Editor-in-Chief and A&E Editor
Kanye West has finally revealed an official release date for his long-awaited seventh studio album, and the hype around the announcement only solidifies the album, now called WAVES after a series of name changes, as one of the most hotly anticipated records in recent memory. West has released two new singles from the album, “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in L.A.,” that have only added to the buzz surrounding the album. The former is an introspective glimpse into his personal struggles, and the latter, featuring Kendrick Lamar, is an instantly catchy return to form that puts a laid-back Madlib beat to beautiful use. In addition to the masterful beat and an on-fire Kendrick Lamar, Kanye’s verse on the song serves as both a ridiculously quotable boast and an honest examination of his own psyche. It recalls his consistently hilarious and down-to-earth work on his first two LPs more than the messiah-complex lyrics of Yeezus.
The responses from both critics and fans to the songs have been wildly positive, and the general consensus is that both are far more inspired than the Paul McCartney-assisted singles he released in 2015, which have now been scrapped from WAVES. Still, listeners are unsure what the full album holds in store, and there are some who are skeptical about West’s return. For the past few years, his marriage to reality star Kim Kardashian and attempts to make a dent in the fashion industry have received more attention than his music. Now some are wondering if WAVES can be the magnum opus that Kanye has been promising. After all, his last album, the sparse and hostile Yeezus, divided his passionate fan-base down the middle. Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from leading music critics, the album failed to meet Kanye’s commercial expectations and had the lowest opening week sales of his career. Some fans argued that in his attempts to make a bold statement, he had lost sight of what made his other albums so enjoyable.
The emotional arguments and speculation about Kanye’s releases are a testament to his status as a pop-culture icon, but they also come with a price. Any artist who reaches the level of respect and success of West will inevitably face an extreme amount of pressure, especially after a long wait. In the all-digital mixtape era of hip-hop where MCs like Future and Gucci Mane release several projects a year, the nearly three year gap in-between Yeezus and WAVES has felt like an eternity. The longer the wait, the more pressure is put on an album meeting expectations. These pressures are probably not helped by West’s hyperbolic comments on social media. One of his tweets reads, “This is not album of the year. This is album of the life.”
Long waits are not uncommon in the entertainment industry, and there have been a fair share of diminished returns in the past. Guns ‘N Roses took fifteen years to release their sixth studio album, Chinese Democracy, and the record could not live up to the expectations of fans. The Pixies took twenty-three years to release their fifth album, Indie Cindy, which received an abysmal reception. However, there are examples of a musician benefitting from some time off. Legendary R&B singer D’Angelo released Black Messiah in 2014 after fourteen years of delays and false promises. It was hailed as one of the best albums of the year and revitalized his career. Dr. Dre’s third album, Compton, is another record that found itself stuck in “development hell.” He had long been promising a new release, long-titled Detox, but the success of the new NWA biopic inspired him to jump back into the recording studio. Naturally, he faced some critics who were underwhelmed, but most fans and critics praised the album, and it has put the revolutionary producer and rapper back into the public consciousness.
It may feel silly to compare a less-than-three-year gap in albums to the monumental expectations of these releases, but Kanye has always had a knack for hyping up his projects. Outside of his comments on Twitter, he has long been saying that the new album will be his greatest statement. Plus, the constant name changes and scrapped songs have given the record an air of importance. If collaborations with Sir Paul McCartney could not make the cut, then the ten tracks that did must be perfect, right?
This is why some people are saying that WAVES is the make it or break it album for West. If an album that has taken this much creative effort turns out to be lackluster, what will it say about his career? The truth is that it will mean a lot less than people may think right now. While there have been a few hip-hop acts that have come close to having a “perfect” career, it is incredibly rare to find a rapper or producer that has not made a few artistic mistakes. When people talk about the career of Nas, his embarrassing late-90’s output is rarely mentioned. Ice Cube is widely regarded as one of the greatest MCs of all time, even if pretty much anything past The Predator is hit-or-miss. Jay-Z released a silly collaboration album with Linkin Park, and Eminem has at least ten songs that would have ended another rapper’s career. The same applies to non-rap artists as well. There has been a lot of talk about groundbreaking musician David Bowie since his death on Jan. 10, with virtually everyone recognizing him as an unstoppable creative force. What they do not talk about are the almost universally disliked records he put out in the mid-80’s. Looking back at Bowie’s career, it is easy to see that these albums are just a small part of his discography that do not take away from his other accomplishments. At the time, however, they may have felt like career-ruining mistakes to fans and critics. We as pop culture consumers have a hard time seeing the big picture when it comes to entertainment, not realizing what an album or movie truly means until decades later.
So, even if WAVES is an embarrassment on all levels, Kanye’s career will be just fine. He has been a solo artist for twelve years and a trend-setting producer for nearly twenty. It is rare for a recording act to stay relevant for over a decade in any genre of music, and even The Beatles broke up before hitting their ten-year anniversary. Decades from now, when music historians write a book about hip-hop in the new millennium, Kanye will have his own chapter even if some people do not like WAVES. After all, we forgave him for 808s and Heartbreak.