If the media coverage following most superstars is a circus, the firestorm that comes with Kanye West is an apocalypse. In the years preceding Swish, Yeezy has certainly fanned the flames. He married into the breeding ground of celebrity gossip and has since announced that he’s running for president in 2020. Good ol’ Kanye.
For better or worse, this means that the release of a new Kanye West album is pushed by an enormous hype train. The wheels relentlessly turned in 2015. “Wolves” — Kanye’s best track of the year — invited lengthy features about the continued relevance of 808s and Heartbreak while “All Day” led to fervent speculation that there was a new Yeezus on the way.
“FACTS,” released at the turn of the year, was a worrying sign that perhaps all the hype had finally gotten to Kanye, weighing on him with overblown expectations. It’s one of his worst tracks to date, a mess of “fuck Nike” and recycled production from the year before. The pressure of his media persona is so obvious that the track seems almost like a satire. With the dominance of rappers like Kendrick and Drake looming, for a moment it seemed the A.D.H.D. brain of hip-hop was moving past Kanye.
But this is Kanye fucking West. He knows what he’s doing. And because this is Kanye, we get “Real Friends,” a track (and a snippet) that instantly blows away all of his musical clutter in 2015.
The beat opens up immediately, shutting out everything else. The rhythmic pulsing and angelic synths command your attention, and for good reason, because Kanye is about to lay out some of his best and most vulnerable bars in years.
On 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye yearned for a family, an escape from the loneliness. In 2016, now married with two children, he has everything he wanted back then, but that loneliness — no, solitude — is still there. On “Real Friends,” Kanye blames himself for failing to keep touch with those close to him (I guess I get what I deserve, don’t I? / Word on the streets is they ain’t heard from him), but also recognizes that most aren’t there for him anyways (To 3 A.M., callin’ / How many real friends? / Just to ask you a question / Just to see how you was feelin’ / How many?). It’s so personal and universal that you can’t help but look at your own life. Are your friends truly there for you? Will they be there when the “wheels don’t spin?” It’s hard to tell.
It’s the same self-awareness that made his masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so powerful, and the similarities between the road to Swish and the road to MBDTF are hard to ignore. Sure, there’s the obvious: G.O.O.D. Fridays are back. But the off-cuff rants, the escalating rumors, the changing album title and the odd interviews are all more potent reminders of that troubled Kanye we had before MBDTF.
A snippet of “No More Parties in LA” follows “Real Friends,” and it’s the ultimate tease, finally revealing the Kendrick-Kanye collaboration. Here, Kanye is sick of the gloss and glam of LA life. The track is smooth and chilled, but still teaming with funk energy. This is, apparently, one of the five beats that Madlib gave to Kanye for MBDTF, furthering the connection so far between it and Swish.
So what’s all of this going to lead to? When Swish releases on February 11th, we’ll finally see.