Over the weekend, Kanye West, locked in a war of his own creation with the press, his fans, each side of the culture wars and apparently, himself, released ye, his much-hyped eighth studio album. Granting the inevitable outliers on either side, with diehard fans on one end and Meaghan Garvey of that scathing Pitchfork review at the other, Andrew Gruttadaro at TheRinger captured the general consensus best: "[Ye is] an album that is both not good enough to gloss over all of the nonsense that preceded it, and not bad enough to ignore altogether."
Given West's stature as one of the most influential artists of a generation, even his half-hearted output still calls for expert dissection. Writers like The Atlantic's Hannah Giorgis broke down the "Trumpian dissonance" of West's ghoulishly pervasive 'as a father of daughters' misogyny, while others pondered whether the disappointing ending to a cataclysmic culture break like West in a MAGA hat had rendered the artist completely irrelevant.
Voyeurs (who among us...) tweeted about the ringside view West gave us to a fight with Kim Kardashian on "Wouldn't Leave," and the mental health community both invisible and active pondered the implications of the homicidal, suicidal opener "I Thought About Killing You." For a supposedly unremarkable seven-song album (which, aside from a few bright spots like 070 Shake's hook on "Ghost Town" sounds more like a compendium of the West playbook rather than the groundbreaking, sonic-shifting material we've come to expect), it sure generated a lot of conversation.
That there was so much offered up on ye to pick through at a lightning fast rate is due perhaps as much, if not more, to the method of delivery than the messaging itself. At just 23 minutes, ye is certainly West's shortest album ever. While the album length has been largely tossed aside as yet further proof of the artist's waning genius, it's also an indication of not only the times, but of a new norm for artists who want to dominate the cultural conversation the way West, for better or worse, does so well.
The Kardashians made their indelible mark on us through inescapable ubiquity, taking advantage of once-ghettoized mediums like reality TV and social media to present the illusion of an unvarnished image of total access, peak relatability and aspirational purchasing. Now West is using his own fame-as-product to play on our insatiable, base desire for controversy, custom-built for the Internet's financial model where controversy is the highest currency.
In a now viral essay for Wired, Rowland Manthorpe argued that social media has rendered professional criticism financially unviable and culturally worthless. "We have killed authority, but made nothing to put in its place," he wrote. Instead, fandom has replaced the critic, rendering nuance and uncertainty bottomless holes to crawl down only if you want to be swiftly left behind. "In this new model, there is only love, hate and aggressively nerdy detail," Manthorpe wrote, applying this lens to the video for Childish Gambino's "This Is America," which aired on SNL on Saturday night and by Monday morning had been examined, explored and investigated from every angle.
In this context, ye, which West was reportedly working on up until the day it dropped and largely addresses topics from the past few months (and even weeks and days), is ideal fuel for the machine. ye's hyper-current lyrics translate to catchy headlines that feed on and boost the traffic-driving stories editors are already churning out, making for quick content that's just incendiary enough to incite conversations in the comments.
There's enough material there for longer pieces too, as the topics West touches on — race, class, gender, mental illness, politics — are big enough that they affect us all. In this way, West has never been more like his 'Dragon Brother' Trump, who captured (part of) the public's imagination and (all of) the media's attention with strikingly similar tactics.
By bringing us a mind-bending spectacle made up of retweetable aphorisms ("remove worry") and disturbing proclamations (slavery was a choice!), West can hawk his wares of Instagram-caption lyrics and earth-toned basics from the comfort of his own Twitter page.
Though it may not happen right away — especially as musicians continue to rely on lengthy albums to satisfy the current streaming numbers system — artists may increasingly feel the need to respond to the news cycle with more timely albums (or at least singles) if they want to capture the public's darting attention. (It should be noted that hip-hop is already better suited to meet this need than any other genre).
To some extent, artists now already do that to meet the expectation from fans that they share their personal lives on Instagram and (correct and vetted) political views on Twitter. So long as they're rewarded in return with clicks that translate into bankable cash, you can be sure most will continue to play that game.
Culture evolves, norms change and rules give way. Those who are equipped to keep up will thrive, if only for a moment. But while the messaging of a (human and fallible) artist like West may eventually disappoint us, we ignore the changing state of communication at our own risk. Without the hand-holding of cultural gatekeepers and guardians, our instinct for detecting hypocrisy will only sharpen. If we can recover from our capitalistic addiction to controversy, we'll learn to take what works and leave the rest.
Some of us — most of us — are already the very "free thinkers" West so feverishly wants us to be. The insanity of our environment demands that we be clear-eyed; the anarchy of the moment calls for rationality, not idol-worship. Fresh artists, intellectuals, activists and philanthropists will rise up from all this mess to creative something even better than we imagined. Just like Kanye once did.