Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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Attempting to review a Kanye West album requires a certain level of detachment. We’re far past a place of simply appraising a body of art – reviewing a Kanye record in 2016 is an all-encompassing exercise in exhausting dialogue and debate about pop culture, social issues, ideological stances, and the purpose of art itself. One may find it wise to leave their baggage at the door before entering the conversation.

As hard as it is to believe, the events surrounding the release of The Life of Pablo, formerly known as Waves, formerly known as SWISH, formerly known as So Help Me God, have been the most explosive and divisive yet. A disturbingly tactless tweet. The leaking of a tasteless lyric that opens old wounds. A fog of confusion surrounding the release itself, leading to larger debates about the rights of an artist and the suspicious motives of the involved parties.

You can stream The Life of Pablo on Tidal.

You can stream The Life of Pablo on Tidal.

As tedious as the ensuing shit storm proved to be, there were several critical conversations in which appropriate voices were elevated, not the least of which included the ongoing debate surrounding misogyny in hip hop, with West standing at ground zero. In the weeks and months to come, those conversations will continue, and some may find it wise to listen far more than they contribute.

Aside from those necessary discourses, two very elemental questions seem appropriate to ask regarding The Life of Pablo. “How good is it?” and “Does it even matter at this point?”

Sonically speaking, The Life of Pablo is one of the most robust and inventive releases we’re likely to hear this year. It’s much too soon to place the album appropriately within Kanye’s discography, but rest assured, Pablo is another rousing chapter in an ongoing career of musical excellence. Although slightly unfocused at times, the record is dense, full of variety, and perhaps unsurprisingly, full of surprises.

In the weeks leading up to its release, West revealed that The Life of Pablo would be a gospel album. While you could certainly argue against the album’s classification as a whole, there’s no denying that this is the latest chapter in a continuing story of the Gospel According to Kanye. Pablo is rife with religious imagery and worship that stands right alongside egotistical rants, sexual exploits and general revelry. Much like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though, West’s psyche seems to crack and crumble underneath the weight of it all. Those moments of vulnerability once again prove to be Kanye’s most impactful.

The Life of Pablo opens with “Ultra Light Beam” – a track that truly lives up to West’s aforementioned billing, featuring a full gospel choir and even a short sermon from pastor Kirk Franklin. The track is breathtaking from start to finish, as West chooses to let a convoy of voices carry the song. Chance the Rapper is gifted with the spotlight for a full 32 bars, highlighted by the line, “I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”.

That five-minute primer leads into “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”, two connected tracks with rich beats and a dazzling chorus from Kid Cudi. It’s here that West first addresses the audience, singing, “Everybody gon’ say something / I’d be worried if they said nothing”. “Pt. 2” finds West sadly connecting his own mistakes with those of his young father. It’s one last sobering dose of reality before a windfall of braggadocio and macho escapism.

“Famous” will certainly be one of the most talked about tracks on Pablo, if only for his cheap Taylor Swift line. Unfortunately, Kanye’s own crudeness overshadows one of the strongest tracks on the record. Swizz Beats lays down a track for the ages, accompanied by a killer chorus from Rihanna. “Feedback” plays out in similar fashion, with a thumping beat that Kanye rides to perfection, spitting, “I been outta my mind a long time / I’ve been saying how I feel at the wrong time / Might not come when you want but I’m on time”.

“Highlights” grooves deep with soaring vocal lines from West, Young Thug and The Dream. It’s another rousing anthem in a string of tracks that make the 18-song album fly by. Repeated listens to this section are required to discover new textures and hidden gems underneath the surface. Whereas Yeezus tested our patience with spacey industrial sounds and grating screeches, Pablo is pleasing to the ear and full of movement without becoming overcrowded or bogged down. Think the poppiest moments of 808s and Heartbreak crossing paths with the thick production of Twisted Fantasy.

As the album makes its final turn, shit gets real. The party comes to an abrupt halt with the startling transition from “Waves” to the minimalist “FML”. In an updated version of “Welcome to Heartbreak”, Kanye reflects on his lifestyle, ego and disruptive behavior yet again, singing, “I been thinking / About my vision / Pour out my feelings / Revealing layers to my soul” right before The Weeknd chimes in with, “I wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up / Can’t let them get to me / And even though I always fuck my life up / Only I can mention me”. It’s a duet of epically broken proportions.

On “Real Friends”, Ye laments the chasm that exists between himself and his friends and family, longing for relationships founded on honesty and trust. The album’s proper ending lies in “Wolves”, a previously performed track that loses a slight amount of its original luster with the loss of Vic Mensa and Sia. This new version still finds West tearing at his inner wolf, ashamed of the thought of his mother discovering how he “turned out.” Newly recruited Frank Ocean now carries the song to its conclusion, sharing in the descent before closing with the poignant line, “Life is precious, we found out”.

The odd addition of five more tracks that do little to add to the album’s overarching themes or sonic direction are somewhat clarified when West declares them to be “bonus tracks” during an ad-lib section near the end of “30 Hours”. Since most were a part of the Good Friday releases leading up to the album, their inclusion here remains odd. If nothing else, we’re treated to a properly mixed version of “No More Parties in L.A.” featuring Kendrick Lamar.

The Life of Pablo is a sprawling epic – one that is perhaps Kanye’s most manic and enigmatic creation and one that’s difficult to digest if you’re sitting in the front row. It’s possible that the record is the least cohesive of West’s career, but as the sum of its parts, it’s another shining example of Kanye’s genius as a producer and engineer of sound. Ye leans heavily on the album’s guests, each of whom are allowed to bring their own personality to the mix. That he once again has managed to orchestrate a project at the center of the hip hop zeitgeist in a way that elevates his own genius is a thing of legend.

Even so, we’re left once more to deal with the aftermath once the record stops spinning. Kanye’s desire for admiration is constantly usurped by a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we, his audience, are supposed to hate him. Upon the release of Yeezus, I discussed the frustration of Kanye apologists who wish nothing more than to validate West in his artistic brilliance, but feel alienated by his cantankerous nature.

Perhaps no artist in recent memory has more openly battled his demons and confessed his sins than Kanye West. His journey of self-deprecation and self-improvement is chronicled throughout all of his work and in countless interviews. Nevertheless, there are still more mountains to climb, none more daunting than that of his continued misogyny. In order for the wound to heal, he’ll have to stop digging deeper, an act that is unfortunately his fatal flaw. How much longer you’re willing to deal with it is a personal decision. Me? I’m still undecided, but The Life of Pablo has me wondering, even as I nod my head to the beat.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

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