As we’ve become used to over the past decade with Kanye releases, Vultures 1 arrived on streaming platforms unexpectedly in the middle of the night, shortly after a public listening session. And it’s a blockbuster of an album with guest appearances from the likes of Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, Quavo, YG, Lil Durk, Bump J, North West, Rich The Kid, Chris Brown, Freddie Gibbs, and India Love. After an initial spin, here are some early thoughts and takeaways.
He still has stadium anthem dreams
Vultures 1 is a Kanye West sample platter. There are soulful rap songs (“Burn”), sweeping melodic anthems (“Hoodrat”), and even some explosive Brazilian funk (“Paperwork”). Kanye’s dabbling with all kinds of sounds on the 16-song tracklist, but more than anything, it feels like he wants a hit. More specifically, he’s grasping for the kind of expansive record that could be chanted by tens of thousands of people in a soccer stadium. “Carnival” is the most obvious example of this—a song that literally opens with a chant, punctuated by “ooohhh” crowd vocals and clap-inducing percussion throughout. (And if his songs don’t actually end up in stadiums, he’ll just buy a Super Bowl ad and reach the people that way). He’s also using a lot of big, attention-grabbing samples that lend themselves to mainstream viability, including some that encountered clearance problems and couldn’t make the final tracklist (a Backstreet Boys flip on “Everybody,” among others). Hit records have a way of smoothing over problems, and as Kanye returns from a growing list of severe controversies, it looks like he’s trying as hard as he can to get one.
Ty Dolla Sign was the right collaborator at the right time
An album full of Ty Dolla Sign vocals over Kanye West beats is a hell of a formula. Twenty years after Ye got his by start chopping up samples from legendary singers, he’s still at his best when he gets to play with soulful vocals, and Ty gives him an endless supply on Vultures 1. Instead of having to rely on his own singing voice to flesh out a song like “Problematic,” he’s able to lean on Ty, who dutifully slides into the pocket between Ye’s bars throughout the second verse. With Ty at his side, Kanye is even able to pull off surprisingly strong singing of his own on a song like “Hoodrat.” On his last album, Donda, Kanye’s reliance on a large group of collaborators to compensate for his own vocal inconsistencies led to a comparatively scattered project. There are plenty of guest verses on Vultures, as well, but Ty’s strong vocals on every track anchor the album, giving it a consistent tone and a clear direction. At a pivotal moment in Kanye’s career, he picked the right collaborator.
He can still make the ‘Old Kanye’ fans happy with songs like “Burn”
On the 20-year anniversary of his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye delivered a song that’s very reminiscent of his early-era records. “Burn” sounds like it could have been a long-lost track from his first two albums, featuring urgent rapping from Ye over a timeless laid-back, and a catchy hook from Ty. There have been moments in the past few years when I’ve wondered if Kanye totally lost the plot and would never be able to make great music again, but songs like “Burn” prove otherwise.
The controversies are addressed in a very Kanye way
Kanye doesn’t completely ignore his recent controversies on Vultures 1. And he doesn’t respond to them with any kind of deep reflection, either. If you were hoping for apologetic raps, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, he addresses it all in a very Kanye way: jokes and boasts. Less than a minute into the very first song “Stars,” he says he “keeps a few Jews on the staff now” and raps dismissively about the contracts that were ripped up when he lost his major brand deals. On “Burn,” he tries flipping his financial troubles around, rapping, “I burned еight billion to take off my chains.” And on “King,” he taunts that he’s “still the king” even after countless headlines described him as: “Crazy, bipolar, antisemite.” Judging by the lyrics throughout the album, Kanye’s been thinking a lot more about the money he lost than the people he harmed with hateful speech. In typical fashion, he responds by inviting even more backlash, trolling for additional controversy as he compares himself to disgraced figures like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and Diddy on “Carnival.” And for some reason, he left in that one regrettable headline-bait line on “Vultures” that isn’t anywhere near as clever or funny as he thinks it is.
Some things change. Others don’t.
I was inside UBS Arena in Long Island on Thursday night when Kanye and Ty celebrated the impending release of Vultures 1, and the mood was… interesting. On one hand, there were tens of thousands of eager fans who happily forked over hundreds of dollars for tickets and merch on a moment’s notice. On the other hand, the energy in the arena before the show was noticeably more subdued (with less breathless hysteria) than it was during any of the Donda events I went to in 2021. Kanye still has a large and incredibly loyal core fanbase who will show up for him no matter what. But throughout the Vultures rollout, it became clear that his latest round of controversies turned off a lot of casual fans. At this moment, at least, he seems to be mostly appealing to his base rather than reaching the global mainstream masses like he used to (even though the noticeably grand scale of the music hints that he’s still vying to be the biggest artist on the planet). No longer on Def Jam, he’s releasing an album as an independent artist for the first time, so there’s less of a machine behind him, and it’ll be interesting to see his current commercial power when the first-week numbers roll in.
Musically, some things remain the same for Kanye exactly two decades after The College Dropout. He’s still an excellent producer and curator, able to bring together dozens of the most talented artists (and producers) in the world and pull off a blockbuster, forward-thinking album in a way that few can. He’s also still a defiant troll who can’t help but reach for cringey jokes and clunky one-liners that detract from otherwise strong performances (which has been the case for many years). He’s a flawed man, with a long history of inexcusable decisions, who still possesses undeniable talent and a knack for capturing the rap world’s attention time and time again (even when many expect him not to). 20 years later, a lot has changed. And a lot… Well, a lot remains the same.