As much as 2015 was defined by a glut of stupid great albums, it was also defined by three big name no-shows that seemed like sure things: Frank Ocean, Rihanna, and Kanye West. Of the three, Frank Ocean is the most open and shut situation with an announcement last year slating the album for July, and then, save one cancelled appearance at FYF, nothing since. Rihanna’s ANTI seems to both exist and not exist simultaneously: one week, her camp says it’s coming any second, the next, there’s buzz about her still looking for songs. Things get weirder with Kanye and SWISH: we got three singles for a presumed promo cycle early last year, an album name change, a few songs chiefly used to soundtrack Kanye’s fashion line, and whatever you want to call “FACTS”. The blustery “it’s totally finished” hype statements from the last year clash with this “time to buckle down and work” tweet last month from Kanye, and lately I’ve been wondering:
What if Kanye just doesn’t release another album?
Okay, deep breath, because there are a few qualifiers: I’m not ruling out production jobs, guest verse features or collaborations (I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the possibility of Watch the Throne 2), or the idea that Kanye would return to albums eventually, I’m just saying what if he’s done with the “record–>single–>album–>videos–>tour–>record–>repeat” cycle? We could be waiting for a Yeezus follow up for years.
Of course, this is speculation bordering on conspiracy theory, but there’s enough evidence to make the case. You listen to 2015’s main Kanye tracks: the parental lullaby “Only One”, Rihanna featuring acoustic jam “FourFiveSeconds”, and grimy, mean-mugging “All Day”, and while they’re all great, they sound like an artist tinkering in private. Ditto for his “Say You Will” remix with Caroline Shaw, and reworked 808s shows last year; the material’s compelling, but more focused on proof-of-concept than world (or radio) domination. The three singles come and go of their own accord without a unifying energy or sound. Most of this could be applied to Rihanna’s 2015 songs, but Riri seems committed to ANTI enough that she’s going on a tour for it a tour for it at the end of next month, and an app. Kanye’s most recent SoundCloud loosie was a What a Time to Be Alive aping track with Metro Boomin, which is the very definition of fucking around.
And then, you look at Kanye’s non-musical life, and SWISH slides even further down the priority list. Most of his 2015 was spent focused on his fashion line (potential name: Dystopia By Yeezy), and, I’d presume, raising his child and preparing for his second one. He’s got a full family with obligations now, and that has to make it harder to do shit like spend a year exploring sounds with Jon Brion, workshop around the clock in Honolulu, labor away in hotel rooms across the world, or Rick Rubin guided eleventh hour sessions. For Kanye (and a lot of artists), recording an album is a life consuming experience, and when life gets in the way, well, you end up being Tyga’s executive producer while you’re waiting to hear back from the fashion team.
So, getting back to that “What if”, I think we’ll still see plenty of Kanye both as a public figure and as a featured artist, but I feel like projects where he’s leading the charge will be harder to come by. And, let’s step back for a second and appreciate the man’s 2010’s hot streak: you didn’t have to love everything on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, Cruel Summer, or Yeezus, but the fact that those projects were all in a little under four years is damn impressive. Add on the relentless work ethic before that (four albums in five years), and the man’s earned the right to take the time off, if nothing else.
But the other part of the “What If”, the argument that makes it interesting and separates Kanye from Rihanna is that his discography as it stands makes a near perfect arc. Going from the rising action of the College trilogy to crippled loss of 808s & Heartbreak to MBDTF‘s maximalist appeal to the abrasive deconstruction of Yeezus is an incredible There and Back Again, right down to closing Yeezus with the corroded take on vintage Kanye that is “Bound 2”. As he once said, the man is so self-conscious, so this arc probably hasn’t escaped him. What’s more, Kanye is pushing 40 in a scene where north of 35 qualifies you as an elder; it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t feel the need to put out another album right now. Drake, Kanye’s most direct successor, proclaimed last year if he died he’d be a legend. Ye already is.
Now, watch him drop SWISH next week.
Ed: Two days later…