“I miss the old Kanye.”
Despite the critical acclaim that Kanye West’s last three LP’s have earned, you can’t go far on any discussion of West without hearing that sentence dropped at least once. It follows every album, track, or snippet that Kanye releases, and it’s been going on for nearly eight years now. Has Kanye really fallen off so badly that he can never reach the highs of his College Dropout trilogy again?
Of course not.
No, if you ask the music critic sphere about how Kanye’s career has gone, most would tell you that he’s only improved which each new album from him. So why would there be such a desire for Kanye to de-evolve to the early stages of his career. You have to first define what exactly “Old Kanye” is to find out the answer to that.
When a fan comments or tweets about how they miss “Old Kanye”, they mean they miss Kanye the Rapper. Kanye, the guy that came out guns blazing on The College Dropout with the hottest debut since Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Kanye, the guy that took rap from early 2000 Dirty South-era lyrics about gold chains and big breasts and put “backpack-rap” into the spotlight. This was when Kanye was firmly into the camp of just hip-hop & rap, most comparable to men now like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, & Drake.
What eventually set Kanye apart from modern-day rappers was his desire to experiment. His need to constantly change up the game. Kendrick would never record an album almost entirely consisting of auto-tuned songs instead of actual raps. Drake would never make an album constantly compared to the grime and noise from something like Death Grips. And J. Cole sure as hell would never get an Album of the Year win from Pitchfork of all sites.
This leads us back to “Real Friends”, a new track in a series of tracks landing every Friday up to the release of his seventh LP, SWISH. At first, the production of Real Friends sounds like a return to the Late Registration/Graduation era of West, with bars to go along with it. The piano tones carry a refreshing and familiar sound, as if you’re in the middle of watching an old home movie close to your heart.
Warm beats and nice lyrics. Boom, Old Kanye is back, right? Not exactly.
A deeper look at Kanye’s lyrics shows that he’s taking a look back on his career, and it’s not exactly a nostalgic one. He talks about how the fame that has followed his life for nearly 15 years now that has come a hefty price, specifically his bonds of brotherhood and family. There’s an obvious exasperation at the constant asking from relatives over whether he can spare a dime to help them with their lives. A sense of annoyance towards the “How you been, pal?” calls followed up by favors asked of him. The lack of real friends he has to go with the success he’s earned is relatable to most, but it’s his severed family relationships that provide the most melancholy.
When one of your own cousins jacks your laptop and forces you to pay a quarter-million for it, who the hell can you actually trust in this world? Not many. Kanye follows up these moments with stories about how when it comes to friendship, he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain either. Remarks like “I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was, couldn’t tell you how old your son is. I got my own Jr. on the way, dawg, plus I already got one kid,” play into the image of egotism and selfishness that most view Kanye under, and it sounds like he would actually agree with them on that.
Ty Dolla $ign provides the feature on this track and a personal favorite line: “Couldn’t tell you much about the fam, though. I just showed up for the yams, though.” That’s the common message found all throughout Real Friends. Do any of us truly care about the people that we say we do? Should we even care? Is unconditional love possible anymore when money comes in-between family?
The last three Kanye LP’s define a new era of his sound. 808’s & Heartbreak was Kanye at his lowest, his most depressed. He found the best way to express himself was by vulnerable lyrics alongside R&B-esque beats, and laid the bedrock for rap in 2016 with it. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was ‘Ye at his hungriest. The one where he wanted to show everyone that he could back up every outrageous claim about himself, and he pulled it off completely. Yeezus was Kanye at his most furious. Vengeful at being rejected by the world of fashion and corporate America, so he decided to make a middle-finger of an album and shove it in the whole world’s face.
The big question surrounding SWISH isn’t whether it will actually be good, the question is what sound will SWISH provide for us? The leaked track of Wolves suggests a return to the vulnerability of 808s‘, but without any of the lush hooks. Something much more minimalist. Something far more personable than any album that West has ever released in his career.
Real Friends may not even land on the SWISH album, but that may not matter when all is said and done. Individual tracks or singles like Runaway or Black Skinhead are memorable, but they have never been what matters most. The feeling you get when you’re done listening is always the biggest part of any modern Kanye album. Sorrow. Hope. Rage. The emotion will be what matters over all else.
What exactly is the sound of SWISH? Is it even something new or is it just a return to sweet samples and flowing rhymes of College Dropout and Late Registration? Not from what Kanye has shown us so far.
The only tone that can be seen from SWISH so far is remembrance. Looking back on a long career that may be close to its final chapter.