Kanye West has been afforded one of the greatest gifts an artist can have: his work can be perseverated on more than most artists’ work will in a lifetime. Just look at any of the number of think pieces regarding The Life of Pablo, the semi-finished seventh studio album from hip-hop’s only rock star. With the ostentatious premiere at Madison Square Garden, the (multiple) album name changes, the Twitter rant/sermons, the solo performance to Seth Rogen, and even the announcement of his presidential candidacy in 2020, Kanye West has provided fans and detractors with a stockpile of material to postulate on. And those were in his spare time when he wasn’t working on fashion lines. These analyses incited a range of questions, both about Kanye West and the world he occupies. How do we reconcile our multitude of identities? How do we grapple with being children of God and succumbing to our primal needs? How do the hardships of one man impact his personal life, which is heavily scrutinized to begin with? And to be fair, most of these questions are valid to Kanye West’s career. From 2004’s The College Dropout to 2013’s Yeezus, the music Kanye has molded around his persona has only furthered the obsession society has with him. Every Kanye West album furthered its ability to make a statement at launch, whether it was the 50 Cent beef of Graduation or the short film of the album formerly known as Good Ass Job. And with The Life of Pablo, the statement is one of an aging, and somewhat schizophrenic, genius.
Oh, and I should probably mention something about the music. Leading up to the Life of Pablo, the world received singles in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Each song had a jarring lack of consistency in terms of tonality. The 2014 New Year’s Eve surprise “Only One” was a piano ballad to West’s late mother, something familial if not safe. Paul McCartney, who collaborated with him on the previous single, worked with him again on the Rihanna’s pop oddity “FourFiveSeconds”, which merged the three artist’s styles into a surprisingly competent and cohesive single. The following March, West premiered the monstrous “All Day”, which was later remixed to feature Kendrick Lamar. And after that, during Yeezy Season 1, Kanye released the nightmarish “Wolves” featuring Sia and Vic Mensa. After that came “Fade” during Yeezy Season 2. And after that, G.O.O.D. Fridays made a return. Then they didn’t. Every single to be dropped in this career limbo of Kanye West feels nebulously connected to the man himself, not appearing to be singles but acting as thoughts to exorcise this desire to work without creative restraint. And because of the fact that only one of the aforementioned singles actually makes an appearance on The Life of Pablo, it’s safe to say that his philosophies regarding his persona have finally mingled with his music, lying somewhere in between not giving a fuck and being too important to care.
But this mindset has been, for the most part, self-inflicted by Kanye West. With every release, Kanye ornaments his sound with different elements before completely migrating to a new palette of fresh mixtures and potent songs. Take the transitions from The College Dropout to 808’s and Heartbreak, for example. Every release acts as a slight pivot towards a fuller, more forward thinking approach. Starting with soul samples, layering in orchestral backgrounds, dribbling with autotune and synths, before plunging to robotic ballads. The second generation of Kanye came with a more art-focused goal; the maximalist and id driven songs of a visionary were contrasted with the bare-bone ferocity of Yeezus. These two releases proved Kanye could properly strip elements from his sound without scarfing the integral power that thrusts each Kanye album forward. And as the number of years increases between its release date and now, it’s evident that Yeezus is proving to be Kanye’s most important album. Predicting the conclusion to where autotune can take a song, and stripping it of any real melodic sweetness, Kanye predicted the demise of an instrument before it could clearly become the staple it is today.
However, for the first time in what seems like multiple generations and reincarnations of Kanye West, the man has backed himself into a corner in terms of progression. There are no pivots. There are no layered adornments to previous sounds. What The Life of Pablo illustrates is an artist who understands what it means to autobiographically catalogue his material into a single project. Self described as “the album of the life”, Kanye attempts to dip his toes into nearly all the material he’s put out in over a decade. The opening sample of “Ultralight Beam” is reminder that Kanye West was not only religious, but rooted in spiritual goodness. The harsh and atonal distortions accrue like the blood left on the blade that was Yeezus. The autotune speeches are as emotional as they were when Kanye’s first engagement ended. There seems to be moments on The Life of Pablo that can be attributed as warped versions of old ideas. However, Kanye West creates an uncanny valley between what’s old and what’s new; a result of the molding of each idea on the album. From one look at the album cover, it’s abundantly clear that Kanye’s mind has been more fired-through-a-shotgun than just scattered. And within the walls of the album, the songs are even worse. Consistently on nearly every song, there are moments of awkward transitions and uncoordinated combinations. This is not the work of an artist spread thin; this is the work of an artist mythologizing his legacy through a syncretic album.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a consistent song with components functioning as cogs. There are few moments that roll into the next to move the tracks forward; rather, Kanye opts to laterally focus on minutiae. Surprisingly though, this maneuver works extraordinarily well in West’s favor. The motifs found on the fringes of the track can be exceptionally intoxicating as they are entertaining. “Pt. 2” comes in at a meager two minutes, yet is composed with four strange subsections that interrupt each other at odd intersections. The Street Fighter 2 sample seeps into autotune and Desiigner verses, showcasing Kanye’s take on the Atlanta trap trend, which frankly sounds like the equivalent of what cathedral trap would be. This is abruptly cut in by the soulful productions, muted by the quiet vocoder musings that haunt for their twenty seconds. Moments like this aren’t just uncommon to The Life of Pablo; they’re integral to the album. The ghetto Oprah screeching and acapella love letters to himself are the moments of joy Kanye creates on the album. It seems he’s taken notes from Dilla himself in keeping productions short, but so sweet. The soul-infused reggae samples intermixed with the notorious “Wake Up Mr. West”, provided by Swizz Beats, is beautifully nostalgic and simultaneously refreshing. The alien/krautrock finale to “FML” is confounding and out of place, but provides the most appropriate transition into “Real Friends”. The elements that make up the individual tracks are the proverbial siren songs. The synths are overcast and melodic, fluctuating between positivity and negativity. The classic drums/sample/piano combo that was so necessary to first generation Kanye makes a welcome comeback on tracks like “Fade” and “Real Friends”. These increasingly distinct moments may be due to the decreasing mental state of the busy father, fashion designer, mogul, superstar, and child of God, but it only pulls the curtain back on what makes Kanye so appealing, if not also illustrating that, despite what many will argue, he does in fact falter.
After the superficially simplistic Yeezus, many of Kanye West’s ardent defenders will rush talcum that his lyrics don’t matter, that they’re not the focus. And to be fair, they’re mostly right. They shouldn’t be the focus. And they wouldn’t be if they weren’t as painfully humorous as they are wonderfully brainless. Kanye has described this as a gospel album, one to play at barbecues with the family. But songs referring bleached assholes, stolen sandwiches, and his wife’s infamous sex tape are so absurdly out of place and so poorly done that they have to be written off. This isn’t always the case, as evident by the Taylor Swift line in “Famous”, but for the most part, it is. And the use of couplets and corny punch lines wouldn’t be so unbearable if he didn’t repeat punch line multiple times, as if he’s cluing us in on the genius of his lines. Thankfully, there’s a strange lack of straight rapping from Kanye West, most likely opting to let the multiple song structures handle the lack of interest his lyrics cause.
That isn’t to say that the featured artists on The Life of Pablo also lack any lyrical virtuosity; on the contrary, most features outshine Kanye, save for a few songs. The opening verse from Chicago prince, Chance the Rapper, steals the album from the start. Crooning “this is my part nobody else speak”, he delivers a spiritual guide to what is one of Kanye’s best album introductions. The bizarro-Future tracks provided by Desiigner offer interesting changes of pace for what would be par-for-the-course Kanye songs. Hook service is handled by the biggest names in pop music, from Rihanna to the Weeknd to the up and coming Ty Dolla $ign. But coming from Kanye, it’s expected to get the most trending artists to make appearances that light hip-hop forums up in a frenzy. Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Andre 3000. No matter that part, the intention is obvious as Kanye decorates his songs with legends and modern hype machines. And it pays off, with songs diversely transporting Kanye to different moments in his career. With Kendrick Lamar on “No More Parties in LA”, he finally makes a return as a true bar for bar lyricist. With Young Thug, his sexual conquests on “Highlights” are as absurd as Thugger’s, autotune drenched in verses about his GoPro straddled dick. Even the producers are as diverse, not so subtle adding their own voice to the mix, adding to the chaos. Hudson Mohawke’s intense stings bisected by gnarled alarms appear on “Freestyle 4”, mirroring Yeezus’s fragmented beauty. Madlib adds his distinct crate-digger flavor to the mix that feels as out of place as Metro Boomin’s catered-for-trap palette. Even Donnie Trumpet makes an appearance to bring out the best in Chance’s verse. With such a mixed bag of contributors, and an already frayed artist holding it together, it seems impossible for some, if any, meaning to arise.
In a literal sense, there is nothing thematically occurring on The Life of Pablo. As built up as the name has been, it’s a surprise this isn’t the most straightforward and conceptual album from Kanye. Instead, we get songs about his persona, but the personal battles of Kanye with his fame have long lost their potency. His persona’s too overwhelming to fully sympathize with anything he says, whether religious or personal, and the comedic moments are overshadowed my how serious he takes every one of his endeavors. And the absurd parallels he draws between his family and gospel are mediocre at best. Even songs toted as a return to form like “Real Friends” only dabble in the personality that came with songs from earlier in his career. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a greater message to find within Kanye West’s art. The Life of Pablo is incredibly post-modern, breaking down any barrier between what Kanye accomplished on previous material and the trend of the modern era. The frenetic nature of the album acts as a tool of escapism rather than a symptom of insanity. West warns the effects when he’s off his anti-depressants, and The Life of Pablo seems to be the outcome. What art would you make if you had everything from the “perfect” family to the musical legacy, yet maintained the depression and victim complex that you had before you were famous? The Life of Pablo is not indicative of where Kanye is at in his career, more so it resembles the sound of a man trying to escape his current state through his prior work.
Having been out for almost a week now, The Life of Pablo is still having issues with actually being released. Demos of material have leaked, the physical copies may or may not exist, and it’s an atrocious TIDAL exclusive. Kanye can’t seem to let go of The Life of Pablo. The use of this album as a crutch to hold himself together has marred this album from ever coming close to the brilliance of his past. Kanye West’s albums, while simultaneously being personal media projects as well as albums, have still functioned as albums. Viewed in a vacuum, they all excel at being visionaries of a perfectionist. The Life of Pablo, however, seems to be too personally attached to the artist to be as impressively compelling as his earlier work. The transversal nature of the album creates rigidity when Kanye is so orthodox in his approach to recreating these sounds and motifs from earlier albums. There are great moments within The Life of Pablo, but the underdeveloped, and often contradictory factors in creating a cohesive album becomes blindingly apparent in a front to back listen. What are considered the bonus songs? Which songs is Kanye going to fix? How is Kanye spiritual yet spewing sacrilege? The relationship Kanye has with The Life of Pablo is extremely strange at best, unhealthy at worst. And that has resulted in a bloated and stagnant (for Kanye West standards) album. Withal, Kanye West experiences a fugue state on “Waves”. His acknowledgement of his crash and dispersal throughout a variety of themes is matched in the holy epileptic glory of the production. With one song, Kanye proves that he can still provide moments of exception, where you’re stopped for a few minutes to witness a genius at work. Kanye West may be experiencing a mid-life crisis, mental illnesses, or a combination of both. Kanye West may be an extremely ambitious auteur, whether in music or fashion. And Kanye West may be a hedonistic family man. But with The Life of Pablo, despite its many flaws, he proves he can make art that matters, not just to his fans, but to him.
– T. Pennington