In the acclaimed Annie Proulx short story—Brokeback Mountain, published by The New Yorker—the misty peaks of Wyoming are more a leitmotif than a mere locale. The love story of cowboys Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, unravelled as anyone would expect in a society and an era that saw homosexuality as an unpardonable deviancy—a “slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall”.
In the first week of June, musician Kanye West released his album Ye at Jackson Hole in Wyoming, where he had spent the past month writing the songs. The album art was a picture of the mountains that he captured on his iPhone, over which he scribbled the words: “I hate being bipolar. It is awesome.” The 23-minute set of songs were significant in more ways than one. The hip hop provocateur was caught in a political storm potent enough to end the career of a lesser artist. Perplexing most of his fraternity, West had come out in support of US President Donald Trump, posting a signed photo of a hat emblazoned with 'Make America Great Again'—his campaign slogan. Then, it took a turn for the worse. While speaking to the employees of the gossip news site TMZ at their headquarters, West claimed that “slavery was a choice”, going on to add that the black-on-black crime rates in the US were much higher than white-on-black crime rates. This resulted in a heated standoff with an employee at the organisation, the video of which later went viral.
The echoes of Brokeback Mountain in Ye were not limited to the mere physical setting. The album is a marked departure from the grandeur of his groundbreaking My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), or the grungy virtuosity of his more recent Yeezus (2013). The album was West's response to the outrage sparked by his comments, and his flood of tweets, decrying the “thought police”. In Ye, West seems strident in his non-apology to past behaviour, maintaining that his thoughts were just too individualistic, too rebellious to be palatable for the larger society—à la the love between Ennis and Jack. In the story, the spectre of violence is understated, nullified, but ever present. In the album, West hides the intensity of his thoughts behind a thin veil of disinterest and stripped down music. In the story, an atmosphere of confusion reigns when the sheep Ennis was herding gets mixed with a Chilean flock; it reflects the turmoil in the hearts of the soon-to-be-separated paramours. Similarly, the album employs visceral temporal indicators to denote schizophrenia in spirit.
The song ‘Wouldn't Leave’ makes marked references to his comments on slavery and the state of domestic affairs with his wife Kim Kardashian. “I said slavery’s a choice, they said, How, Ye?; Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day,” he raps. ‘Ghost Town’, which features John Legend, Rs 70 Shake and Kid Cudi, is one of the rare, conventionally beautiful tracks. He stretches the boundaries of societally acceptable speech in I Thought About Killing You, where he contemplates murder. “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest,” he sings. The album ends with the classic irascible Kanye touch—in ‘Violent Crimes’, he expresses a fear of his daughter North growing up into a beautiful woman, and what she might have to face. “Don't do no yoga, don't do pilates; Just play piano and stick to karate; I pray your body's draped more like mine and not like your mommy's.” This, coming from the man who tweeted support for Bill Cosby, the comedian who was charged with multiple rape accusations.
In all the four albums that West wrote or produced in the past month, Ye finds him at his most vulnerable, but most defiant. The message is clear: nobody could dictate the boundaries of his thoughts or art. As Jack Twist says in Brokeback Mountain: “Nobody's business but ours.”