Kanye West & Ty Dolla $ign: VULTURES 1

It’s fitting that the Yeezus album cover is a blank CD. It marked the end of an era in which Kanye West’s creative process was governed by the requirements of mass-producing a consumer good. Over the first decade of his career—culminating with that album in 2013—West was frequently divisive for reasons both musical and non-, but enjoyed an unbroken deluge of critical adoration. His grip on the culture began to loosen, however, right around the time paid streaming platforms collapsed the amount of time required to prepare a finished record for release to virtually nothing.

Beginning with 2016’s The Life of Pablo, West’s albums have evidently become the products of frantic bursts of writing and recording. Twitter and Instagram document rappers and producers flying to meet West at the 11th hour or emailing songs back and forth; tracklists are adjusted after the files are uploaded to DSPs; things never really cohere. For example, 2021’s sprawling Donda circles a fascinating musical idea (the collision of gospel and digital, as distilled in the moment in “Hurricane” when a choir is cut off as if on a sampler) that would perfectly complement its lyrical concerns. But the album is too rushed and overstuffed to consistently articulate it.

VULTURES 1—his collaborative album with Ty Dolla $ign—arrives at the end of a second, far more fraught decade for West. As the long, considered processes that yielded the songs on 2005’s Late Registration and 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy disappeared, he began instead to draw attention for saying things like “slavery was a choice” and then apologizing; for making antisemitic remarks and then apologizing; for cozying up to Donald Trump and then apologizing—and then, on Monday, endorsing Trump for the 2024 presidential election. He has communicated erratically about his struggles with mental health, about his divorce from Kim Kardashian, and about those who have abandoned him and those who have, by God, remained loyal. Each new controversy frequently overshadowed the music he was trying to intermittently promote.

In light of all this, VULTURES sounds almost disorientingly complete. The mix is crisp and it bears mentioning that there are no mumbled reference tracks. This is a value-neutral observation—some of the most interesting work from the second half of West’s career is unfinished, or sounds like it—but it gets at one of the most confusing aspects of the last few Kanye West albums: that the apparently unedited vocals of a person closely covered by tabloids have come to sound less distinct, occasionally even anonymous. Recall Ghana/Mali, Dior Homme, “These the Red Octobers.” Frequently, on 2018’s ye and on Donda, West sounded like an actor rehearsing his lines, only hinting at the way he would emote when the camera was turned on.

There are no such loose ends here. VULTURES is filled with moments where West breaks into his airy, endearing singing voice—an ideal counterpoint to Ty’s delivery which sounds, as ever, like silk and sandpaper at once. The Donna Summer-sampling “Good (Don’t Die)” is a worthy spiritual sequel to 808s and Heartbreaks’ pleading “Street Lights”; the lilt he adopts on opener “Stars” is at wonderful odds with that song’s martial drums.

And when he raps, West is perhaps more technically precise than he has ever been. If you were to strip the timbre from his voice, or place the waveforms of his verses on a 4/4 grid, you might conclude that he’s significantly improved as an MC. But save for the nimble “Burn,” there is a confusing flatness to his verses that exacerbates (or is exacerbated by) the sameness of the writing. The opening bars of his verse on “Do It” (“You don’t like it? That’s your loss/Your opinion don’t change the show cost/Let me know what these hoes cost/I ain’t finna pay the whole cost”) could have been written by any of the dozens of people who presumably shuffled through West’s famously collaborative recording sessions. Where other rappers once provided him with frameworks for songs that would become deeply personal—“Jesus Walks,” after all, was originally a Rhymefest song—many of these are unmistakably off-the-rack. The generous reading of this dynamic would see the songs as genre studies, West trying on different styles without imposing himself on them. But by the time, on “Fuk Sumn,” he raps, “This the real, not a version,” that argument has already been lost.

There is not one verse from West on this album that distinguishes itself as the best part of its song. But there are far worse things to be drowned out by. With the exception of the truly terrible “Problematic,” the beats on VULTURES are mesmerizing, rhythmically complex, a little industrial. “Paid,” with its steady pulse, somehow manages to be both cathartic and foreboding; the Playboi Carti- and Rich the Kid-featuring “Carnival” is titanic but wobbles just enough. Even when there is no laundering of influences—the Brazilian funk of “Paperwork” suggests little beyond the vague idea that he should dabble in Brazilian funk—there is enough commitment behind the boards to sell nearly anything.

Despite those varied textures and that breathless pacing, the writing on any given song, and certainly on the album when considered as a whole, is shapeless, indistinct, and nearly interchangeable. Put another way: VULTURES is pretty forgettable. The raps about money sound exhausted, and the ones about sex—such a constant focus as to be nearly pathological—ultimately sterile.

I am not typing this with a backpack on. I am not. This is a problem not of morality, or even political consciousness, but of style: Yeezus is just as fixated on sex, but treats it as an alien force lurking just beneath domestic life, ready to swallow it whole. On VULTURES it’s rote. It wouldn’t do any good to pick lyrics out of context to make a point about the album’s shallowness; it’s impossible to prove that West’s old notions of sexuality are completely absent. But consider that the moment on “Hoodrat” when he raps, “I hit it from the back/Whore, whore” is not presented with any real anger, contrition, sensuality, or wit. It’s just sort of something he says, in the way that lapses into incredibly obvious samples (“Back That Azz Up,” “Can It All Be So Simple”) scan as stunts without a hint of recontextualization or subversion.

There is an uncanny, even hollow air to the album. It can feel a bit like watching a Super Bowl commercial: the budget is all there on the screen, the lighting and set dressing and sound design just so, but you can’t shake the nagging sense that there is no center, just a clot of references without a referent. Whatever moments of exuberance or inspiration slip through are drowned out by the din of professionalism.

A little over a decade ago—the exact midpoint between The College Dropout and VULTURES—West was wandering through a Rick Owens exhibit in Switzerland when he was moved to play the then-unreleased Yeezus for a crowd of people. Before he triggered the album from his laptop, he recounted to the audience his realization, as a young man, that his primary role as an artist would be that of the interpreter. “I found that when I would drop samples, my friends would react to it more” than to original music, he said. He compared himself to Warhol; he joked about how skeptical, racist gallery crowds might scoff at “a Black guy” invoking “the most obvious artist in the world.” For nearly the entirety of his career, West has twisted raw material from his subconscious and the world outside alike into singular records. VULTURES is a supremely competent album dotted by beats that are truly irresistible; it also feels, for the first time in West’s career, profoundly cynical, as if he’s prodding your brain stem with a surgical instrument, hoping to elicit the basest reaction: How about there?