Kanye Kicks Back
I don’t think Kanye truly cares about reviews anymore, despite what he says on Twitter. He’s done it all in his career. You don’t arrive at 21 Grammy awards by accident. He’s unleashed albums that managed to achieve both critical and commercial success, all while spawning new trends and sounds. He lost his mother and fiance in succession, turned heartbreak into “pop art”, made an ass of himself, and returned with an album that has a strong case to be the best of the 21st century. Since, he’s made an album with his mega-star buddy Jay Z, wherein he mostly just brags about wealth. (It’s pretty awesome.) He made an album full of posse cuts with the list of hip-hop and R&B stars he’s accumulated beneath him throughout his career. He also made Yeezus, a hyper-focused torrent of energy and American Psycho-style egomaniacal madness. Somewhere in there he managed to do two things he’s never done: Get married (to one of the world’s most eligible bachelorettes?) and have two children. Kanye’s pretty much done it. What happens when an off-his-rocker superstar has achieved basically all there is to achieve? The Life of Pablo happens.
When you look at the intersection of crazy and perfectionist, you find Kanye West. For someone with Kanye’s need to create perfection, so many of the other details fall by the wayside. The roll-out for The Life of Pablo was incredibly haphazard. It’s been hashed out a thousand times, so I won’t cover it here, but suffice it to say that nobody quite understands where Kanye’s head is at anymore. However, as is the case with most artists, while his public persona becomes increasingly more baffling, you can count on the music itself to cut through the BS.
The Life of Pablo opens with the voice of a praying 4-year-old named Natalie. What follows is “Ultralight Beam,” which is dominating early reviews as the crown jewel of the album and one of the highlights of Kanye’s career. It’s hard to argue. Kanye, in a way only Kanye can, takes a backseat. The opener is dominated by The-Dream, Kelly Price, a gospel choir, and Chance The Rapper. (Chance is 22 years old, has no record deal and no official album, yet has a pair of SNL appearances and multiple credits of The Life of Pablo.) When Kanye proclaimed last month that “this album is actually a gospel album,” many people — myself included — scoffed. This song is what he’s talking about.
“I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more, somewhere I can feel safe, and end my holy war. I’m tryna keep my faith.”
Like any good Kanye album, there are golden nuggets like this. Whether it’s a couple minute stretch of music, a massive hook, a few incredible lyrics, or a full song, there are always sections of Kanye’s albums that I look forward to, even years later. Kanye has built such a massive career because he rarely strikes out, yet frequently hits massive homers. The Life of Pablo is no exception.
“Famous” is going to go down as one of this album’s peaks, boasting an unhinged instrumental from Swizz Beats, airy vocals from Rihanna, and a flawless Sister Nancy sample that is pure happiness in musical form. “Waves” is the classic uplifting Kanye track. Ye can’t sing worth a lick, but Chris Brown can. “Waves” is followed by “FML,” which is the polar opposite. In the album’s darkest moment, Kanye grapples with his inner demons, even mentioning Lexapro. (Shoutout to my fellow Lexapro homies.) The track features a piercing, buttery chorus from The Weeknd and hauntingly distorted vocals from Section 25: “See through the veil, and forget all your cares.”
One of my favorite things is when seemingly ordinary singles are given new life in the context of a full album. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy gave entirely new meaning to “Devil In A New Dress.” The Life of Pablo, despite its many loose ends, gives a shot in the arm to “Real Friends,” a song I didn’t much care for until I heard it here. This is practically “Welcome To Heartbreak Part 2.” In 2008, Kanye moaned: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids. All I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” In 2016, he continues: “Maybe 15 minutes, took some pictures with your sister. Merry Christmas, then I’m finished. Then it’s back to business.”
“Waves,” for all its intrigue before the album, seems to have lost some luster here. Maybe it’s the departure of Vic Mensa and Sia. Maybe it’s the addition of a bad Kanye verse. Regardless, we still get an enchanting beat from Cashmere Cat as well as the return of music’s modern-day Bigfoot: Frank Ocean. We get exactly 32 seconds of Mr. Ocean, which seems criminal. He’s been MIA since the release of Channel Orange in 2012. Even this verse sounds like it was recorded on a cassette tape and mailed to Kanye, Unabomber-style. I don’t know where Frank is hiding, but I hope he comes out soon, and I hope he has an album with him.
“30 Hours” is The Life of Pablo’s sleeper hit. After glossing over it initially, it grew on me after repeated listens. It’s autobiographical Kanye at his best, reminiscing on an old girlfriend he had in Chicago, and how he used to drive 30 hours back home to visit her after he moved to Los Angeles. He also manages to work in two Nelly quotes. It’s awesome both times. In the ultimate “rough sketch” move, Kanye raps for two minutes and then shoots the breeze for another three while the beat loops below.
“Expedition was Eddie Bauer edition. I’m drivin’ with no winter tires in December. Skrrt, skrrt, skrrt like a private school for women, then I get there and all the Popeye’s is finished. Girl, you don’t love me, you just pretendin’. I need that happy beginnin’, middle, and endin’.”
The album’s last true highlight is “No More Parties In LA.” Featuring a sprawling six-plus minutes of classic Madlib production, Kanye and Kendrick Lamar trade a laundry list of bars about the Hollywood life and what it’s like being uber-successful rappers. “My psychiatrist got kids that I inspired,” says Kanye. Amazing.
On the flip-side of these great lyrics are your token terrible ones. It’s the give-and-take with Kanye. On Yeezus, he delivered a particularly tasteless (no pun intended) line about sweet and sour sauce. On this one, he’s got a horrible line that involves getting bleach on his t-shirt. It’s hard to defend, seeing as it’s neither clever nor necessary. He also feels the need to return with some Taylor Swift-baiting lyrics. Why, Kanye? Why? I’m so sick of reading about Taylor, especially cases where America needs to come to her defense because of something Kanye said or did. Lyrics like these are just part of a list of ways Kanye has lured the public into weighing in on this project.
When the title of the album was announced (for the fourth time), many people wanted to know who Pablo was. Escobar, being somewhat of an icon in rap, was a pretty safe bet. Kanye took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the Paul the Apostle, whose Spanish name is Pablo. (Read more about that theory here.) But the most obvious Pablo is Picasso. Perhaps taking a cue from many traditional artists, The Life of Pablo feels unfinished, like a painting that was partially completed before making its way to a gallery after the artist’s death. On highlight “30 Hours” Kanye references his Yeezy Season 3 event at Madison Square Garden, which is where this album premiered. How many artists reminisce about an album’s debut on the album itself? On the afternoon after the Tidal launch, he tweeted that he was going to tweak “Wolves,” before later tweeting that the album would be out within the next week. Or maybe never.
A reoccurring theme on the album is half-baked and semi-complete ideas. The album cover (which I honestly don’t hate) seems to convey a casual “ehh, good enough” attitude. “Father Stretch My Hands” is broken into two parts, neither of which manages to complete an idea before its conclusion. The album has two frivolous interludes, one of which is over two minutes long. “Freestyle 4” has me picturing a drunk Kanye, propped up against a wall, stumbling through gibberish, incoherent freestyle rhymes. “Fade” feels like tripping across the finish line, which is especially disappointing coming from someone who has historically been deft at putting a bow on projects.
This is what The Life of Pablo is.
Kanye — who has done it all — kicks his feet up, flinging sounds and ideas all over the album like Pollock did paint on a canvas. Some of it splatters beautifully right down the middle, with colors and shapes that compliment each other. Some of it misses the canvas entirely. It’s the cost of doing business.
Maybe it’s lazy. Maybe it’s unfinished. Either way, just like Picasso’s Painter and His Model, it’s still something to look at. Don’t get me wrong. This is no masterpiece, and shouldn’t be seen as such. I don’t think it will be. But, in a way, after meticulously crafted albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, something haphazardly strung together like The Life of Pablo is almost more interesting. Maybe that makes me a fan who’s incapable of seeing anything negative about Kanye’s music. That’s something I’d accept. However, I truly think the flaws here make The Life of Pablo better, even if justa little bit. After all, flaws are something that have always made Kanye the person more appealing and relatable. Why can’t the same be true of his music?