THE LIFE OF PABLO by Kanye West
Genre: Experimental Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Ultralight Beam,” “Famous,” “Feedback,” “Waves,” “Real Friends,” “Wolves,” “No More Parties in LA,” “FACTS (Charlie Heat Version),” “Fade”
The much anticipated seventh album from Mr. West, THE LIFE OF PABLO, is without a doubt the album that was expected in conception and ambition, if not necessarily execution. Having successfully pushed the paradigms and parameters of what mainstream hip hop is and what mainstream hip hop artists can do with 808S & HEARTBREAK (wherein Mr. West uses the previously maligned milieu of Auto-Tune to process “unattractive” emotions unavailable to many artists in the limelight, especially those creating hip hop), MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY (wherein Mr. West demonstrates his propensity for being the epitome of maximalist aesthetic in both scope and self-absorption), and YEEZUS (wherein an alienated Mr. West completely perverts the a pirori contracts between the products celebrities produce and the people that consume them), the world waited with bated breath for just what he would pull out of his back pocket with the album formerly known as SO HELP ME GOD. THE LIFE OF PABLO is best summed up by the phrase Kanye repeats in album opener “Ultralight Beam”: a God dream, a man standing at a precipice and giving a longing look to the Heavenly realms that lay just out of reach. THE LIFE OF PABLO is inconsistent in both tone and artistic merit. But its existence as the perfect dichotomy between its higher-arching transcendental aims and the base, hedonistic turmoil bubbling under its surface posit it as an idiosyncratic text that only someone with the rich and storied history and ego of Kanye West could produce.
Let us first deal with “Pablo” as Saint Paul, arguably (if not factually) the most vocal proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The religious aesthetics of THE LIFE OF PABLO are immediately apparent and continue to one degree or another throughout the course of its runtime. This is most apparent on the aforementioned “Ultralight Beam,” as a sample ripped from an Instagram post regales us with an unfiltered Christian message before gospel chords flux and flow with a fretless bass and an unfrittered filtered drum backbeat, allowing Kanye’s religious ruminations to be at the forefront of our consciousness. As Kanye lulls us into our pews, a choir slowly starts intersecting with the contributions of both he and The-Dream to an increasingly prominent degree, lobbing a softball for Kelly Price to hit out of the park with her ripping solo. This is only the most tangential of hip hop (Chance the Rapper’s impressive technicality over the most skeletal of beats is all we have in that camp), and in that regard it’s Kanye’s most impressive artistic statement present on the album, as he successfully extrapolates the function of an entirely separate genre (gospel) to his home stadium and walks away triumphant.
The “throughline” of gospel can also clearly be detected on follow-up “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” as a sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett details the all-encompassing power of an unspecified person’s influence. This time around, however, Kanye’s throwing his support and love behind Yeezus Christ, as despite all of the innovative chord progressions in the vocal lines, the song can be boiled down to an Amber Rose diss track. While it’s perfectly understandable for a “God,” as it were, to reflect fondly upon their own power, it becomes somewhat less powerful when presented as another installment in the unending demonstration of Kanye’s presumed dominance over an ex he buried long ago. The incessantly optimistic wash of hi-hat and Kanye’s joyous Auto-Tune antics guarantee the track will never be skipped, but one must ask themselves why Kanye’s still rapping about fucking models with bleached assholes if he’s a grown-ass man married with two kids. But at least Kanye’s introspection stretches to an apology that he’s sorry for any past instigation, the personal nature of this confession carrying over to the thematically superior second installment. Kanye offers a rare look into his relationship with his father (“All his time, all he had, all he had/In what he dreamed/All his cash, market crashed/Hurt him bad, people got divorced for that”) and waxes poetic once again about the passing of his mother, willfully offering up a possible Achilles heel for the Yeezy God construct. That is, until Future-soundalike and new G.O.O.D Music signee Desiigner offers a competent but atmospherically unsynchronized recitation of the various manifestations of his wealth.
Even perhaps when put up against “Ultralight Beam,” “Low Lights” is the most unapologetically religious, existing as an extended reference to Saint Paul’s writings in Romans 8:38-39. It’s a perfectly pleasant interlude, but occurs far too early in the album, effectively signifying the end of Kanye as straight-laced prophet before he even had a chance to begin. That is why the religious aspects of THE LIFE OF PABLO can only be regarded as a superficially attractive coat of paint; it wouldn’t be worth commenting on if it weren’t for the fact that it puts such an adamant foot forward. That being said, we still have “Pablo” as Saint Paul in Kanye’s adoration for his muse and goddess, Kim Kardashian. This is most aggressively present on album highlight “Wolves,” where Kanye pours his heart out over a beat reminiscent of Cortex’s “Huit Octobre 1971,” thanking Kim for her support of him during the dark nights of the soul and offering a misguided but earnest metaphor between Kimye and Mary and Joseph of Biblical fame (“What if Mary was in the club/When she met Joseph around hella thugs?”).
If there’s one thing that can be garnered from THE LIFE OF PABLO, it’s that Kanye really loves his wife, which can’t be something we all haven’t wondered about one time or another. Despite, as many have pointed out, that he’s rather tone-deaf, lines such as “I been waiting for a minute/For my lady/So I can’t jeopardize that for one of these hoes” are sweet in their own Kanye way. When West deigns to explore more adult topics, the album soars to its highs. “FML” in general is amongst the cream of the crop, as Kanye becomes shockingly intimate, discussing his intense devotion to family in the face of his struggles with his own anger and media scrutiny. Unfortunate use of “tribe check a hoe” aside (although it is complimented by a humorous homonym of “indian”), this is what we expect from someone who’s been on this Earth for almost four decades, and our hopes are resolutely met and exceeded by the best track on the album, “Real Friends.” Featuring the most melancholic of manipulated strings to back him, Kanye refuses to apologize but at least comes clean about the deleterious effects his hyper-mediated lifestyle has caused on both his own persona and his relationship to others. Paired with Ty Dolla $ign taking the perspective of Kanye’s former associates, this is “Pablo” as Picasso, vulnerable auteur and artist.
Conveniently enough, the track that Picasso is explicitly namechecked in gives “Real Friends” a run for its place on the pedestal. “No More Parties in LA” is an absolute sore thumb in terms of a solidified production atmosphere (understandably so, as it allegedly originated as part of the MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY sections), but this is Kanye returning to full form as a volatile and dangerous hip hop artist. As a percussive guitar lick ideal for looping hypnotizes us, Kanye acts as an animal on the mic, proving true his boast that “the writer’s block is over,” urging emcees to cancel their plans. Although Kendrick is certainly a hard presence to ignore, he’s become so ubiquitous at this point that Kanye easily outlaps him.
In terms of artistic vision, “Fade” proves to be the perfect bookend to “Ultralight Beam,” as it’s something no one else would have the courage to attempt and include on something fancied as a hip hop album. Although Ye’s contributions themselves are mostly guttural non-sentences, the slinking instrumentation feels like it’s ripped right out of a 90s house club and the contributions of Rare Earth and Ms. Barbara Tucker are charismatic enough that they’re rendered as much of an organically featured artist as Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone (whose appearance could have been seamlessly employed on YEEZUS). Ye proves to be a more traditionally captivating emcee on “30 Hours,” which makes full use of an earworm of a detuned vocal sample and an unstoppable snare-predicated drum beat as he reflects upon himself as a young artist and lover. However, with lines such as “But you were suckin’ a nigga’s dick the whole time/Well I guess a blowjob’s better than no job,” we have our third and final “Pablo” present, “Pablo” as Pablo Escobar.
I know that Kanye refuses to acknowledge the presence of Picasso and Escobar-related Pablos, but considering that Escobar is directly referenced on “Feedback,” I find these claims dubious. On “Feedback,” the comparisons are unproblematic. Over an indeed piercing, feedback-based beat that could have easily made YEEZUS, Kanye sounds more explicitly dangerous than on “No More Parties in LA,” viciously snarling “Y’all sleeping on me, huh? Had a good snooze?” and showing no remorse to his seemingly manic antics. The Escobar carries over in the danger and the unfiltered braggadocio nature. BUT, the Escobar “Pablo” contributes to nearly everything bad that can be said about the album, as the lyricism and unabashed objectification it inspires is hard to forgive. Even if tenuously presented as a drug-addled sexual freakout, album lowpoint “Freestyle 4” sinks on lines such as “What the, what the fuck right now?/What if we fuck right now?/What if we fucked right in the middle/Of this motherfuckin’ dinner table?”
Most of the album’s criticisms revolve around the lyricism in general, unappealing thematics aside. The fact of the matter is that “I need every bad bitch up in Equinox/I want to know right know if you a freak or not” (“Highlights”) is never going to a be sing-along chorus, and the ethereal triumph of Chris Brown (!!!)’s contributions on “Waves” is nearly derailed by utterings such as “And she grabbin’ on my dick like/She wanna see if it’ll fit right.” Kanye has attained such an unbelievable realm of rarified air that it’s likely nothing he can say will be able to drag him down (look at how many of us still eagerly anticipated the release despite his claims that Bill Cosby is innocent). This has put him in a position of quite literally being able to say whatever he wants, and it’s hard to pretend that some of the glimpses into the darker corners of his psyche don’t turn up frightening results. “Famous” features fluidly menacing organs and a cavernous snare hit that sounds like 808S & HEARTBREAK on steroids, but Kanye’s apparently deluded claims about his name-dropping of Taylor Swift and the fact that he insists all of his exes still hold grudges about their lack of fame is dangerous at worst and disheartening at best (although the sunny tropical nature of the final vocal sample segment alone makes it one of the standout tracks on the album).
This vindicated Escobar “Pablo” is best manifested in “I Love Kanye,” which is a viciously clever shot at all of his critics, but the “clever” nature is the key to whether these tantrums land. This points to the most head-scratching inclusion on the tracklist, “FACTS (Charlie Heat Version).” Although a perfectly acceptable throwaway single, a caustic attack on Nike just has no real effect either way on what’s explored over the course of the rest of the album. Furthermore, the overt sonic and structural references to Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” feels undeniably topical. Thankfully, Kanye’s gleeful exposure of everything wrong with his rival shoe company and foes in a more general sense is a treat to listen to, and only a (perhaps erroneous) Mr. West could sell “Plus Kimoji just shut down the app store, ah!” with as much vitriol as he does.
Clearly, there’s a lot to say about this album. Just like the man who created it, THE LIFE OF PABLO is ambitious, talented, and not afraid to entirely own a glaring misstep. Of the three “Pablo”’s presented, the introspective Picasso is the one that yields the most consistent returns. The religious elements are almost entirely a red herring and there’s almost no sense of tonal cohesion, but this is exactly the album I expected Kanye to release in 2016. A melting pot of the best parts of his last three records, THE LIFE OF PABLO has trouble juggling whether it wants to be a grandiose and exquisite circus of literal and figurative fantasy fulfillment, an emotional look at the man behind a steadily growing mythology, or an exuberant airing of ignorance. But truthfully, I think Kanye struggles with the same questions.