Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo Review
1. “UltraLight Beam”
2. “Father Stretch My Hands” Part 1
3. “Father Stretch My Hands” Part 2
6. “Low Lights”
7. “High Lights”
8. “Freestyle 4”
9. “I Miss the Old Kanye”
11. “Real Friends” featuring Ty Dolla $ign
12. “Wolves” featuring Sia & Vic Mensa
13. “Silver Surfer Intermission”
14. “30 Hours”
15. “No More Parties in L.A.”
16. “Facts (risarlie Heat Remix)”
There has been a suspicion, among fans and detractors alike, that Kanye West has been obliviously strolling towards catastrophe since 2013. He’s been too busy launching into self-destructive tirades (inspired by both real life prejudice and the persecution complex that’s driven him since day one) while designing luxury clothing brands to notice the zeitgeist passing him by. The narrative writes itself: the imperious taste maker who willing admits to being “70% focused on apparel” drops his first universally derided LP and the emperor, to the amusement of millions, is revealed to be wearing no clothes.
The trouble is The Life Of Pablo isn’t a bad album in any way, shape or form. Nor is it a seismic shift in the zeitgeist (an introduction to a future sound set to shape the face of pop music, once the more safety conscious execs and superstars decide it’s safe to follow suit). Instead, The Life Of Pablo is an album capable of both pleasing and alienating every iteration of Kanye fan (from chopped-soul lovers of The College Dropout to those who worship at the alter of the nightmarish, nervous breakdown that was Yeezus). Confoundingly, Kanye West is peddling nostalgia while embracing the avant-garde. He’s following trends (trap) and imitating his peers (Drake, Future) while still sounding like an erratic genius going slowly insane on an artistic island of his own making, where no other rapper dare tread.
Fittingly, seeing as Yeezy appears to deal exclusively in contradictions: The Life Of Pablo might just be the Kanye West album that no single person wanted, but that will be more warmly embraced than anything he’s released since 2007’s Graduation.
The extremes are terrifying, consider “Feedback”: a stark void is filled by squealing minimalistic loop that grows steadily more contorted and atonal as Kanye slowly loses his mind. Ye’s vocal feels inspired, recalling his pink-polos-and-backpack past (“Wake Up Mr. West”) with a flow that will thrill fans of old, but with lyrics that speak to his current predicament (“name one genius that ain’t crazy?”). “Feedback’s” crescendo is staggering – as the intensity of the media’s glare, West’s own inflated ego and the thought of cops gunning down young black men combine to send Kanye over the edge: the beat drops, he shrieks wildly, declaring himself “The ghetto Oprah” and his wild scream is then mirrored by distorted wrenching cry of the beat.
It’s at moments like this that it’s worth remembering that Kanye West is primarily a pop star and, in six months time, sold out arenas will be dancing to these ultra abstract and disturbing creations. It’s hard to think of a single star of West’s stature, who would risk exposing mainstream audiences to sonics this daring (Beyonce, maybe?). There are 18-year-old artists who are still trying to resurrect tired boom-bap beats while other upstarts rap over second hand EDM – in the meantime, this 38-year-old mentally unstable millionaire is creating sounds that feel more comfortable alongside Holly Herndon’s Platform than Jay-Z’s Blueprint. Amazingly, Hudson Mowhake’s “Freestyle 4” arrangement is, arguably, more demented and uncompromising still.
If “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” show West force feeding the mainstream the futuristic fringe, then “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.II” and “FACTS” are the polar opposite. The latter has been greatly improved since its initial release, but it is still one of West’s weakest and most truly pointless releases: a triumphalist shot at Nike that mimics Drake’s “Jumpman” flow while repurposing “Back to Back’s” punchlines. It is staggering to think that Kanye West once decided that stadium sized anthems “Clique”, “Mercy”, “New God Flow”, “Don’t Like (remix)”, “Cold”, “Only One” and “All Day” were not worthy of gracing a Kanye West LP, and yet, “FACTS” (a thoughtless throwaway) made the final cut. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.2” is far better effort. Carried by a Desiigner hook (a young Future inspired rapper), the track sees West chasing trap’s tail. The end result is a pleasing piece of music and a potential hit, but that’s all: a solid piece with its ear to street rather than its eyes on the horizon.
More often than not, The Life Of Pablo manages to drift between the extremes of plagiarism and innovation (old Ye and modern Yeezus), settling on a happy compromise that produces, not watered down retreads, but some of West’s best material to date. “Ultralight Beam” is a masterpiece. Kanye clearly has next to nothing to say (more on that later), instead he’s happy to vibe on the pillar of strength that is his faith while recognizing the trick of the light that is superstardom. Rather than hogging the limelight, Kanye lends this gorgeous, minimalist lurch between the earthly void and heavenly ambrosia to Chance The Rapper. Chi-town’s man of the moment is a Kanye super fan and you can practically hear the smile on his face as he delivers a show stealing (and highly referential) soliloquy. Chance floats on air as he sings ad-libs and chortles; “I’m just having fun with it” (and he most certainly is). The contrast between the young man’s airy and effortless verse and West’s tortured, stately chorus proves astoundingly poignant – you can almost feel a conflicted Kanye, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, enviously looking at Chance and picking out the silhouette of his younger, more buoyant self.
Chance proved instrumental in ensuring that “Waves” made TLOP’s final cut (delaying the release a day in the process) and West should be thankful for the rapper’s intervention. “Waves” is strange listen at first. Warped autotuned vocals are forced into the foreground as male and female screams counterpoint one another from east and west. It’s unnerving and hard to make sense of this dense, maximal weight of sound, but in the context of the album it provides a heavenly release as Chris Brown’s hook offers a glimpse of humanity atop West’s shuddering, syncopated conveyor belt to the cloud city.
“FML”, “Real Friends” and “Wolves” follow and seemingly round out The Life Of Pablo as a cohesive listen – everything beyond “Wolves” feels like an unnatural attachment, the product of artistic indecision. However, these three tracks see Kanye doing what he’s always done best – being outrageous and apocryphal while acknowledging his own hypocrisy and hideous impulses.
The first plunges the listener from the high of “Waves” into a lonely bedroom as West comes to term with the fact that he can no longer risk his livelihood and family life chasing women. Yeezus saw West rebelling (kicking, screaming and railing like a child) against the idea of settling down to married life; on “FML” he’s simultaneously mourning the loss of freedom and celebrating the mental strength it takes to resist temptation. Neither a celebration nor damnation, Kanye is trapped in purgatory. On an album full of dreadful, thoughtless lyrics it’s refreshing to see the megalomaniac-in-chief baring his soul with a selection of insights that scrape deep beneath the surface: “Even though I always fuck my life up, only I can mention it”, “you ain’t never seen anything crazier than this nigga off his lexipro” and, finally, “they don’t wanna see me love you”.
This image of West is fascinating: the superstar on anti-depressants disgusted with himself, but convinced that the world is willing his life, love and relationship to crumble around him. It’s echoed on “Real Friends”, another masterstroke, that sees West unable to relate to or trust his own family. He’s travelled so far into the realm of fiction (sheltered from normalcy by the Kardashian celebrity cocoon), that he’s incapable of conducting the most basic of human relationships. Sure there are gold diggers, but he’s become a deadbeat cousin, incapable of conversation, lacking a true confidants and unwilling to trust anyone. Is he running from the imaginary doubts polluting his subconscious? Possibly, but when a family member attempts to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars, who could he possibly confide in with any confidence?
“Wolves” completes the suite and sees West achieving the impossible – he has garnered sympathy for his own, irredeemable self. Alienated, alone and cornered by bloodsuckers, Yeezy might have his millions, but he’s a prisoner in his own mind – a paranoid echo chamber of menacing howls and self-destructive impulses. “If ya momma knew how you turned out, “you too wild, you too wild” and I need you now”, he cries in a touching moment, which, naturally enough, he follows by inexplicably comparing himself to Joseph and Kim K to the Virgin Mary. The overall experience is surreal, like walking through rotting gothic cathedral, a memorial to the insanity of celebrity.
It’s frustrating then, that the same Kanye West who is capable of juggling themes of alienation and excess, self-destruction and repentance, continues to deliver some of the most unpleasant and idiotic lines imaginable. On West’s first proper verse on The Life Of Pablo he gives the game away: “I’d be worried if they said nothing”. Those seven words are Kanye’s new credo as he launches a series punchlines that amount to nothing more than pathetic, occasional misogynistic, trolling. West is not the provocateur he once was. When he jokes about Taylor Swift, Amber Rose, Bill Cosby and any number of idiotic topics, he is not channeling early-Eminem and continuing the great artist tradition of shocking the hypersensitive guardian’s of societal taboos – he is just trolling for attention’s sake.
It’s a shame, because some of The Life Of Pablo’s best songs thrive on Kanye’s tone, but rely on the listener pretty much ignoring what Yeezy is actually saying. “Famous” is brilliant from start to finish. The beat proves an absolute delight. Mr. West is up to his old tricks, sacrilegiously mutating revered works to make something truly new. The way the Sister Nancy and Jimmy Webb samples combine to transform this gritty club jam into sun soaked faux-Jamaican lilt is simply astounding. The now notorious lyric about Taylor Swift proves an unnecessary distraction. The music is beautiful and West’s very next line (“for all the girls who got dick from Kanye West, if you see them give them Kanye’s best/they mad they ain’t famous”) ties more succinctly into album’s key themes without insulting anyone’s intelligence.
So what do we make of the five tracks that follow “Wolves”? Well, this is where Kanye’s uncharacteristic uncertainty comes to the fore. West agonized over this release; changing the album’s title four times before delaying the drop and constantly reshuffling the track list. For a legendary perfectionist to be so indecisive, insecure and, ultimately, sloppy is staggering (some of The Life Of Pablo’s tracks are clearly unfinished and the album’s conclusion makes no sense).
“30 Hours” is a gorgeous listen for about two minutes as West raps alongside Arthur Russell’s seductive, but enigmatic croon. Unfortunately, West decided to jump into the studio directly after Friday’s MSG launch party to turn “30 Hours” into a riff/shout out track (i.e. a meandering mess). The “Silver Surfer Intermission” is another aberration (like “FACTS”) this phone call from Max B adds nothing to the LP and only serves to further one of Kanye’s beefs (this time with Wiz Khalifa, which half the world will have already willingly forgotten).
“Fade” and “No More Parties In LA” are more understandable inclusions. Both tracks are sublime. The latter is sonically incongruous and would have worked just fine as a stand alone single, but few will complain about hearing Yeezy and Kendrick Lemar deliver lengthy and inspired verses. West had “Fade” earmarked as the album’s closer from the jump and its easy to see why: a natural successor to “Wolves”, it offers a last chance at salvation from neither the church nor his own mind, but by raising a glass, hitting the floor and dancing the blues away to one of the finest beats imaginable.
Is it Kim’s love that’s fading or are the dark thoughts finally receding as Kanye ascends? That is the open question fans and critics should be grappling with at The Life Of Pablo’s conclusion. Unfortunately, the four preceding tracks muddy the water allowing both momentum and cohesion to dissipate.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to stand back from The Life Of Pablo and not be impressed. West has next to nothing to say and has, somewhat miraculously, managed to muster some profound reflections on fame and his own psychosis. He had no sense of direction, no ability to draw the line, and yet, he’s produced a record that will take the listener on an avant-garde journey from gospel choirs through flashing lights and dirty dancefloors to desolate hotel rooms and distrustful family gatherings. Yeezy has no great sonic evolution in store, but The Life Of Pablo still manages to sound like very little else – with a couple of obvious indebted exceptions, its hard to imagine any other mainstream superstar daring to dance to these beats.
Did Kanye lose his nerve and balls it up at the eleventh hour? Possibly, but “nearly and not quite” is a radical improvement on what many were expecting. This was supposed to be the moment when Kanye West fell flat on his face and the whole world pointed and laughed as one – instead, The Life Of Pablo is a crowd-pleasing contradiction. The moment when we can all sit back and say: that crazy mothafucka might be a monumental pillock, but, you know what? He still makes some damn good tunes.