Kanye West — The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music)
Leading up to the release of his eighth studio album, Kanye West hinted that the greatly anticipated album would be “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it”. This was an exciting prospect. Soul/gospel music is certainly not uncharted territory when it comes to hip-hop (from beat samples, to lyrics etc.), but given West’s production prowess, there was a reasonable expectation that this promise meant a unique take on the genre. The 38-year-old Chicago rapper has repeatedly demonstrated his talent in drawing from a wide array of musical genres and moulding them into very listenable pop-rap albums. His last album Yeezus was a shining example of this. Granted, it was not my favourite album, it nonetheless gave us an effective mix of Kanye’s often well-delivered, simple lyrics coupled with hard hitting electronic production, with credits ranging from Arca to Daft Punk. Yeezus couldn’t have been more in line with what it was trying to achieve – it was abrasive, loud and didn’t give a fuck what you thought. The Life of Pablo, however, certainly doesn’t live up to West’s promise, nor does it come anywhere close to having as cohesive a theme as Yeezus did. Instead, we get a jumbled up mess of tracks that occasionally show greatness, but mostly just left me confused and disappointed.
West goes on a tirade of crude sexual comments over a beat that is so weak that it’s hard to believe that Hudson Mohawke was involved in its creation.
The opening track ‘Ultralight Beam’ gives us the impression that West actually is keeping his promise – the gospel influence is there and it is magnificent. As if the swelling chords and full gospel choir wasn’t enough to deliver the kind of hopeful, feel-good motif this track puts forth, Chance the Rapper gives a heartfelt verse that rounds out this incredible track. But what happens next is confusing. You would think that West’s affirmation that “this is a god dream” would have some bearing on what is to come, but instead West delivers the most inconsistent and strangely stitched together first half of an album in his career. ‘Father Stretch My Hands pt. 1’ is the first indication of this. Presumably with the lines “I just want to feel liberated” and “If I ever instigated I’m sorry” the track is supposed to be some kind of apologetic love song, but it’s the poor use of auto tune and cringe worthy lyrics about a model’s bleached asshole that makes that a bit of a stretch. As for ‘pt. 2’, it’s certainly a banger, but as it turns out most of what makes this song so appealing is largely the work of a different artist. Kanye adds a decent opening first only to lead into what is almost an entire rip of the song ‘Panda’ by Desiigner.
Now, I don’t mean to say that the first half of this album is an utter train wreck because of the some bad lyrics. Tracks like ‘Famous’ and ‘Feedback’ give a glimmer of hope that the album might land on its feet, even if the theme of ‘Ultralight Beam’ isn’t revisited. But even these tracks don’t fit well with each other. ‘Feedback’ is great, but it might as well be a track on Yeezus with its aggressively delivered “Wake up!” and harsh electronic production. The beat to ‘Famous’ is great, especially the chopped up vocal sample that closes it off, but thematically the track teeters between a typical bravado-driven banger and a sappy pop song (courtesy of Rihanna).
The track is supposed to be some kind of apologetic love song, but it’s the poor use of auto tune and cringe worthy lyrics about a model’s bleached asshole that makes that a bit of a stretch.
The first half of the album is closed out by ‘Freestyle 4’, which is possibly the worst track of West’s expansive career. Here, West goes on a tirade of crude sexual comments over a beat that is so weak that it’s hard to believe that Hudson Mohawke was involved in its creation. It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of vulgarity from West before – sometimes it can be pretty funny (‘Yeezy taught me’) – but here it just feels forced, and insecure.
On the short a cappella track ‘I Love Kanye’ West gives a surprisingly self-aware verse about his critics being too attached to the “old Kanye”. Now this might have been a poignant introduction to the second half of the album if it wasn’t for tracks like ‘Freestyle 4’ that paint the “new Kanye” as an insecure loser, not the next Picasso.
The first real track of the second half, ‘Waves’, presents a listenable but nonetheless bland and forgettable pop anthem. There’s nothing criminal about lines like “you set the night on fire” and “sun don’t shine in the shade”, but they belong in top 40 radio stations, not a Kanye West album. It’s only until ‘FML’ that West starts to piece together some kind of coherent theme. The Weekend delivers a chilling chorus over a surprisingly effective stripped down beat that complements West’s honest and focused verse about his depression and the effects it might have on his family.
It’s not that I’m on board with Kanye West toting himself as the new Google, but Yeezus at least showed that this kind of bravado can be pretty entertaining.
Continuing on this positive streak, ‘Real Friends’ delivers the kind of sincerity and down-to-earth lyrics that one would expect from “the old Kanye” (see ‘All Falls Down’). West raps about the effects of fame on his social life and the friendships that have been lost in the wake of his hectic lifestyle and the greed that surrounds it. This isn’t exactly the most unexplored theme in pop/rap, but he avoids the cringe inducing auto-tune yelps that typify the first half of the album. What is so great about ‘Real Friends’ is how unambitious it is in comparison to the da Vinci like ambition with which West identifies himself. There are no quick cuts to soul samples or strange beat change ups with awkwardly delivered auto tune verses. West delivers multiple verses that all put forth a coherent theme; Ty Dolla $ign jumps in on the chorus, this time with an actually effective use of auto-tune, and the song ends. ‘30 Hours’ and ‘No More Parties in LA’ continue this simple appeal, with West delivering thoughtful and sometimes hilarious bars like: “All pink fur, got Nori dressing like Cam”, over beats that are not ground-breaking but nowhere near as obnoxious as the production on the first half of the album.
One final low point is ‘Wolves’, where West showcases a unique and enjoyable beat only to ruin it with some of the most insufferable lyrics on the album, comparing himself and his wife to the biblical Joseph and Mary. I don’t even have a huge problem with Kanye’s obsession with comparison. It’s not that I’m on board with Kanye West toting himself as the new Google, but Yeezus at least showed that this kind of bravado can be pretty entertaining (see ‘I am a God’). On this track however, musing about what would happen if Mary “was in the club / surrounded by hella thugs” is nothing short of annoying. To add insult to injury, a beautiful outro from Frank Ocean is tacked onto the end of this track as if to say ‘Look! It could have been good!’ ‘Wolves’ puts a serious damper on what is otherwise the highlight section of this album.
The final two tracks of this album, ‘Facts’ and ‘Fade’ are by no means bad, but they remind us of how all-over-the-place this album is thematically. The former is a diss track directed towards Nike (more insecurity) and it’s not really clear what the latter is all about. The beats on both of these two tracks are pretty enjoyable, but they aren’t complemented with the kind of engaging lyrics present on the tracks that lead up to them. Effectively, these two tracks close out the album with the same ambiguity that is pervasive throughout it.
Sometimes TLOP feels like it’s just showcasing West’s crude and insecure persona in the most uninteresting way possible (‘Freestyle 4’, ‘FSMH pt. 1’), and sometimes it feels like West is trying to make a serious statement about some kind of personal struggle (‘FML’, ‘Real Friends’). Unfortunately though, the album is so inconsistent that it’s never clear precisely what – if anything – this struggle is. There are moments of greatness here, but a handful of great tracks don’t make up for an even larger handful of duds. The Life of Pablo had my hopes up- but for now, if I want to be entertained by Kanye West while listening to some great hip-hop, I’ll put on To Pimp a Butterfly while scrolling through his twitter feed.
Highs: ‘Ultralight Beam’, ‘FML’, ‘Real Friends’, ‘No More Parties in LA’
Lows: ‘Freestyle 4’, ‘Waves, Wolves’