By Niall Walker
‘I hate being bipolar; it’s awesome.’
Upon founding a retreat on the Stone Cliffs of Chinese Sangha, the Zen Buddhist Monk Huineng wrote that ‘In Our Mind Itself a Buddha exists / Our own Buddha is the true Buddha’.
Introspection leads to awakening. This is the core of much Buddhist thought; yet on those isolated hilly climes, environment nurtured mental sanctity too, a fact inferred in the importance Buddhists give to such retreats.
What would Huineng make of the surroundings Kanye West finds himself in? Twitter, Kardashians, Trump and American racism: those emblems of the present are nowhere more intersected than in his celebrity. They are modernity’s fog, in which the clarity of one’s own personal Buddha is particularly prone to be lost in the clouds.
The artist, however, is on a path to self-discovery on his new semi-eponymous album, Ye. Autobiography is a tumultuous road to choose for an identity as fragmented as the one wrestled with here. The album’s cover includes a quote which articulates the contradictions that ‘Kanye’ as artist, icon and philosopher has come to symbolise: "I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome".
There is an honesty here, however, which attempts to speak through his many voices. "I think this is the part I’m supposed to say something good" the album's opening track muses. He doesn’t. We are left instead in discomfort as an audience, without banal chit chatty introduction as the artist tells us "Today I thought about killing you. I love myself way more than I love you, and I think about killing myself all the time."
Here is the first aspect of the artist’s ego: the homicidal, the suicidal.
Violence is a blemish too often photoshopped from the face of fame. To immediately admit its existence to the audience is shocking, but also strangely traditional in superstardom’s quest for catharsis: Marilyn Monroe, writing under pseudonym, spoke of depression and desires in her beautiful, underappreciated private poems.
Our century has churned out an updated sense of self under the spotlight. Privacy is encroached on to the point where retaining one’s demons in the shadows is no longer possible. We the audience demand 24 hour surveillance of celebrity life; yet we look for a consistent superficiality, and denounce contradictions in ways we never would were we to find them in those around us. On Ye the artist revolts, and forces us to see his ugly side.
Lost in Himself
In the ensuing period from the album’s release, West took to Jimmy Fallon to announce that ‘we are all just actors’. Here was the artist as sage, a role which he has increasingly performed recently. It is also an observation on identity which gives little regard for the possibility of authenticity.
His new album, though, seeks departure from this. It is his attempt to wrestle with and discover truths through self-reflective expression amidst a polymorphous public identity. Here, perhaps Kanye is best advised by a Taoist reflection:
“Close your mouth, Block off your senses, Blunt your sharpness, Untie your knots, Soften your glare, Settle your dust. This is your primal identity.”
At times on the album, the artist does seem to blunt his sharpness and soften his glare. Ye is replete with professions of love for his wife, and Violent Crimes includes a candid acknowledgement of how his two daughters altered his perception of women. This is the artist as the father and lover, finding fulfilment in the most 'primal' of identities.
Yet a sense of darkness, sown in the opening song, lingers even in the most consolatory corners of this album. This was a work hastily rewritten in the aftermath of Kanye’s comments on slavery and after his public support for Donald Trump, reissued on Fallon, for which he has been so condemned in the black community. Defiance swiftly turns to self-defense on Ye: he says those criticising him should’ve ‘seen me on a bad day’ and that he doesn’t "take advice from people less successful than me".
Whether that includes Eastern spiritual guides remains unclear.
Ye, then, far from enlightening us to the artist's true identity, leaves the audience where we started: listening to the many voices of Kanye. Yet the one which resonates as this 7-track comes to an end, is of a bruised ego unhumbled. Depression is a tragedy faced by a growing number of people to whom Kanye is a cultural icon. Talking through these anxieties - even if it is done on an album which will make you millions more dollars - is brave and vital. But excusing your opinions because of them brings no resolution. The narcissism of the artist is fabled. His ability to listen may be what saves him.