The Life of Pablo is a good hip hop album, even great in some moments; just not by Kanye West’s standards. It’s truly unfair for all of us as music listeners to expect greatness from West time and time again, however, for a man so vocal about being an artistic genius, and with a the track record to back it up, it’s hard to feel satisfied with anything less than an instant-classic.
Ye’s name is always in the mouths of music fans and critics alike, whether he is in the midst an album cycle or not. West began promotion for his seventh solo studio LP on December 31, 2014 when he released the skeletal piano ballad, “Only One.” The collaboration with Beatles legend Paul McCartney showed to be a drastic departure from West’s polarizing previous record, Yeezus, and pointed to a new sonic direction for the rapper/producer. Another track co-written with McCartney would debut a month later titled “FourFiveSeconds”, this time featuring prominent vocals from Rihanna. Neither track bearded much of an auditory resemblance to the other, nor did they sound like the following song to drop, “All Day”; a trap-influenced club banger that featured writing credits from McCartney once again, as well as Kendrick Lamar. With this new song came the first of several name changes for the forthcoming album as it morphed from So Help Me God to SWISH, and fans everywhere still had no inclination of what the new project would sound like.
Kanye West is not the type of musician to repeat himself, and with the exception of his first two records, The College Dropout and Late Registration, he’s traveled down a different artistic avenue with each release. The College Dropout serves as our introduction to Kanye West and Late Registration its sequel. At that time he was nothing more than a producer stepping out from behind the mixing board and into the booth for the first time; wildly insecure but deeply personal. West made detailed and layered beats with carefully placed soul samples sped up from old 45”s. He rapped from the point of view of a rebellious kid vehemently against higher education, and essentially shattered the mold of the prototypical MC coming from a more poverty stricken background. West saw astounding mainstream success with his trendsetting sound on Dropout and Late Registration, which gave way to his celebration record of sorts, and the finale to his college themed trilogy, Graduation. What that record lacked in conscious lyricism – as compared to West’s previous two efforts – it made up for in even more grandiose production and anthemic highlights.
West experienced his first real taste of public criticism with his next project, 808s and Heartbreak. When it comes down to it, this pop-focused, and auto-tune drenched breakup record featured Ye’s weakest collection of tracks, however, it was a necessary detour in his canon and arguably his most influential project when it comes to the landscape of modern day hip hop. West’s introspective lyricism following the death of his mother and a very public breakup with designer, Alex Phifer, was paired with some ethereal production and may very well have spawned artists such as Kid Cudi, Drake, and the Weeknd who would all go on to follow this particular Kanye formula.
West returned to form after he was villainized following the Taylor Swift VMA incident, and came back with more traditional hip hop flows, countless collaborations, and gorgeous production on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This record was probably West’s most well received project in his discography, and featured the conflicting aspects of raw honesty, emotional awareness, and the brash cockiness of Ye’s persona that fans have latched onto over the years. Fantasy was supported by GOOD Fridays – the promotional tactic West initiated by dropping a new song every Friday in the weeks leading up to the LP’s release – which did not carry over to the next record to come, Yeezus. The industrial focused album full of what I like to call “How did we get here?” beat-switches spotlighted Kanye West’s egotistical demeanor and relied heavily on shock value in order to get his point across.
While this stroll through Kanye’s career may seem a bit brief, it’s pertinent knowledge to keep in mind when trying to put The Life of Pablo into context. After “Only One” was released at the very end of 2014, fans spent the following year waiting bated breathe for a record that may or may not come; and when confirmation surfaced that an album release was very much on the horizon, the announcement did little to relieve the uncertainty. SWISH, was renamed WAVES, and again renamed TLOP with an offer of free Yeezy shoes for any fan that can correctly guess the acronym. West’s wife Kim Kardashian also tweeted that GOOD Fridays would be returning for this rollout, only for them to stop after the second week was delayed through the weekend. This utter mess also included a short beef with Wiz Khalifa, mentally unstable twitter rants, and a vague Madison Square Garden listening party which ended up being streamed online anyway. Although West made a shitstorm of the weeks leading up to The Life of Pablo, the project still garnered a tremendous amount of buzz, which was likely his intention all along.
Kanye kept editing the tracklist and features, and even “fixed” a song after the record had already been steaming on Tidal for a couple days; and while I commend West for his genuine transparency of how the recording process was going, I can’t detach myself from the feeling that he kind of pulled a fast one on us. TLOP listens more like a compilation – a greatest hits of unfinished material and b-sides if you will – more than it does an actual studio album. Getting to see all of the doubt and the constant revision of the project was like getting to peek behind the curtain of West’s creative process, but that does not excuse him from some of the glaring holes in the final product. Great songs and great albums can have flaws, but for every bright spot on this record, there is a complete and utter dud that comes with it, sometimes on the very same track. Gospel performances are mashed together with sound effects from the video game Street Fighter II on “Father Stretch My Hands”, the hook on “Famous” is coupled with a clashing tone in the verse and a jarring beat switch as an outro, and “FML” features another unsubtle, unflattering transition at its tail end. I think West has a grossly underappreciated ear for melody and he definitely comes through with some hard hitting beats and unique samples; however, this record feels very much unfinished.
Seven songs on The Life of Pablo come in under the three-minute mark of running time; and tracks like “I Love Kanye”, “Feedback”, and “30 Hours” are conceptually very strong but not totally fleshed out the way you’d expect a Kanye West recording to be. It’s as if he reached a point in the writing process when he just said, “fuck it,” and would rely on his healthy collection of diehards and Stans to go to bat for this project by claiming its haphazard presentation as being some form of avant-garde brilliance. Sections of this album like “Ultra Light Beam” into “Father Stretch My Hands” parts I and II could have been intended for So Help Me God; “Waves” and the “Silver Surfer Intermission” for Waves; and maybe tracks like “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in LA” for SWISH. It’s as if Kanye had multiple albums in the works, but couldn’t finish any of them so he decided to throw them all together.
As much as listening to The Life of Pablo frustrates me at times, I’ve had it on repeat since copping the MP3 files from my brother. “Ultra Light Beam” featuring an incredible verse from Chance the Rapper is the kind of song that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up each time I hear it, “Real Friends” features the kind of personal portrait and storytelling I’ve come to really love from Kanye’s back-catalog, and “No Parties in LA” is probably the only time I’d ever say Kendrick Lamar may have been out rapped on a track. There is a lot to love and hate on this record, making it nearly as polarizing as the man who created it.
Sometimes I feel the tug of guilt by giving Kanye any shred of publicity, but it’s hard not to write about greatness when you see it. Regardless of your feelings towards the man, The Life of Pablo will challenge every one of your opinions of Kanye West; for better or for worse.