Being a Kanye West fan has always been a rollercoaster ride of disappointment, shame and pride. His ego is a huge part of why he’s such a great, consistent artist, driving him to do better because he knows he can, but in the weeks leading up to the release of The Life of Pablo, it’s threatened to consume his art whole. The last time the public’s opinion of him was this low, he redeemed himself with easily one of the greatest albums of our time, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s being scrutinised even more these days and managing to piss people off at an even wider scale, thanks to his questionable yet oft entertaining twitter rants. The Life of Pablo hasn’t redeemed him the way MBDTF did, but it’s an admirable attempt.
If anyone ever needed more proof that the longevity of Kanye West’s incredible run of amazing albums (I mean, who else can claim to have an album as good as Graduation be their creative low point?) is the result of him transcending hip-hop as a medium, this album is the biggest piece of evidence. Many great songs on TLOP have Kanye taking a backseat and playing more of a director’s role in the song, coaching his features to be the best versions of themselves, especially evident with Chris Brown on “Waves” and everybody on “Ultralight Beam”.
This album isn’t just a synthesis of his past styles: MBDTF’s grandiose maximalism, 808s’ distant melancholy, Dropout-era’s wry humour & smartly placed soul samples and Yeezus’ jarring, deliberate production. For the first time, you can hear the influence of newer artists, all of whom have been influenced by him at some level. “Highlights” sounds like a Ty Dolla $ign joint filtered through Kanye’s beautiful dark twisted extravagance. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” have features eerily convincingly aping Future’s singing & rapping style. “Freestyle 4” has Kanye going off on Thugger-esque adlibs. “30 Hours” has a flow reminiscent of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same era with a kindred pettiness and nostalgia though that could just be because Drake’s pettiness & nostalgia was modelled off of Kanye.
This album is a lot more deliberate and polished than the messy, awkward, unmissable build up to its release would leave most to believe, but if you’ve really been paying attention to Yeezy, it shouldn’t surprise you too much. After all, many of Yeezus’ verses were written mere days before the album release, so this is just a natural progression. However, the rushed last-minute changes are evident in the somewhat questionable sequencing of the latter half of the album.
Song-for-song, though, it’s even more intricate and measured than you’d expect from Ye. There’s the slow woozy crescendo of “Freestyle 4” that goes ecstatically manic until that Bellville Station stalljtie version of Future brings everything back the a state of comfort for the song’s outro. This is the sort of clever, moody, unsettling production that made Yeezus both so compelling and estranging to some. There’s the eerie nightmare carousel “Friends” sample on “Real Friends” that cleverly enhances the paranoia that goes along with the song’s theme. Those at first jarring sample switches is another thing used to wonderful effect throughout The Life of Pablo, but most noticeably on “No More Parties In LA”, where the samples should make no sense together, but are interpolated in such a way that they build off of each other, and “Famous”, where that Nina Simone sample takes a mildly confusing feature from Rihanna and recontextualises it so it makes a lot more sense (though is still easily the most lacklustre feature of the album). There’s that brilliantly timed sample of Kanye calling himself the ghetto Oprah & offering everyone furs and Jordans in the middle of the frantic and wonderful “Feedback” pulling the reigns a bit on the frenetic energy, but becoming frenzied enough to fit by the end of the in-song skit. Also, who listens to microphone feedback, and decides they’re going to record it and make it a fantastic song and succeed? That takes a wild amount of vision and ego.
There’s so much going on in this album that it’s difficult to process it all the first couple of times. Things that I thought made no sense at first opened up to me, like a flower unfurling in spring. For example, “Waves” seemed so tame and boring, but I realised it’s only because it’s between off-kilter songs like “Freestyle 4” (and the following “I Love Kanye” a cappella rap) and “FML”. I also thought Kendrick Lamar’s “No More Parties in LA” verse was lacklustre when I heard it as a G.O.O.D Fridays release, but in the context of the album, it grew on me to the point where it’s now a favourite. So yes, this is evidently going to be another grower, perhaps even more so than Yeezus.
Kanye was right when he called this a gospel album, but it’s the gospel of Kanye, as he wrestles with religion & family, and his base desires & pride. The long-rumoured The Weeknd feature on “FML”, a song about trying to resist temptations, was genius on the part of Kanye for bringing an artist who deals with the hollowness of excess, sort of a dark angel warning Kanye to not throw away something lasting & fulfilling for cheap empty sex, simply with his presence on the song. Even “Ultralight Beam”, the most evidently gospel-like song on the album, is marred by inner conflict, with his weary cynicism attacking his faith, creating a kind of desperation in the song that perversely makes it all the more joyous and jubilant through its urgency. Elsewhere on the album, gospel and church testimony samples seem to juxtapose his lewd & explicit lyrics, but after repeated listens they meld seamlessly in a way that indicates that he isn’t trying to choose one over the other but finds a way for them to coexist.
This is about as hard as it seems, as Kanye gives into his petty side more on this album than even on MBDTF, taking digs at Nike, the Grammys, Taylor Swift, Amber Rose, Wiz Khalifa, everyone crying for college trilogy Kanye to come back, victims of Bill Cosby and seemingly his own wife. He intersperses these arrogant, sometimes ignorant egoisms with thoughts of regret, dysfunction, insecurity, love and celebrations of life, but not in an attempt to balance it. He displays these thoughts side by side, allowing us to see his id and super-ego battle, and not offering either up as a victor. As the album closes, the battle continues, and we are left to check his Twitter for the aftermath.