January 3, 2017

Art by Jason Persse

Alex Swhear once forced Tyga to dance to “Faded” at knife point.

In 2016, shocking news seemed to trickle in slowly. Carrie Fisher being rushed to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on December 23 didn’t mean that Princess Leia was gone; Fisher’s passing four days later did. The avalanche of last-minute Brexit polls showing a tight race between Remain and Leave didn’t make “Leave” a reality; the final referendum results on June 23 did. Donald Trump with a slight lead in Florida early in the night didn’t mean he was going to become POTUS; Donald Trump with a slight lead in Michigan a few hours later did. But having the time to process a train wreck doesn’t make the results any easier to swallow.

Kanye West’s 2016 meltdown was easy to be in denial about for a while. His jaw-dropping Sacramento stunt in early November – in which he played roughly four songs, incoherently ranted for half an hour, and then left the stage – felt indefensible, but wasn’t exactly unexplored territory; Kanye has been a diva for the entire duration of his career. His embrace of Donald Trump sent ripples through the hip-hop community, but was hardly surprising (remember when he endorsed Ben Carson?). And anyway, their newfound alliance actually sort of made perfect sense. Trump and Kanye are both unwavering narcissists with penchants for shocking headlines and indifference towards public policy. I don’t think either Hillary Clinton or The Donald are intimately familiar with Kanye’s “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” outburst in a French restaurant during the opening moments of Yeezus – but I think only one of them can identify with it.

But the seriousness of the situation became clearer with the news Kanye had cancelled the remainder of the tour and been hospitalized. Little has been disclosed publicly about the nature of West’s subsequent psychiatric evaluation and recovery over Thanksgiving weekend (in the same hospital where Fisher would die a month later). It followed the October armed robbery of his wife, Kim Kardashian, which was itself followed by a social media exodus from the typically public reality show star. This has been a boon for the tabloid industry, which churns out rumor after rumor about the state of the Kardashian-West marriage.

This drama served as a fittingly chaotic conclusion to what may have been Kanye’s most turbulent year in the public eye. In retrospect, the scattershot nature of West’s seventh solo album, The Life of Pablo, released in February, feels more appropriate than it did at first glance. Indeed, if Kanye was on the verge of a breakdown, Pablo is exactly the type of album we might expect from him. In contrast to the concise, airtight Yeezus, many of the Pablo songs were jam-packed with ideas. In under four and a half minutes, “Father Stretch My Hands” alone juggles a gospel sample, launches the career of a Future clone, reminds us why we ever liked Kid Cudi, grapples with the passing of Kanye’s mother as well as his own near-death experience, and raises awareness for bleaching complications. Ambition is rarely in short supply on Kanye records, but Pablo is bursting at the seams in ways that feel unique and exciting.

While the family has sought privacy in recent weeks, they’ve hardly disappeared. Two years in a row, Kanye released songs on New Year’s Eve (in 2014, it was “Only One”, the Paul McCartney-assisted ode to his daughter; in 2015, it was the sneering “Facts”, which ultimately became the worst song on Pablo). 2016 offered round 3, with the Tyga-lead “Feel Me” (rumored to be either for Tyga’s next album, or the upcoming G.O.O.D. Music compilation Cruel Winter). “Feel Me” feels arbitrary and unsure of itself, lacking the energy and conviction of the Cruel Summer singles. For anyone familiar with Tyga, it feels like a stretch to say he impresses or disappoints here; he offers the same Tyga that’s shown up on every forgettable Tyga song for his entire career.

Kanye’s contributions are more memorable, but are not substantially better. “Feel Me” comes from the “That Part” school of Kanye guest appearances – verses where Kanye is unconcerned with crafting memorable bars, instead relying almost entirely on his personality. It can work when he properly channels his charisma (such as his remix of Beyonce’s “Ego”), but too often it means Kanye ends up raising his voice and repeating words and phrases to nominal tangible effect. Here he gets minimal mileage out of a serviceable Usher reference. Remember when he repeated the “unfollow/unswallow” line on “Wolves” multiple times, as if to make sure we all understood it? It feels like that, but at least he isn’t taking himself so seriously here.

The song is neither a home run nor a train wreck – and will probably be relegated to the deepest depths of our culture, a Tyga album – so it feels like an anticlimactic footnote to Kanye’s eventful 2016. Plenty of this was good: the aforementioned Pablo has held up well in the year since its release, securing its status as a worthy addition to his discography; the Saint Pablo Tour (before its implosion) was one of the year’s best live shows; and his wife helped him score some decisive victories in the ongoing War On Taylor Swift. But recent developments (including but not limited to Kanye’s new rainbow sherbet-inspired hair color) have been darker and more troubling. Some of Kanye’s best work has come after periods of personal trouble; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy famously mined Kanye’s self-created isolation for some of his most powerful and emotionally resonant music. Whether he can again emerge from his personal turmoil similarly empowered is one of the music world’s biggest uncertainties going into 2017.

In the closing weeks of 2016, there was a lot of grappling with why the year felt like such a gut-punch to so many. Some of this has birthed incoherent nonsense (some celebrities died, so The Year Was Bad); elsewhere, there has been sober-eyed and important analysis of how we got here and what comes next. This sort of introspection is common as a new year approaches, but this year it’s been considerably darker. The chorus of voices concerned that the worst is still to come feels louder and more assured than ever. Their confidence aside, they have no clue what comes next and neither do I. Until we find out, I’m finding comfort in the idea that in 2017, we have nowhere to go but up. That goes for Kanye, too.

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