Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
By: Steven Norwalk
Near the end of “30 Hours,” a track off of Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye casually brainstorms lyrical ideas as the song’s murky, nocturnal beat continues underneath. He formulates premises for witty rhymes that are never finished, opting to display the struggle of creation instead of the final product. By providing a glimpse into the rapper’s creative process, this informal and unguarded moment captures the album’s unconventional aesthetic. Much like its patchy cover art and ramshackle rollout, the album eschews sleekness in favor of authenticity. Kanye frequently rants about the necessity of creating without censorship, of speaking without fear. The Life of Pablo is a musical manifestation of that ideal, an LP that strives to create a truly genuine exchange between artist and audience, sometimes to a fault.
The album begins with one of its finest tracks, the glorious “Ultralight Beam.” A beautiful ray of positivity, the song immediately establishes the album as a departure from the dark desolation of Yeezus (2013) and introduces one of the few threads holding its disparate elements together: faith. The song is an unaffected hymn to the Creator (refreshingly, not to Kanye himself) that features one of the album’s best verses, courtesy of Chance the Rapper. Chance’s idiosyncratic rhymes breathe hope into the heart of the track, embracing the listener like the comforting arms of a friend. In addition to Chance’s verse, the track’s show-stopping choir and life-affirming performance by R&B singer Kelly Price help “Ultralight Beam” reach sublime heights, setting the bar high for the following tracks.
The gospel-inflected sound of the first song does not define the rest of the album. Instead, it prepares the listener for a much more challenging journey through both extremes of Kanye’s psyche. There are moments when Kanye injects his music with doses of unadulterated joy: the “Bam Bam” sample near the end of “Famous” practically forces the listener to smile, and the production on “Waves” approaches the angelic. But, just as often, he probes the shadowy recesses of his mind. On “FML,” the Weeknd’s heartbreaking chorus highlights both artists’ self-destructive tendencies; in “Freestyle 4,” an eerie string sample combines with fragmented stream-of-consciousness rhymes to sketch a disturbing portrait of Yeezy at his most intoxicated and sex-obsessed; during “Real Friends,” Kanye reflects on the devolution of relationships, while Ty Dolla $ign’s devastating interjections lend the track emotional weight. This intermixing of light and dark reflects Kanye’s world—a world brightened by his faith in God and love for his family, and darkened by the persistence of temptation and the never-ending trials of fame.
Though Kanye has become increasingly egotistical as his career has progressed, his musical arrangements on The Life of Pablo are marked by humility. Just like when he let Nicki Minaj steal the show on “Monster,” or when he let Rick Rubin strip Yeezus down into its raw final incarnation, Kanye once again highlights the talents of his collaborators in order to deliver the best product possible. And luckily his taste is impeccable. Kanye hands the poetic outro of “Wolves” to the reliably phenomenal Frank Ocean, who imbues the lyrics with a subtle weariness. On “Highlights,” Kanye incorporates Young Thug’s quirky ebullience into his victory lap. Ever since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) Kanye has acutely understood that, sometimes, he shines brightest as the conductor of the orchestra, and not the performer. This awareness permeates The Life of Pablo.
Kanye’s latest offering is by no means a perfect album. For one, It is remarkably inconsistent, slotting weak tracks like “Feedback” and “FACTS (Charlie Heat Version)” next to standouts like “Famous” and “No More Parties in L.A.,” respectively. Further, it lacks cohesion, abruptly shifting between tones and styles. Kanye sacrifices continuity and coherence in the name of merciless efficiency, and as a result, delivers an album that feels unfinished and sloppy. Yet these imperfections do not detract from the overall quality of the album. On the contrary, they make it singular; they transform The Life of Pablo into the statement Kanye needed to make. By not shaving away the rough edges of the album—the crude transitions, the out-of-place samples, the capricious interludes—and refusing to conform to any sort of overarching theme or sound, Kanye has made the most genuine statement of his career. He has successfully stitched his far-ranging ambitions and diverse influences into a magnificent musical patchwork.
The closest point of comparison for The Life of Pablo is the Beatles’ White Album. On their 1968 LP, the seemingly infallible foursome blended novelty songs, throwaway tracks, and noise experiments with some of their most beautiful melodies, innovative arrangements and powerful songwriting. Just as with Pablo, the album’s many flaws added to its unique character, rendering it an eternally fascinating mess. The Beatles and Kanye West were both able to release albums of this nature because of their unbridled ambition and self-confidence, as well as their unique position at the top of the pop hierarchy. These conditions afforded them the opportunity to challenge the conceptions of what a rock album, or, in Kanye’s case, rap album, could be. Whether or not The Life of Pablo follows the White Album into the popular music canon, it’s sheer boldness, not to mention top notch collection of songs, has made it unforgettable, and proved it a worthy entry in Kanye West’s consistently stunning catalogue.