Kanye West’s first song off his still-untitled upcoming album, “Wolves,” describes a settled new phase in his career and life. Since his last album, “Yeezus,” West has become a father and a husband. On “Wolves,” which West first exposed as part of his recent Adidas fashion show, he reflects on his wild past in a somber and introspective way. The track, which features the prolific songwriter and ethereal singer Sia and fellow Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, is haunting and calm but lacks the fire that West has displayed in recent projects. While the song effectively showcases West’s emotional state, it is anticlimactic and overly autotuned.
Notably missing from this track is any rapping. Instead, Kanye sings, though that might be a charitable term. Like the last time he sang in large quantities, on 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak,” “Wolves” is heavily autotuned. This album was widely considered his weakest, and though Kanye has occasionally used autotune subtly and effectively on album tracks since, his overreliance in 2015 is becoming bizarre, and is reminiscent of the dreary 808s. Even artists like T-Pain, whose rise was based around the unique sound he created using autotune, have at least partially forsaken the effect for more natural vocals. One might expect Kanye to use the tool in novel ways, but instead he employs his modulation in the same cloaking manner as those who initially popularized the sound. It is cliché and one wonders what could be so awful about Kanye’s singing voice that he feels the need to coat it in so many layers of production. If natural singing isn’t West’s thing, perhaps he should stick to rapping.
Vic Mensa and Sia make Kanye’s lack of singing ability more apparent by outperforming him on his own song. Mensa is the strongest part of this track, offering genuinely beautiful vocals that show off his smooth, R&B tenor. Sia, one of the most unique pop stars on the scene right now, imbues her first chorus with bursts of palpable sadness that West should aspire to. The second time around, however, Sia’s tone is inconsistent and her voice sounds somewhat strained.
Despite the vocal inconsistencies on “Wolves,” its themes are touching. Kanye mentions his late mother, pondering “if your mama/ knew now”, a show of vulnerability from an often impenetrable artist. The song is packed with genuine emotional moments in which the artists look back on hard times that contributed to their present success. West employs powerful imagery, including an Icarus allusion (“Don’t fly too high / your wings might melt”). Even these sentiments, however, are weighed down by the impersonality of the vocals. The ethereal “oohs” that begin the song are chilling but never develop into a more complex scheme. The instrumental backing sounds like an intro about to build into something more intense. There is a point in Kanye’s verse where a bass-heavy drop appears imminent, but the accompaniment disappointingly goes back to the same minimalist pattern.
In his seeming attempts to craft a more melodic sound and a more vulnerable persona, West loses his typical kinetic wordplay and dynamic production. Further, his recent sexist remarks about Amber Rose and creepy exclamations about the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan make it clear that Kanye’s maturity is illusory. “Wolves” is a lackluster step towards predictability and inauthenticity for the usually versatile MC.
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