Vultures 1 arrives, as it seems all Kanye West albums now must, late and mired and in yet more controversy, the latter now a smouldering heap of self-inflicted ill-feeling that left West without a record label, an estimated $1.5bn poorer after Adidas cut ties with him and, according to a now-deleted post on Instagram, unable to book a tour because venues have blacklisted him, all due to antisemitic comments.
Indeed, this time around, the controversy and the lateness appear to go hand in hand. Vultures’ supporting cast list underlines that there are still plenty of big names happy to be associated with him – from Playboi Carti and Travis Scott to producers Timbaland and James Blake – but at least part of the album’s failure to appear on any of the scheduled release dates seems to be linked to other artists’ refusal to give clearance for guest appearances and samples. If Nicki Minaj’s disinclination to have her feature track on the album was, she said, down to the fact that it was “three years old”, there was little doubt as to why Ozzy Osbourne wanted out. “[He’s] a disrespectful antisemite,” offered his manager/wife, Sharon. “He fucked with the wrong Jew this time … the motherfucker’s a pig.”
So, as per usual, the actual music is hard to hear over the accompanying clamour, but if you strain your ears you can make out an album that’s an improvement on 2021’s Donda. It’s still uneven in a way that occasionally makes you wonder what on earth Volumes 2 and 3 of Vultures are going to sound like: what price their contents if his big comeback finds room for stuff like the limp title track and Hoodrat, based on an initially pleasingly chaotic and relentless sample that’s allowed to ramble on well past the threshold of endurance? There are hopelessly weak verses from West – if you like feeble sex rhymes laden with unfunny puns, Vultures is very much the album for you – and the standard of his lyrics is thrown into stark relief by a exceptionally snappy guest verse from Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs on Back to Me: “Just turned a bird bitch to my ex like I was Elon,” he raps, with a distinct hint of “this is how it’s done”.
But there are more in the way of good ideas here than on its bloated and unfocused predecessor, beginning with the presence of Ty Dolla $ign, who’s both a far better vocalist than West – Glastonbury-goers may recall West’s nerve-jangling attempt to sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody sans Auto-Tune – and a unifying presence on an album that leaps wildly around stylistically, from the distorted abstractions of Paperwork to the melodically rich and hook-laden Burn, a throwback to the style that made West famous in the first place.
The presence of a track that could theoretically slot into West’s debut album underlines a feeling that flickers intermittently throughout Vultures. Its musical highlights are frequently powered by the sense that what Kanye West currently wants more than anything is a big, undeniable hit of the kind he used to make with startling regularity: perhaps to counter the prevalent narrative that his talent has waned as his notoriety has exploded in hitherto unimaginable ways, and perhaps out of the cynical but not-unfounded belief that few things cause the music industry to wipe the slate clean and let bygones be bygones quite like vast commercial success. You can hear it in Burn, the infernally catchy, Juvenile-sampling Do It and in Problematic on which Ty Dolla $ign’s vocal – lightly dusted with Auto-Tune rather than submerged in it – genuinely soars. And you can hear it in Carnival, which opens with a hook that’s evidently designed for huge crowds to bellow along to and proceeds in thrillingly epic style, assisted by a huge choral sample, and a snatch of the beat from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s Hell of a Life, another throwback to an era when West’s genius far outshone his ability to provoke outrage.
Then again, there are moments during Vultures when you wonder whether West actually wants anyone to forget the attendant controversy. The kindest interpretation of his recent actions is that he’s a desperately unwell man who’s been manipulated by some of the worst people imaginable, white supremacist Nick Fuertes among them. Another interpretation is that he’s a kind of nuclear-powered edgelord, looking to provoke a reaction, which he certainly did, one that went far beyond online outrage and led to a spike in antisemitic attacks, among them synagogues and Jewish cemeteries vandalised with the phrase “Kanye was right”.
And if you cleave to the edgelord theory, there’s plenty of evidence to support it here. The cover design may have been changed so it no longer evokes the work of reprehensible black metal band Burzum, but there’s a lot of dialling back on West’s recent apology to the Jewish community, by way of awful jokes and boasts: he can’t be antisemitic because he “just fucked a Jewish bitch” offers the title track; jokingly comparing himself to the disgraced R Kelly and Bill Cosby on Carnival; rapping “antisemite / still the king” on King. It isn’t shocking so much as profoundly depressing: the actions of a man who thinks he can get away with it because he’s made an album so unequivocally brilliant, it negates all other criticism. For all Vultures’ scattered musical high points, he’s wrong on both counts.
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