the life of pablo
Making sense of Kanye's seventh studio effort.
By Ryan Wentz
Amidst a now infamous rollout for his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West tweeted, “This is not the album of the year. This is the album of the life.” However ambitious a proclamation it was, in hindsight there is a searing truth to his words. Kanye indeed seems to know himself best. TLOP represents the entirety of his tumultuous career; both lyrically and sonically, it is quintessential Kanye. Like each of his six previous records, TLOP is defined by the peaks it reaches. And boy are those peaks high: each emotion he explores is the most intense version of itself. But what distinguishes TLOP from its predecessors is its scope. Here, he foregoes adhering to a consistent sound. Rather, Kanye intricately zig-zags through each dimension of himself. Within the eighteen tracks of TLOP, you hear it all. There is Kanye at his most braggadocious and then Kanye at his most self-aware, his most perverted and his most pure.
The album begins with “Ultralight Beam,” a triumphant, introspective track that ranks among the best of his career, highlighting Kanye’s ability to merge disparate sounds. Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, The-Dream, and Chance the Rapper offer passionate words about faith; sandwiched between the guest appearances is the man himself, clearly affected by the world around him, “Pray for Paris/Pray for the parents.” He reflects on tragedy and tenderly identifies with loss as a father of two.
The album’s variety forces listeners to adapt to sudden changes in tone. “Ultralight Beam”— which is gospel at its core — is followed by “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” a song in which Kanye muses about getting bleach from a model’s asshole on his t-shirt. The beat, co-produced by hip-hop whiz Metro Boomin’, is as raucous as the song’s lyrics; it is an extreme departure from the softness of the song prior. “Pt. 2” returns to introspection, “I just wanna feel liberated,” Kanye repeats; but in many ways, he already is. The creative freedom that Kanye exercises throughout TLOP is shocking. He challenges the listener to empathize and to reject him, to love and to hate him. He’s “Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin.” He’s Pablo Picasso and Pablo Escobar. There is nothing comfortable about Kanye and there never has been. On TLOP more than ever, he remains the 21st century pop culture icon that divides the dinner table. As his career has developed, he has embraced this role more and more. We have seen him boldly criticize George W. Bush on live TV, boldly criticize the VMAs, boldly criticize the hierarchy of the fashion world, the Grammys. We’ve seen him mourn his mother, his popularity, his debt. This has all been covered thoroughly by the media, but no story seems nuanced enough to illuminate the whole. That’s where TLOP comes in. This is the manifesto of a controversial icon’s last twelve years in the spotlight.
In some instances, like in “Famous,” Kanye’s contradictions are compressed into one song. There’s Rihanna’s soaring Nina Simone impression followed by the highly publicized Taylor Swift jab. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous,” he casually spits. Understandably the line has generated controversy, but there is simply too much sonic beauty in the song’s three minutes for one petty line to rain on the parade. The song is ripe with an eclectic mix of sounds: it closes with a sample of Sister Nancy’s reggae classic “Bam Bam,” which leads into Simone repeating Rihanna’s hook. No other rapper has the taste nor the balls to approach this level of complexity. We’re four years removed from Yeezus, but Kanye’s fire is still there.
The variety sometimes gives the record a disjointed quality. Songs move from one to another, each with their own distinct sound. Yet in context, the album could not be more cohesive — not with a sound, but with a psyche. Each track freshly resembles a work of his past. “Freestyle 4” carries with it the intensity of a Yeezus track. Its eerie production and twisted lyrics recall “I’m In It.” “What if we fuck right now?/What if we fucked right in the middle/Of this motherfuckin’ dinner table/What if we just fucked at the Vogue party/Would we be the life of the whole party?/Shut down the whole party/Would everybody start fuckin’?” Kanye reveals to the listener an outlandish sexual fantasy in an album he proclaimed to be gospel. “FML,” a track that mixes the futuristic sounds of 808s & Heartbreak with the maximalist My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy presents a man with flaws. The same man who just three years ago released a song titled “I Am A God (ft. God)” reminisces on failed vacations: “See, before I let you go/One last thing I need to let you know/You ain’t ever seen nothing crazier than/This nigga when he off his Lexapro/Remember that last time in Mexico/Remember that last time, the episode.” Beneath the hard shell that Kanye has built up publicly, he is still the master of self-awareness.
Kanye uses his loud voice to illuminate social injustice, too. On “Feedback,” Kanye digests his identity. He is a “rich slave in the fabric store picking cotton.” His final verse on the song ends with “Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us/Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us.” The harsh reality of race relations in the 21st century has been a talking point for Kanye since his debut, The College Dropout. His tenacious flow — in which he melds sadness and humor — reappears on “No More Parties in L.A.” again reminiscent of Kanye’s early work. “Every agent I know, know I hate agents/I’m too black, I’m too vocal, I’m too flagrant/Something smellin’ like shit, that’s the new fragrance/It’s just me, I do it my way, bitch,” he spits. Several lines later he criticizes himself for being “A 38-year-old eight-year-old with rich nigga problems.”
As mentioned before, the album is not without classically questionable Kanyeisms. Brags about money and women pollute the outstanding production of some songs. “I bet me and Ray J would be friends/If we ain’t love the same bitch/Yeah, he might have hit it first/Only problem is I’m rich.” These lines feel particularly petty compared to the Biblical references used in several other songs from the record. In the end, though, the contradictions that challenge the listener are the very ethos of Pablo, from its soaring musicality to its work-in-progress messiness, its prophetic ideas to its trivial gags. It’s Kanye West, embodying his complicated alter ego Pablo, wrapped up into eighteen songs, many of them brilliant.
Originally published 05/10/16