Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Record Label: GOOD Music / Def Jam
Release Date: February 14, 2016
I have to give Kanye West the benefit of the doubt.
It’s taken me a long time to type that sentence. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have been an incredibly exciting and frustrating time to be a Yeezy fan, with an album rollout that took “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist” to a whole new level. After he rejoined Twitter, the world was treated to a real-time look at Mr. West’s creative process—the joy of discovery as he patched collaborators, beats, samples, and choirs together into an everchanging mess of (mostly unheard) sound. Most rap listeners followed along with every stitch, watching a signed notepad somehow become more valuable than most people’s cars. It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a transcript of a great artist’s mind in action.
Of course, this direct feed into The Life of Kanye West also led to a staggering number of tweets that could best be characterized as misogynistic and homophobic. He defended the widely accused rapist Bill Cosby. He called out an ex-girlfriend’s child after misreading an abbreviation. News stories about his sexual preferences (and his denials of said preferences) far outpaced stories about the music. It was hard to watch, and impossible to defend.
It was also completely predictable. As most people know by now, the most compelling thing about Kanye West the artist is that is nearly inextricable from Kanye West the man. In his efforts to show us everything, Kanye has never shied away from the parts of him that are the ugliest. In his pursuit of a greater Truth, he has never been interested in political correctness. And in his deep need to get the message across, Kanye has never so much as acknowledged brevity—for better or worse, the man is his own editor.
So yeah, this whole situation is fucked up. It’s led to some incredible writing and conversation about where the boundaries of artistic and critical expression lie, about how much sociopolitical leeway we give popular artists, and (most of all) about how incredibly disappointing it is that one of the most progressive musicians of the 21st century could espouse such regressive views.
But perhaps the most important conversation point of all: in the midst of all this digital turmoil, he actually, you know, released the album.
“I’d be worried if they say nothing,” Kanye croons midway through “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”. Like probably half a dozen other sentences in Kanye’s discography, it’s a line that seemingly encapsulates his entire artistic existence. But unlike other contenders, this thought isn’t crafted into:
- A punchline (Exhibit A: “I’m trying to right my wrongs / But it’s funny, them same wrongs helped me write the songs”)
- A call to arms (B: “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”), or
- A pseudo-celebratory chorus (C: “And I always find something wrong / I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most”).
Instead, it’s offered as an aside, something that most casual listeners might not even notice. And it follows perhaps the least Kanye line of all time: “I don’t really wanna talk about it.”
So here’s the central question that a lot of people are asking throughout Kanye West’s 7th solo album: How much of this is intentional?
Because there’s a lot of “this” here. There’s perfectly chosen samples, from Nina Simone to Section 25. There’s all-time great guest features from The Weeknd and Chance the Rapper, adding to Kanye’s ever-growing list of star-making collaborations. There’s even new ways forward for his sound—roads yet-untaken like the deep house groove of “Fade”, which suggests that Ye has way more in common with Jamie xx than I’d previously imagined.
The problem (if there is one) is that it’s often all of “this” at the same time. Coupled with a “botched” album rollout, the general framing around The Life of Pablo as an album is that it’s a frenetic, structureless mess. Pitchfork critic Steven Hyden recently compared it to a rushed term paper that is “all narrative and virtually no music.” Near-constant tinkering and massive lists of cowriting credits have led to rampant declarations of Kanye having lost his edge, his creativity, and even his mental state.*
*The professor in my very first “Intro to Psych” class warned us against recklessly “pre-diagnosing” people based on noticing a couple of identifiers from the textbook. I wish more music critics had taken that class.
I don’t think this stance holds much water though. After a few dozen spins, there’s really only a few songs that don’t fall together structurally for me. “Famous” is probably the biggest misstep, as the whole song seems geared towards getting the listener to that (brilliant) Nancy Sinatra chop, with a clickbait opening and a Rihanna/Nina Simone juxtaposition that doesn’t really go anywhere. Other songs like “Highlights” and “Waves” feel like stacked hooks and little else, layers on layers of melody to balance out oblique lyrics. At times like this, it’s easy to interpret the album as as a series of such moments, marks of an artist that doesn’t know what he wants.
Or maybe we’re wrong. Maybe he’s just ahead of his time (again).
Let’s start with the landscape of pop culture, one that Kanye has always instinctively understood better than anyone. The keys are repetition and brevity. Both music and media seems to be consolidating around “vibes” and “hooks”: either a loopable phrase that can sustain itself on a dancefloor, or a melodic snippet primed for Snapchat singalongs. Pablo provides both, skipping around so fervently that my first listen gave me whiplash. However, each subsequent one made more of the pieces click into place. Every song is a texture, and an extremely singable one at that.** It feels like a radio mix, or perhaps more accurately a carefully curated playlist. The album’s different moods have a way of balancing each other out, with the extremely melodic harmonies creating a counterpoint to the harshest feedback noise. This is Kanye West, after all—there’s always going to be a contradiction.
**That’s not to say that traditional songwriting is thrown completely out. The album’s two most powerful statements (“FML” and “Ultralight Beam”) are each complete thoughts, showing Kanye at his most open to salvation.
Another thing that’s become clear on this album is that Kanye doesn’t think about rapping the same way that other rappers do. It’s more rhythmic, more emotional, more instinctive. It has gotten increasingly this way since the three minute coda to “Runaway” wordlessly eviscerated himself, and it’s the kind of guttural sensation that’s pulled him into the orbits of Young Thug and Future, who’s influence on this album can’t be understated. It’s absolutely the most “present day” record Kanye has ever put out.
And that seems to be an issue as well, especially with critics and fans who lament that The Life of Pablo doesn’t push rap and pop boundaries forward like prior Kanye solo projects. Yet even though there’s no central musical style underpinning this album (like the orchestral soul that characterized Late Registration or the stadium synths of Graduation), it all coheres as a Statement. Ultimately, this inability to quickly classify The Life of Pablo the way that we have with his other records will hurt its standing in his discography. That’s understandable. It’s easier to revere a pinnacle of form over formlessness.
That formlessness works as its own signpost, especially when you bring lyrics into play. One of my biggest criticisms about Kanye’s recent output has been his shift towards more sparse, repetitive rhyme patterns and language in the interest of getting a clear message across. His verses sound like spur-of-the-moment dictations rather than worked-over creative concepts. But even if I understand the philosophy here, it’s a choice that perhaps worked better on Yeezus.
If there’s a lyrical theme here, I think it’s about searching for some form of salvation. There’s so many moments of musical beauty, but they’re deliberately positioned against moments of lyrical vulgarity to practically demonize Kanye. He’s called this work his “gospel” album, and a lot of the ways he’s portrayed himself has a distinct “Lord, please open my eyes” vibe. He needs it; this is still an album that includes an incredibly bright love song that begins with a singsong verse about bleached assholes. But like always, Kanye’s bluntest words can also be surprisingly nuanced. On a song like “Father Stretch My Hands”, the line “I just want to feel liberated” becomes an excuse for debauchery and a plea for salvation, depending on your reading. Nothing is simple.
This type of content is a natural extension of what Mr. West’s been doing lyrically throughout his career—except before where the manifestation and repentance of his vices had a meeting point, now it’s much less defined. I actually feel like I can trace a pretty clean thematic line between his last few albums. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy represents the apotheosis of this synthesis between sin and salvation; and Yeezus was created as a deliberate turn away from that fusion, towards the profane; then Pablo serves as a way to push the central contradiction of Ye’s art to an even further place.
The way the music continues to reveal itself to me proves that there’s something to get out of it. Others may write this album cycle off as sloppy, but there’s an important difference between “sloppy” and “messy”. And in case you missed it, it’s working. like I said at the jump, I have to give Kanye the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned it.