When Kanye West declares "It's been a shaky ass year" on 2018's Ye, it's an understatement. During a tumultuous period following 2016's The Life of Pablo, he garnered as much attention for headline controversy as for his music: he was hospitalized for stress and exhaustion following the cancellation of his Saint Pablo tour, later revealing a struggle with opioid addiction, and a disastrous pre-album promotion cycle was packed with provocative political proclamations. West's world seemed to be spiraling out of control. As the lines between public life and studio recordings blurred, the two became increasingly inextricable, culminating with his complicated eighth effort, Ye. While Pablo delved into the darker corners of fame and family, Ye is messier and more uncomfortable, especially when heard in the context of his high-profile outbursts preceding its release. West places mental health at the center, complicating his usual bravado.
On the opening "I Thought About Killing You," West delivers a stream-of-consciousness confessional about morality, murder, and suicide from an imaginary therapist's office sofa. Designed to shock, it feels like an interlude, not a full-fledged song. Ye improves from there, as West switches gears on "Yikes," dropping the album's first delectable beat and matching it with an equally addictive flow. It recalls West's early spirit, an enticement for audiences to keep listening. When he boasts, "That's my bipolar shit/That's my superpower," he embraces his issues and defies challengers with self-affirmation. For all the awkward times when West forces listeners to confront his internal struggles, Ye has moments of clarity. "Ghost Town" shines, serving as an appetizer to the superior Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts that arrived the week after Ye. Along with Cudi and breakthrough newcomer 070 Shake, West offers a glimmer of hope, facing failure and reigniting optimism and personal acceptance by proclaiming, "And nothing hurts anymore/I feel kinda free." "Wouldn't Leave" is a touching ode to his wife's loyalty, while "No Mistakes" maintains tenderness, recalling early-2000s Kanye with its uplifting, old-school production. The reflective "Violent Crimes," directed toward his daughters, is an effort to atone for his past misogyny, but closes Ye with a whimper, confusing its message with a voicemail cameo from Nicki Minaj.
Ye can feel uneven, sometimes boring, and more indulgent than usual, but it's a fascinating peek into West's psyche. Like Pablo, Ye may be firmly tied to its surrounding public drama, yet it's a rough-hewn, vital piece to the puzzle for those still willing to humor West and his many demons. Pushing the mental health discussion into such a public space, he challenges listeners' limits while leaving himself vulnerable for judgment. Taken as a snapshot of his state of mind at the time -- and in relation to the adjacent GOOD Music releases recorded simultaneously during the Wyoming sessions -- Ye offers a bittersweet reflection of its creator, who is confused, searching, and at a crossroads.