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At Ye's listening events, true believers rally around a chaotic idol

Courtesy of the artist

Midway through Vultures 1, on the bombastic "Carnival," Ye performs a miracle: "I'm the new Jesus, bitch / I turn water to Cris." After years of official releases cluttered with reference tracks and unfinished demos distributed on gimmicky rubber gadgets, everything on a Ye album, for once, feels complete. The artist's rapping sounds fresh off a firmware update, slick and swagless but coherent. Yet something is betrayed by that title, which naturally evokes rotting carcasses — body into rancid bread, life sustained by death. It's been over a decade since Yeezus; these days, those glimpses of brilliance feel more like flickering embers than glimmers of hope.

Who, in 2024, is Kanye West for? For several years now, his fanbase has seemed like a body in steady collapse, each controversial comment icing out another section of it. After the Trump endorsement, after "slavery was a choice," after the White Lives Matter shirt (remember that?), after going "death con 3" on Jews in interview after interview and after the severing of countless lucrative brand deals, the island of stragglers and true believers remains populous enough that Vultures 1 is now a No. 1 album, the 11th of Ye's career. Who are these people, really?

That's the question that brought me and a music industry friend to Long Island's UBS Arena on Friday, Feb. 9, what would be the eve of the new album's release. Outside, janitors hurriedly swept up empty glass bottles and beer cans, and somebody tried to sell me a bootleg tee with Ye's face plastered on it. It was 10 p.m. — we were technically an hour late to the Vultures NY Listening Experience, presented by Ye and Ty Dolla $ign, where the duo (billed as ¥$) would share a version of Vultures 1, the first in a series of three planned records. Tickets online were $225; at the door, they could be had for around $180. By the time we'd passed through security and made our way inside the venue, it was 10:30 and the show had yet to start. Still, there was plenty to do in the meantime: pop over to one of the long merch lines for a surprisingly affordable $20 VULTURES T-shirt in black; buy a $14 beer and listen to the DJ playing Frank Ocean; people-watch among the low-taper fades and pick out the showgoers most likely to belong to a crypto secret society.

I approached one of them, a model in a chintzy cowboy hat and dark leather pants who goes by fendi.worldwide. "Perceptions change all the time — they go up, they go down — but the one thing that remains is greatness," he told me. Many others in attendance adopted the drapey all-black uniform Ye and Ty Dolla have embraced for this rollout, surely inspired by Playboi Carti's #opiumaesthetic, but perhaps also the gothic tones of white supremacist black metal acts like Burzum, whose font was flipped for Vultures 1's original cover art, before the semi-nude tableau that eventually went to streaming platforms. Some of them were gray-haired OGs, catching the last whiffs of a fading glory. Many seemed like ordinary young people casually juggling multiple truths, something they've had to do over and over again with popular art. "It's hard to get into it, because he has mental illnesses and he goes through many challenges in life," said a 16-year-old named Liam who discovered Ye through TikTok. Then, pointing at his friend Milo: "He's Jewish and he still likes Kanye!"

As Ye and Ty Dolla $ign's album finally began to unfurl in the dark and foggy arena, a single beam shone down to the stage, where the masked duo paced in and out of its light. Their visual transience mirrored Ye's jagged approach to press the last couple years, alternating between long spells of radio silence and constant visibility. For how macho and muscular the album is, the event felt oddly intimate, more friendly gathering than cursed stan cult. A group of four white dudes in front of us seemed to be on psychedelics, cackling for no apparent reason and tossing a shoe around.

As for the music? Right here, out these speakers, with this lighting and art direction and these fits, it was ... actually pretty good. Ty Dolla $ign's vocal runs were majestic, undulating waves, his hook on "BACK TO ME" particularly gorgeous. Ye's goofier clunkers were rapped verbatim by the crowd, inside jokes studied by the terminally online via past listening parties. Chunky, crowd-pleasing samples lit up the arena, including a generous serving of "Back That Azz Up" and Charlie Wilson singing Backstreet Boys. Ye's always had a thing for this kind of populism, but he relied on it more than ever here, energizing the crowd when he brought out Playboi Carti to perform "H00DBYAIR." Two tracks caused the crowd's hype to supernova: North West's gleeful turn on "TALKING" ("Is that Babyxsosa?" my friend asked) and the kinetic "EVERYBODY," the one with the Backstreet Boys interpolation and a particularly egregious Kanye verse that would not make the final album.

Jason Martinez / Courtesy of the artist
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Courtesy of the artist

It was, materially, a much different experience to listen the next day on Apple Music: The music immediately felt flatter, more minimal and, like the last few Ye albums, strangely sterile. Ye's adoption of newer flows mostly strikes me as bland cosplay, even if some excitement pokes through, as when he cribs a high-pitched Young Thug zigzag on "PAID." And there are inspired arrangement choices, as when a single horn and seismic piano accompany Ye's bashful verse on "PROBLEMATIC," or when stray live drums punch through the ragey "F*** SUMN" under piercing, high-pitched raps. But other moments fail to translate. The gang vocals on "CARNIVAL" rang out like a battle cry in the UBS Arena, enough that one could briefly ignore Ye name-dropping R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and Puffy in his verse, like a roster of disgraced zombie Pokémon. In my headphones, the song is a limp FIFA soundtrack leftover, delirious Carti verse aside. The scratchy-soul, Old Kanye moment "BURN" put smiles on the faces around me; now it's almost uncomfortable how anachronistic it sounds, Ye puffing out his chest and saying, Still got it!

What's perhaps most unnerving about this record is how, rather than developing a new vision, as the artist has done even at his most inscrutable turns (I'll never forget my ride with an Uber driver who said that Jesus is King saved gospel music), Vultures 1 calcifies the last decade of the Ye sandbox into a neat, uninteresting package. Rarely the most compelling part of any of these songs, Ye here dines on the husks of his own career and news cycles, platooning many of his verses with geriatric raunchiness and Genius screenshot bait. At least Ty Dolla $ign can still sing.

As a musician, the dominant narrative around Ye since The Life of Pablo has been his embrace of streaming — tampering with his records, fixing "Wolves." But another possible read is that he's grown wary of this mode of music listening and is instead essentially making albums for these listening parties. The songs since TLOP have stripped away the clutter of his earlier mixes: They're stark and cutting, each element given the space to breathe in a big room. 2021's DONDA was panned by some for its minimal, almost incomplete-sounding finish, but at its public launch inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, I'm sure it went off. These recent albums don't do well critically, but they're not in service of critics or penny-pinching streaming services. They're for the cult, the people who cough up hundreds of dollars to watch Ye demo them in real time, their master at work. (This tracks, too, with the massive revenue he generates from merch and listening event ticket sales.)

Par for the course, parts of Vultures 1 were recorded in the final hours prior to previously announced release dates: backstage at listening events, in the thrum of hotel-room afters, the process as much a part of the spectacle as the actual release. In the same way, Ye's antisemitic comments fold into this messy, unfiltered art project: To consider his work, to step through these gates, requires a willingness to accept all of his baggage.

I'm reminded of the way a certain former president spent a feverish half-decade graduating from celebrity to politician to movement. With Donald Trump, it's not just about voting for or against him, it's about accepting everything that comes with him. What detractors call complicity, supporters call humanity. As much as Ye operated as a populist entertainer from his breakout to his peak and beyond, he doesn't really make music for the people anymore. He serves up edgelord art in cavernous halls, where the last of the vultures gather to feast.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.

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