian life, but rather an album that provides a different way for us to examine the same psychological phenomena of late capitalism we’ve always dealt with. Repression, thought-policing, prudism, shame, and greed are all here, but where they were handled in one way on Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, discussed from the perspective of the broken individual — the character of the “entrepreneur” — and their family life, they appear here as an opposite: false purity and a devotion to God. That is to say that Kanye’s Christianity is both as real as bourgeois liberalism and as symptomatic, just a different expression of the problems in our world today. Christianity is an institution that not only hasn’t rejected Kanye, but can also forgive him for failing. One appealing aspect of Christianity is that, for better or worse, it appears concerned with the individual’s personal upbuilding and their struggle to lead a good life. It’s a logical choice for someone who has felt so deeply maligned.

In “On God,” Kanye sings, “That’s why I charge the prices that I charge/ I can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars/ No, I cannot let my family starve/ I go hard, that’s on God.” Shortly before that, “I’ve been tellin’ y’all since ‘05/ The greatest artist restin’ or alive.” A lot of this content is not new, but Kanye’s new way of situating it changes the way we hear it. The jazz-meets-rap-meets-gospel “Use This Gospel” is both a gorgeous recycling of ideas from the discarded Yandhi’s “Chakras” and proof that Kanye remains one of the best producers in the business. He not only reunites Clipse for some unusually self-conscious bars — “But who am I to judge? I’m crooked as Vegas,” Pusha T muses — but makes room for a solo by the widely (and very wrongly, in my opinion) maligned smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G. At so many points on Jesus Is King, Kanye still wants to challenge our way of seeing him and the world. As ye and Yandhi showed, that was something that could only have been done by changing his approach from the ground up.

As a pop star, Jesus Is King-era Kanye is more withholding than he’s ever been. He doesn’t give us anything that we want, whether it’s releasing music on time, beefing with other artists, committing provocative social faux pas, making club jams and radio hits, or articulating our political and social values back to us. He doesn’t curse or sing about sex anymore. The repression that was always there, sublimated caustically in his early and middle 2010s albums, has been made explicit, part of the visible fabric of his new cosmos. But he is still incredibly famous, and maintains a massive and dedicated group of fans who will not only listen to everything he does, but who, despite it all, still trust and believe in him.

The reason we continue to care about pop stars is that they’re products designed for consumption, ones that we find a special and complex kind of meaning in. Even if we don’t enjoy this or that figure, their music or films, we pay attention to them because they’re totems of the American dream, a narrative built on the idea that we ought to always strive for a more fulfilling and successful life. Although many would say that the content of that dream is superficial, focused on the accumulation of wealth and power rather than transcendental happiness (actual freedom), we are still attracted to it — it’s a sacred part of the world we live in today. Pop stars are often expected to embody the ethos of the world at any given time; they’re part of the reproduction of capital itself. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also see in them some form of our own potential.

Perhaps, then, at the end of the day, what we love about our pop stars aren’t the lies they feed us, but the small shreds of truth that we sense in them and their work. If Kanye has failed to uphold his end of the popular artist contract, maybe the problem isn’t as much with him as it is with what we desire from pop stars in the first place.

Jesus Is King isn’t the direct critique of 2000s and 2010s politics and culture that Kanye’s earlier albums were; rather, it’s an attempted self-critique by a pop star confronting the truth: that it is impossible to make music the same way we did 10 years ago. It’s a tour de force vision of what a different kind of popular music could sound like. This isn’t to say that everyone should start making albums like Jesus Is King, but it is to say that the album shows that it’s possible for us to be different than we are. At minimum, Kanye’s most recent album has produced a new dialectical evolution in his work and therefore a new crisis to deal with. Kanye has not lost his way, it’s just that his path has divulged from itself so many times that most of us have lost the patience to continue following. And rightly so, for what other popular artist has prepared us to deal with something like this? Who else has offered such a deep, continuous interrogation of what’s still at stake in popular music?

At the end of 2019, Kanye has come full circle, going into the next decade with the same question he entered this one with: What, really, is left to do? We would be smart to listen for his next answer.

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series


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