Kanye West – The Life of Pablo [Finely Tuned]
The Life of Pablo, the 7th solo album from Chicago rapper/producer/designer Kanye West, is perhaps his least cohesive and carefully considered record yet.
This is a man who reportedly mixed his hit single ‘Stronger‘ (Graduation, 2007) over 75 times, with the help of eight audio engineers, eleven mix engineers, and even Timbaland, until it sounded how he had imagined in his head. But now, we witness the ‘release’ (at time of writing, The Life of Pablo is only available digitally on Tidal, and according to Mr. West we will never see it on another platform, including physical copies) of an album that went through several title changes, several tracklist changes, and several artwork changes, up until the very day of its release.
In comparison to every single one of his previous releases (even Yeezus, and especially My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), The Life of Pablo is a mess. Shockingly, for a Kanye West album, it lacks any radically new ideas, and spends its 58 minute runtime looking backwards at its immediate catalogue predecessors and sideways at its contemporaries. Instead, one must approach The Life of Pablo for what it apparently is, a defiant flex. Mr. West’s primary skill (apart from being a virtuoso producer, a great rapper, a radical entertainer, and a pioneering fashion designer) remains getting the most eclectic mix of accomplished musicians into a room together and somehow channelling his own ideas through their own unique talents. Like on all of his albums, Mr. West once again employs a vast array of contributors to help bring his project to life. They include longtime collaborators like Swizz Beats, Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, Vic Mensa and Rihanna, and several new faces in Future and Drake producer Metro Boomin, Atlanta legend Andre 3000, Chicago protege Chance the Rapper, Brooklyn wunderkind Desiigner, and notably, modern gospel figurehead Kirk Franklin and veteran R&B songwriter Kelly Price. When in years gone by Mr. West would hole himself and his collaborators in Hawaii and work on an album for years, he now seems to elect to work in NYC and LA, in the midst of several other passion projects, over a matter of weeks. Somehow, just barely, but certainly, he still makes it work. Swish.
The Life of Pablo (he revealed the title interestingly refers to St. Paul, and not Picasso or Escobar as widely speculated) finds Mr. West in a strange place in time. Mr. West is now a veteran, still a commercial juggernaut and spiritual leader of two separate generations of hip-hop, with perhaps nothing left to prove as a musician. In the past, his albums have been inspirationally clear windows into his soul. The College Dropout introduced him to the world as the brashest underdog to ever rap, 808s & Heartbreak found us watching Mr. West as he publicly grieved for his mother and his broken engagement, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy made us toast the douchebags and truly made it somehow relatable to be the most hated man in the world, and Yeezus channelled his extreme frustration at not being able to find an outlet in the fashion industry.
Where does The Life of Pablo find Mr. West? On top of the world, bragging, dancing, releasing the “album of the life” and at the same time, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, clearly losing his mind. Pivoting around the stunning The Weeknd featuring confession ‘FML’, The Life of Pablo exists as two broadly distinguishable halves.
The first, an audacious mix of ‘freestyles’, gospel, trap-influenced bangers, and Yeezus-esque industrial, is the man and musician he wants to be right now. On opener ‘Ultralight Beam‘, he barely even appears but orchestrates Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price, backed by a full choir, over a swelling, stuttering beat. Chance the Rapper, Ye’s latest Chicago protege, delivers a verse for the ages, happily freewheeling in his thoughts of his daughter, his love for his childhood idol Kanye West, how far he’s come, and the glory of God. Chance’s time has come, and his contributions to this album mark perhaps the first real steps towards a well-deserved megastar turn.
On ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1 and Pt.2‘, Mr. West pulls out all the stops: a soaring, beautiful, Kid Cudi hook, classic Kanye autotune refrains, Brooklyn wunderkind Desiigner’s Future-inspired Atlanta gunfire flow, a soulful gospel sample, and even a snippet from 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner (!) Caroline Shaw to serve as the outro – all within just over 4 minutes. Out of all the versions of the album’s tracklist, these two tracks never moved, and it’s easy to see why. Kanye West is the undisputed universal kingpin of auditory bricolage, and this is perhaps his most ambitious track yet; a new benchmark for what’s possible to accrue together from across the sonic spectrum without self-indulgence or pretension. Stunning.
‘Freestyle 4‘, ‘Feedback‘ and ‘I Love Kanye‘ find Mr. West unfortunately indulging himself in some of his now-signature hyperbole and ridiculous imagery. On Feedback, he relies on attempted quotables (“had a good snooooooooze?”, “BIG B***Y B***H FOR YOU”) and unnecessary reminders of how rich he is, how he’s from Chicago, and how he’s a crazy genius. All in good fun, and I will admit to marking out in a most undignified manner when I first heard a snippet leaked from within Madison Square Garden on the night of his listening party. Ultimately however, it’s a pale imitation of Kendrick Lamar’s track ‘Backseat Freestyle’, and might not have made it onto Mr. West’s previously more carefully tailored records. On ‘Freestyle 4‘, he imagines himself kickstarting an orgy in the middle of a Vogue party over creepy Penderecki-esque violins and quick-fire beats. Most likely a Yeezus outtake, this seems to have no business existing as a recording people pay money for. Perhaps it only exists to lend an insight into Mr. West’s most troubled, drugged-out, neurotic moments. Out of the three, ‘I Love Kanye‘ is far and away the best, perhaps his best ‘skit’ yet. Truly funny and endearing, while remaining very insightful and hyper self-aware.
On ‘Famous‘, ‘Highlights‘, and ‘Waves‘, Mr. West seems well resigned to being a pop artist serving up dishes the masses will lap up and controversy the tabloids will churn. On ‘Famous’, after Rihanna does her best Nina Simone impression, he immediately dives in with the unbelievably stupid line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that b***h famous”, which is not only factually incorrect in at least three different ways, but also clearly thrown in just to get people talking. Ugh. Thankfully, the song ends in a priceless sample of Sister Nancy’s reggae classic ‘Bam Bam’, one of the best moments on the album despite Swizz Beats continuing to retain his inability to keep a microphone away from himself.
Immediately after, Mr. West’s change to herald, the change in mood is palpable. Despite his sour, reflective, and often downright depressed state-of-mind, this stretch of the album, from ‘FML‘ to ‘Real Friends‘ to ‘Wolves‘ to ‘Silver Surfer Intermission‘ to ‘30 Hours‘ to ‘No More Parties in LA,’ is one to rival any other in his catalogue. On ‘FML‘ and ‘Real Friends‘, Mr. West talks vulnerably of the pressure of fame and ambition on privately strained relationships. Simple lines like “When was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry” find Mr. West somehow being relatable, despite straying so far away from the underdog he once was.
‘Wolves‘ finds him talking directly to his wife of how imperative it is that they shield their children from the violently destructive social world they live in. No matter how self-imposed it may be, the public tumultuousness of the entirety of Mr. West’s adult life has been painful to watch. Despite all his talk of checking ho*s, liaisons with models and hiding from TMZ cameras, Mr. West truly, honestly, seems to love his wife and kids. Tragic, considering the path of emotional and financial turmoil he is on.
For seemingly his entire life, all eyes have been on Mr. West, trying insensitively to diagnose his history of erratic behaviour, wanting to watch him fail, and for the first time he himself joins in on the conversation on record. On ‘No More Parties in LA‘, he off-handedly admits to having a psychiatrist. On the same track, he references using Xanax, a depressant, seemingly recreationally. On ‘FML‘, he refers to using Lexapro, an antidepressant, for the second time this year (the other being on Vic Mensa’s ‘U Mad‘), unsettling warning against what he’s like when he’s off his medication. Although all of these tracks are beautiful, unique and inspiring in their own way, it’s troubling that it will be so easy for most to look away from the trouble Mr. West is in. Much like his spiritual mentor Michael Jackson (who he spoke of often in the immediate aftermath of his tragic death and the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Mr. West seems to be publicly, visibly, audibly falling apart in the inside of his head, with no one around him to help. Only long-time collaborator Rhymefest has come forward to speak of the “spiritual and mental” issues he must deal with.
The final two songs, the truly atrocious Nike diss ‘Facts’, and the sensual, Depeche Mode-like club banger ‘Fade‘ are almost certainly meant to be bonus tracks.
At age 38, Kanye West has just released perhaps the most uncharacteristically sloppy but important work of his life. Time will tell where The Life of Pablo is adjudged to stand in his peerless catalogue (personally, early signs point to it being my second favourite Kanye West album), but perhaps time too should tell when his next album comes out. In all likelihood, Mr. West will be past 40 years old if and when he releases his next album, by which time he will hopefully be in a peaceful, calm, successful place, much like his mentor Jay-Z. He has given us the story of his life on wax, the world must now wait.