Kanye West shook up many of his pop star colleagues and many fans by going very public on Twitter in April with enthusiastic support of President Donald Trump, symbolized by photos of West wearing a MAGA hat. West didn't say much about policy, merely that he loved his "brother" Trump and was attracted to his "Dragon energy", by which West seemed to mean his glamour, swagger, and power, the sheer unlikelihood of his bold rise to the presidency when everyone thought it was impossible at first.
The only part of that controversial tweetstorm that seemed to have any particular ideological edge was one reading merely that "I love the way Candace Owens thinks."
Owens is a black conservative YouTube celebrity who promotes the idea that blacks who complain about racism keeping them down are allowing themselves to be trapped on a Democratic Party/liberal plantation. Kanye has begun hanging out with her in public. Owens was present at the industry listening party for the release last week of his new EP Ye, and she seemed to be acting as his political spokeswoman.
Owens now sees the out-of-the-box huge public interest in Ye as a sign that the world is embracing freedom from anti-conservative political correctness, tweeting:
You deserve it.
The mob can longer dictate who we are allowed to love.
We are free. https://t.co/0gTAXHzrms
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) June 4, 2018
Kanye follows only three people on Twitter: his wife Kim Kardashian, Owens, and Parkland survivor and anti-gun activist Emma Gonzalez.
Gonzalez complicates the notion that wearing a MAGA hat means Kanye supports every policy of Trump or the Republican Party. It's a complication that West surely intends. After the controversy over his love for Trump broke, West rush-released a rough, revelatory debate track, "Ye v. the People," which was not included on Ye. On that track, West said he believes he's shifting the hermeneutics of MAGA: "Actually, wearin' the hat'll show people that we equal….Make America Great Again had a negative perception. I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction/Added empathy, care and love and affection."
Owens is delighted that America's pop music audience still craves Kanye's music. The tweet she embedded had a link showing that within two days of its release, all seven of Ye's tracks topped the charts on both iTunes and Spotify. Billboard reports that this week Ye, like every West album after his debut, will be debuting at number one.
This means at the very least, as Owens tweeted, that Kanye has not lost much in the way of audience for daring to admire Trump. Ye will likely have a first week with 175,000 "album equivalent units" (AEU) compared to the 94,000 of his previous 2016 LP The Life of Pablo. Since Pablo's first official week on Billboard did not reflect the many hundreds of thousands of downloads he got on streaming service Tidal in the first two months of its release, West isn't nearly doubling his first-week audience from that album to Ye; his quarter million Tidal downloads in week one would have amounted to around 166,000 AEUs.
But Kanye's post-MAGA controversy clearly isn't diminishing public interest in his music in any noticeable way.
It's hard to be sure that Kanye has attracted a huge new audience of Trumpsters curious about this controversial pop icon who is now on their side, but it certainly seems likely he's attracted some at least.
What might people without a deep knowledge of Kanye be getting if Ye is their introduction? Is the man who rapped of himself in 2013's "I Am A God," "Soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you/'Cause kissing people's ass is so unlike you?" going out of his way to reach out to MAGA-ites?
Well, Ye begins with the unbelievably raw and admission-against-interest honest "I Thought About Killing You." In that track the always extraordinarily self-aware Kanye lets us, and the unnamed loved one he's speaking to/of, know that he had genuinely murderous thoughts about her. Further, although he loves her, he loves himself more (and he's thought of killing himself too, so that's no comfort).
West is consistently his own smartest commentator and critic. Here he's meta-intelligent enough to say out loud that he knows he ought to say something to ameliorate the harshness of that admission, perhaps vulnerably complaining that he has trouble loving himself. Alas, he admits that wouldn't be true.
The admission is there, first thing: He's a man with a dark and troubled mind, he refuses to seek sympathy for it, and he wants that to frame your understanding of everything that follows.
Nor does he do much explain what his MAGA love is all about, though in an album that he claims to have made entirely in the past month—and not finished until literally the day of release—he alludes to the controversy in various ways.
For example, in "All Mine," West drops Trump-era references to Stormy Daniels, using her in a perhaps Trump-defending way to say that even if he had a woman as great as Naomi Campbell he could still imagine himself wanting Stormy Daniels.
And in "Yikes," a song rooted in his shifting attitudes toward his own mental problems, he mentions going to North Korea as something wildly improbable he might do, analogous to getting together for a smoke with Wiz Khalifa with whom he's been publicly feuding (as have Trump and Kim Jong Un?).
The general sound and feel of Ye, even when touching on the sonic pleasures of old soul vocal pop, is generally hazy, dreamy, laid back and opiated in the same way his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounded coked up. Even what could be declarations of sunshiney joy like "Ghost Town"'s "nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free/We're still the kids we used to be" feel ironically fuzzed-out, more druggy than genuinely youthfully exuberant, even delivered by young guest rapper 070 Shake.
On the conservative tip, some Ye lyrics do touch on some classic pro-family themes. On "Wouldn't Leave," he praises his wife for choosing to stick with him even as his Trump-friendly public declarations apparently made her feel scared he was destroying their public image and eventually their fortune.
The last track, "Violent Crimes," is mostly about how a man who used to feel free to use and disrespect women changes once he has daughters (West has two). Such a man, Kanye says, starts seeing "women as something to nurture" and worries about how pervs on the internet will treat them, hoping they want to pursue piano and karate more than yoga and Pilates. That should appeal to a social movement that cheers images of men holding guns in front of their daughters and their dates.
The notion that Christian Americans in the Trump age get upset about propriety sexual or otherwise is outdated, so it's unlikely the frequent (but not as frequent as in the past) references to sex and drugs on the EP will turn off a MAGA audience. The closest Kanye gets to really trying to explain any of his MAGA turn, however, comes on "Wouldn't Leave." On that song, he notes that when he said "Slavery's a choice," people replied "Why Ye?" but "just imagine if they caught me on a wild day." In other words, he's saying that he can be out of line, that he knows it, and that his concerned fans should realize it could have been, and perhaps someday will be, worse.
A general sense he's aware he comes across as a loon suffuses the record. As "Ghost Town" puts it, "been trying to make you love me/but everything I try just takes you further from me." In "Wouldn't Leave" he grants that when he thinks he's being next-level futuristic he might just come across as an outmoded greedy bougie businessman: "You want me workin' on my messagin'/When I'm thinkin' like George Jetson/But soundin' like George Jefferson."
I'm pretty sure Candace Owens was wrong to believe that two months ago no one could be pro-Trump and top the pop charts. But it is undeniable that after Kanye, already a pop star with a very bad reputation as an arrogant loon, made himself famous for his somewhat vague support of Trump, he held his audience.
It is also true that Kanye continues on this record to be Kanye, a pop futurist and brilliantly self-revelatory writer working out his own issues and attitudes toward life and fame in public in irresistibly compelling ways that are definitely not designed to generate easy affection. For all his surface self-love, his writing has always shown a man haunted by demons; he doesn't want us to casually pat him on the head. He fights for the public's attention and love but he never makes it easy for himself or his listeners.
Kanye's ambiguity about his policy preferences is no more clear after this record. That lack of clarity continues to make it tricky to declare what his decision to go all in on Trump should mean to his fans—or what it means to him.
Trump for his part has already shown some signs of what Kanye means to him, believing the support of West and Kardashian is helping him with black voters and reports indicate they might influence a very much-deserved presidential pardon to Alice Johnson, a great-grandmother in jail for life on drug charges.
But the Trump controversy hasn't harmed West's ability to make an endlessly compelling record about what all his records are about: what it's like to be Kanye West.