“Ultralight Beam” is a plea, a confession, an anointment. It is gospel music that’s hollowed out. There is a choir and an organ, but they sound alone, as if transmitting from an empty heaven. Other voices tangle with faith in a time when God can seem most alive through the destruction of zealots; Kanye prays for Paris. Almighty death and inexplicable persecution cast shadows over this song, lingering in its empty spaces—these forces shape the stray glimmers that manage to break through.
Celebrity is a funhouse mirror. It amplifies certain characteristics of those who live within its frame. Kanye West became world-famous several times over during the last decade, and certain parts of his public persona seemed to swell in response.
There was the ego, always there, but now ostensibly justified by success. There was the sensitivity, easily turned to bitterness and aggravated by those who didn’t like seeing a black man defend a black woman at the expense of a white woman. And there was his grief, for Donda West and perhaps for other relationships. These elements metastasized into a potent artistic combination that yielded three very different albums.
In retrospect, the first of those albums, 808s and Heartbreaks, marked a farewell tour. No more, it seemed, were listeners to be granted access to Kanye’s family business, at least not the business of those who weren’t fated to live (or actively living) beneath all of the lights. And his sound, once so warm, grew colder, culminating in the icy sweat of Yeezus.
But in 2016, the gates have cracked open. The release of “Real Friends” (and a snippet of “No More Parties in LA”) today has fans screaming that the old ‘Ye is back. In its subject matter, its sound, and most crucially its vulnerability, “Real Friends” does share many features with the music Kanye made before 808s. Pivoting off MF Doom’s “Deep Fried Frenz,” West airs his guilt over—what else?—his extended family and old friends, as well as his deep anger with certain relatives, an elaboration of the lament on the 808s track, “Welcome to Heartbreak.” One story he shares, about having to buy back a computer stolen by a cousin, is a miniature study in anguish, as emotionally exhausting as “Only One” and far less effortful.
But if this track evokes the artist that fans think of as old Kanye—an impression enhanced by its cover art—then it’s also one that makes enormous use of what he’s learned since Graduation. After six listens, the most memorable lines are those sung with Auto-Tune. (After a dozen, everything is of a piece.) And West’s attitude has little in common with the buoyant outlook of his youth. “Real Friends” is heavy, grizzled, and sad. The track may be warm, with Kanye’s own production enhanced by the beautiful looping influences of Madlib (who produced the snippet at the end) and Dilla, but it’s the opposite of joyous.
As it stands, the song is tagged on Soundcloud with its title, #realfriends. But when it first was posted, the “friends” was missing. The only word left to describe the song was the one that, fair or not, will feel the most fitting for those who are rejoicing to have this version of Kanye West back: Real.
Someone track down his cousin: Any fan of Kanye knows his muse works in fits and starts, and his output can be as erratic as a mood swing. Choosing to follow the dour “Real Friends” with “No More Parties in L.A.” is yet another exercise in extremes, which suits him just fine: a self-described “38-year-old 8-year old,” Ye chases after what’s motivating him no matter how eccentric the inspiration. Here he mentions “I was uninspired since Lauryn Hill retired” and “I know some fans who thought I wouldn’t rap like this again” in the same way he delivers a hilarious anecdote about an assistant crashing his matted Maybach. He also references his memorable line from The College Dropout’s “Breathe in Breathe Out”—“first nigga with a Benz and a backpack”—with “a backpack nigga with luxury taste buds,” a great callback to how ably Ye can so easily identify with two different class of rappers.
Kanye still resonates after all these years by pulling you into his story, with vivid images about texting and driving and André 3000’s extended hiatus next to a line about “whole family getting money, thank god for E!” That ability to connect to listeners is what sells us on the problems and lifestyles of the very, very rich, to the extent where no matter how ridiculous some of his lines are (“any rumor you heard about me was true and legendary”) it feels like something we can relate to. Which is, of course, patently absurd.
And the fact that a six-minute song with a monster Kendrick verse and a painterly Madlib beat goes by in the blink of an eye reinforces how revitalized Kanye is after a spotty 2015, dropping these songs weekly (although this one was three days late) as if to prove he can still do it. Between “Real Friends” and this song is an air of the unfiltered rawness of “old Kanye” that makes you wonder if Swish will be as off-the-cuff, and, frankly, charming. We’re in for a doozy if it is.