Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’: Album Review
What Kanye West realized, brilliantly, with the epic two-year-plus process that saw The Life Of Pablo finally released early Sunday morning (February 14), was that the build-up to the release of an album can be a 21st century art piece in and of itself. He kept anyone who was paying attention repeatedly off balance for something like 27 months with a steady stream of half-formed ideas, aborted concepts, teased collaborations, legit bangers, constantly changing album titles, stunning live performances and puzzling fashion shows, all of which were narrated with sudden bursts of colorful interviews and a series of infuriating/troubling/confounding/brilliant Twitter rants.
Stepping back from the spectacle we’ve all been watching with voyeuristic glee since the album was announced in late 2013, you can see a man fraying at the seams in sometimes concerning ways. But West managed to use this time as both a canvas and a whiteboard, capturing and sharing his creative process like a hyperactive teen stitching together thousands of Snapchat stories. This seemingly improvised instability only comes in sharper relief when listening to the album itself, which is truly sprawling in terms of sonics, themes and quality. That The Life Of Pablo turned out to be the most transitional and uneven record of West’s career, with 2007’s excellent but unfocused Graduation coming in a faint second, proves definitively that it’s the product of the conditions in which it was created. It’s now obvious Kanye never had a clear vision for what T.L.O.P. would become, but it might actually offer the most honest and clear snapshot of his personality to this point in his career.
Starting with “Ultralight Beam,” a show-stopper of a gospel-hip-hop track, Kanye is reaffirming his faith, desperately avoiding what he perceives to be a personal darkness. West is constantly writing music about this struggle, and with the support of a gospel choir, the angel-voiced Kelly Price and Chance The Rapper’s album-winning verse, he gets other people to do the heavy lifting, staying further back in the track than anticipated. What the ensuing songs make clear is that the darkness creeping into Kanye’s head is driven by the allure of the Hollywood life and all the problems that accompany it and his toxic relationships to women. All of his highs are fueled by his limitless ego that has (rightly) never extinguished over a 12-year career, and the lows are crippled by a sense of self-loathing that is always bubbling just below the surface.
The dual “Father Stretch My Hands” is both a self-hating wallow in this darkness and a deflection of its true consequences. Coming across as a hybrid of the proggy maximalism of MBDTF and the druggy trap music of sing-rap MCs like Young Thug and Future (whose preferred producer Metro Boomin produced Pt. 1), West dusts off the Auto-Tune to try on an approximation of both rappers’ signature styles. The Rihanna-assisted burner “Famous” is gorgeous for its ringing beat and chopped-up Sister Nancy coda, and a bummer for Kanye digging on lazy verses dedicated to Taylor Swift (“I made that bitch famous,” which she famously responded to during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year at the Grammys) and all the women he claims wanted to get famous after fucking him.
Repeatedly on T.L.O.P., when Ye needs to fill some bars, he relies on hideous misogyny in lyrics that either treat women like shit for no reason or blame them for trying to trap rich men through their sexuality. He explored similar themes with more depth, humor and nuance many times over the course of his career, but there are so many instances on this record where they seem like knee-jerk retreads, a man’s myopic fixations that have festered into cynicism and hate.
If there’s one holdover from the Yeezus era, it’s “Feedback,” with its creaking synth squeal of a beat, flickering moments of social consciousness (“Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us / Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us”), self-awareness/self-destruction (“Name one genius that isn’t crazy”) and the best bars from West on the album. But there’s still some nerve that’s missing. Kanye has the energy but there’s soul missing to it, especially compared to the searing fury of a track like “New Slaves,” to which it bears passing similarity.
That soul resides in the triptych of the down-tempo emo-rap/808s throwback “FML,” which features a fantastic assist from The Weeknd, the simple, defeated lament of “Real Friends” and the chilly apocalypse of “Wolves.” “FML” is genuinley emotional, and recalls both “Runaway” and “Blood On The Leaves” in terms of self-directed anguish over lack of control (“You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than /This ni**a when he off his Lexapro”) and repeated temptations creeping in on his family life. “Real Friends” is just heartbreakingly honest with disappointment, and you can hear Kanye’s disillusionment with the ways friendships and family warp in the face of fame. It’s not revolutionary but it doesn’t need to be, since it’s a surprise moment of pathos forcing you to reexamine/forgive/love Kanye all over again. Once “Wolves” rolls around, with its sparse, echoing beat, Caroline Shaw ghost vocals and Ye taking up the Auto-Tune, you can feel his defenses tighten again. He’s disgraced himself (“If your Mama knew how you turned out”) and reaches out for love (“I need you now”), and imagines Kim as Mary, himself as Joseph tucked away from the world, only to realize the walls are closing in on their flock (“Cover Nori in lamb’s wool / we surrounded by the fucking wolves”).
That image was burned into my mind through the album’s final four tracks, and it made me realize The Life Of Pablo (which Kanye clarified was a reference to Paul the Apostle, the messenger, not Pablo Picasso) shows the ways in which West both embraces the world and hates what it does to him. He fires off in different directions at different targets, but knows he can’t control and neutralize every threat he recognizes. He believes in the power of god and his own genius, he loves his wife and children. As for the rest of us? We better witness, or get the fuck out of his way.
Idolator Score: 4/5