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In Defense of Kanye West’s 2015

Last night, the rapidly approaching February 11 release date for Kanye West’s long-awaited Swish album finally felt real, when ‘Ye tweeted a pic of the album’s ten-track running order. As curious as some of the titles were — yes, there’ll actually be a song called “FML” on there — the track list was more conspicuous for what it lacked, which was just about anything the rapper released in 2015. Of the half-dozen or so songs the rapper debuted since New Year’s Eve 2014 — up to the disquieting anti-Nike screed “FACTS,” dropped on NYE ’15 — only the Sia-featuring “Wolves” (which West performed at the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special but never officially released) and the Fashion Week-premiered “Fade” made the cut for his LP proper.

The snub of those songs, particularly the Paul McCartney-assisted trilogy of “Only One,” “FourFiveSeconds,” and “All Day,” seems to end a chapter of Kanye’s career that most fans would probably glaze over in his autobiography. Though each arrived with a great deal of buzz — Kanye was promising “All Day” as far back as a July 2014 GQ interview — reception to the tracks was underwhelming. “Only One” and “All Day” both debuted in the Top 40 of Billboard‘s Hot 100, but failed to catch on with radio and quickly plummeted. “FourFiveSeconds,” which also featured Rihanna and may be featured on her even-longer-delayed Anti album, fared better, but a No. 4 chart peak for a collaboration between three artists with a combined 26 No.1 hits (not even counting the Beatles) has to be considered a disappointment. Feedback from critics was similarly lukewarm, to the point that Pitchfork‘s Jayson Greene predicted that, for the first time in his career, Kanye’s upcoming album would brick.

This all stands in stark contrast, of course, to the reception of two 2016 tracks that do appear to have made it onto Swish: “Real Friends” and the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “No More Parties in L.A.” Whereas a couple of West’s collaborations with his new septuagenarian soulmate showcased the rapper moving into a musically tamer, lyrically emotive stage of his career — Kanye the Singer-Songwriter, essentially — these tracks found ‘Ye in much more comfortable territory, waxing about petty slights and personal indulgences over soul-jacked beats, helmed by Boi 1da and Madlib, respectively. Unsurprisingly, fans and tastemakers have responded to the pair of songs — delivered as part of a nostalgia-courting G.O.O.D. Fridays reboot — with a deep exhale. “Guys, Old-School Kanye West Is Back and His New Song Is Amazing,” raved the headline to GQ‘s post about “Friends,” while Pitchfork shouted out “Parties” for having “air of the unfiltered rawness of ‘old Kanye.'”

The KANYE BACK narrative is certainly understandable — 2010-era Kanye West is something just about any music fan under the age of 40 will have a soft spot for, and you’d have to be downright un-American to see the names Kanye, Kendrick, and Madlib in the same musical credits and not get at least a little bit tingly. But there’s a staidness to the way ‘Ye’s fans are happily closing the books on his confusing 2015 in favor of a more throwback 2016 that I find a little discomfiting. One of the bedrocks of Kanye’s artistic reputation is that he’s never made the same album twice, following the Auto-Tuned wallowing of 808s & Heartbreak with the haunted-house soul of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and following Fantasy with the metallic fury of Yeezus. Per usual, fans had no clue what West could possibly do to follow up the latter, but that very fact was the biggest rush of all — the fact that just about everything seemed in play made the endless possibilities so exciting that the eventual answer would almost invariably end up disappointing.

Of course, the number-one hope for most Kanye fans in him following up the most lyrically and musically violent album of his career probably wasn’t him hooking up with the Cute Beatle to make a couple songs that could get played on Hot AC radio. But in a way, it was the truest Yeezy move — following his artistic muse away from the sound that drew him universal acclaim towards something totally new and unexpected. “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds” were just as challenging to West’s fans as “New Slaves” or “Blood on the Leaves,” but instead of asking them to accept confrontational songs with jarring hooks and maze-like structures, they asked fans to accept a mellow, middle-aged Kanye concerned with caring for his family and trying to keep a positive outlook. For the first time since at least 808s — which garnered mixed reviews upon its 2008 release, though history has since borne out its importance — it appears to have been too much of an ask for the ‘Ye faithful.

It’s not like these songs turned Kanye into Cat Stevens, though. “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds” were still profoundly weird songs, both totally beatless and the former in particular sounding more free-form than most hip-hop freestyles. The creeping fuzz-bass and inexplicably high-pitched backing vocals on “Seconds” gave the song a tension reflected brilliantly in its lyrics, and though much of the lurching, growling “All Day” felt echoed from Yeezus‘ “Black Skinhead,” the song’s most disconcerting (and memorable) moments undoubtedly came in its whistling, collapsing outro, a sequence of peerless eeriness in West’s catalog. Most importantly, all of them — particularly “Only One,” devoted to the just-born North West — felt genuine to where Kanye’s head was at in his life and his music. Personally, I would’ve found a full album of middle-aged, singer-songwriter Kanye as thrilling as any of his more artistically incendiary ideas of recent years.

As much fun as “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in L.A.” are — and yeah, they’re both among the best delayed holiday presents hip-hop fans could ask for — can you really say that either of them are all that exciting? Challenging? New? Do you feel like Kanye West is doing much to forward the musical conversation in 2016 by calling out his cousin for stealing his laptop (again) over a track he and Madlib have been working on since 2010? Fans have been through it all with Kanye over the last 15 years, but this might be the first time that it almost feels like we’re being pandered to. That doesn’t sound like the makings of the greatest album of all-time to me. Give me unpredictable, mass-infuriating, Hot AC Kanye over that any year.