Kanye West has now revealed two tracks from his upcoming album. The first is Only One, a song told from the perspective of Donda West (Kanye’s mother) that comes with a home-movie style music video. The second is Wolves, first unveiled at the Adidas fashion show in New York and then later performed at the SNL 40 celebration. The song features Chicago rapper Vic Mensa and Adelaide native Sia.
So what can these two tracks tell us about Ye’s seventh studio venture? Kanye has drastically redefined his sound many times over his career. But if you keep doing 180s, you’ll eventually end up right back where you started.
His magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy completely changed perceptions of what can be achieved with a rap album. MBDTF is an exercise in maximalism. It’s gaudy, grandiose and lauds excess. Even with its heavy use of baroque instrumentation, it’s still a true hip-hop album. So how do you buck the trend when you’ve just created the most game-changing, genre-transcending album of all time? What do you do when you’ve turned boom bap hip-hop into classical music? You follow it with Yeezus. A grimy, industrial, minimalist, dark, experimental, jarring, trap inspired mish-mash. The archetypal track is On Sight. A faulty laser beam booms on the offbeat before it’s rudely interrupted by a soulful children’s choir sample.
The two albums could not be more different in composition. Still, both are massive and both are masterpieces. So where do you go from there? “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” says Kanye. How can Ye continue to make albums so shockingly different from the one that precedes it? The answer is that he can’t.
With Kanye’s two new tracks, it looks like he’s flipped so many times, that he’s landed back exactly where he started. There’s no denying that both Only One and Wolves are most similar in sound and style to Kanye’s controversial album 808’s and Heartbreak – which directly preceded MBDTF. 808’s polarised both fans and critics. Kanye was berated for his heavy use of auto-tune; many felt that the pitch-correction barely managed to rescue Kanye’s flat singing. Others thought the robot voice was an effective symbol of Kanye’s alienation. Many felt the album’s exploration of themes of regret; loneliness and pain were refreshing in a genre known for bravado. Some felt it was sappy and whiney.
Wolves is a track that would be completely at home on 808’s. It’s got the signature auto-tune vocals and a simple beat. Using the imagery of pack pursuit by the media, it touches on the exact same themes as 808’s – depression, fear, love, and the curse of celebrity. Only One also makes heavy use of the auto-tune feature. Even going so far as to scarily auto-tune Kanye’s laugh at the start of the video clip. It’s a surprise North doesn’t bolt from her creepy cyborg dad. It’s clearly nothing like Kanye’s very early work. This is not a typical rap song. This is emotional. Feelings are mentioned. And whilst it’s definitely sonically most similar to 808’s , it be might unfair to generalise and say that it explores the exact same themes. Whilst 808’s dealt solely with melancholy, Only One does find the silver lining. It seems that Kanye has found some peace. He’s reconciled his mother’s death with the birth of his daughter. It’s possible the new album could be a lighter companion piece – 808’s and Joy.
If these two songs are anything to go by, it looks like Kanye has no intention of showing the world a brand new, radical sound. Instead he’s going to rework an earlier concept album. Making a spiritual successor to 808’s is textbook Kanye. It enables him to continue his tradition of doing U-turns on the sound of his albums. 808’s couldn’t be less similar to Yeezus. It also lets him continue his mission of controversy. 808’s was strangely received at the time; a sequel is only likely to raise more eyebrows.
Personally, I feel repeating the experiment on a new album might be misguided. On Runaway fans experienced raw vocals that were a far cry from the dehumanised auto-tune ballads of 808’s. His imperfections as a singer made the piece more powerful, as he strained to hit the notes. This was a song Kanye had to sing. Whether he was capable of it or not. Now that we’ve heard it raw on Runaway – why should we want anything less than something real and authentic? A return to auto-tune can only lead to disappointment.