Remember when Kanye West was fun? “Man, I swear she fine, homes. / Why she always lying, though? / Telling me they diamonds / when she know they rhinestones,” he rapped on “Slow Jamz,” using the audacious slant rhymes to cut the vulnerable message. That’s the Kanye we fell in love with: the Kanye of 2004. You know — back when he was 27 years old.
Kanye turned 41 last week, and he sucks now. My evidence for this claim is ye, the new 24-minute album that was supposed to be a burst of raw creative energy and turned out to be a trickle of half-assed solipsism. Even Pitchfork gave it a 7.1. Pitchfork! It’s like your mother saying your new haircut looks expensive.
“Just say it out loud to see how it feels,” he says on “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s the album’s first track and its longest, beginning with two and a half minutes of drumless spoken word. This boring self-indulgence suggests that Kanye forgot the crucial second part: Say it out loud and see how it feels, sure, but then work on it until it feels better.
The worst thing about ye’s bullshit is that it was supposed to be the album he made by getting away from all the bullshit. For its release, he flew almost 90 celebrities, critics and radio programming executives to the Diamond Cross Ranch outside Jackson, Wyoming. Kanye has retreated to Jackson Hole often in the two years since he released The Life of Pablo, a period marked by a cancelled tour and a brief hospitalization for psychiatric observation. The listening party emphasized the remoteness, authenticity, and sheer western-ness of the location. Speakers were set up around a campfire, and the event began with a brief wood-chopping demonstration. I am not kidding.
This aesthetic is familiar to fans of Justin Timberlake, who released his own western-themed album, Man of the Woods, in February. Like Kanye, Timberlake presented his new affinity for the West as a return to a more focused creative process. The woods, wherever that is, became to him what Walden Pond was to Thoreau: a rejection of the corrupt world.
This construction of the West is both negative and ephemeral. Neither Kanye nor Timberlake seems to have permanently reinvented himself. It would be funny if Kanye stuck to the theme of his release party and became more and more country over the next few years, with his professed affinity for Donald Trump as the terrifying start. I suspect, though, that his escape to Wyoming is not an artistic turn. It seems more like a gesture of artistic seclusion. Both ye and Man of the Woods present the West as the place you go to get away from everything — a weird message for those of us who live here.
What if the rural West were not an alternative to real life but a version of it? Kanye’s trip to Wyoming to recover from his breakdown reminds us how narrow the geography of popular culture has become. There’s New York, Miami, Chicago and L.A.. Anywhere else is a vacation, remote from the things of this world.
The most embarrassing aspect of ye’s release event might be that Jackson Hole is the airport Panera of western towns. Surely it is the place in Wyoming that least resembles Wyoming. That Kanye made it a symbol of his escape from gross modernity tells us how firmly modernity has him in its grasp. I bet he could make a great album in the American West. First, though, he would have to venture out from his idea of it.