Review by Michael O'Neill
Kanye West is an incredibly complicated person. He's a celebrity like no other, one who jumps from strength to strength all while displaying the filter of a six-year-old and the hubris of a high school quarterback. In the span of one eclectic hour at his Madison Square Garden event showcasing his long-awaited, constantly-name-changing album The Life of Pablo, he both rapped about sleeping with Taylor Swift and announced a video game about his deceased mother ascending into heaven. You can't narrow him down to one or even several descriptions, because his output as an artist is so diverse. On The Life of Pablo, Kanye has cherry-picked elements from his earlier works - some good, some bad - and combined them in an eighteen-track, career-spanning pastiche. What he ended up with is a record that is musically brilliant, lyrically lacking (and at times troublesome), and undeniably Kanye.
As with most of Kanye’s works, The Life of Pablo can be hard to digest all at once given its overwhelming scope. It’s a sprawling piece of music, but lacks the cohesion of his other longer works like The College Dropout or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Throughout its eighteen tracks, TLOP jumps to different points in Kanye’s career. Songs like “Highlights” and “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” conjure the vocoder-heavy singing style of 808’s and Heartbreak, whereas “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” land on the opposite end of the Kanye spectrum by tapping into Yeezus’ belligerent minimalism, while “Wolves” somehow manages to combine the two. Skits haven’t been a part of West’s discography since 2005’s Late Registration, and yet here we have “I Love Kanye” and “Silver Surfer Intermission” acting as music-free interludes. The record shares Graduation’s penchant for bangers, and “No More Parties In LA” wouldn’t sound out-of-place on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
All that said, the incongruity of TLOP is not a weakness, but in fact a strength. Given the album’s haphazard production and release processes, alongside Kanye’s recent Twitter outbursts and general impulsivity, it only makes sense for the record to sound like the collision of countless artistic ideas instead of a whittled-down, carefully-curated, singular vision. As listeners we are treated to a varied collection of sounds and concepts, and for the most part every single track is captivating and distinct.
The gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam” might just beat out “Dark Fantasy” for best Kanye album-opener ever, with its backing vocal choir and breathtaking, dramatic atmosphere. “FML” slowly builds around an ominous, echoing riff before reaching an even more sinister climax, complete with a vocally-modulated sample of English post-punk band Section 25 and an eerie, ever-present drone. Kanye delivers his best verse of TLOP over one of its strongest beats on “Real Friends,” which segues perfectly into the masterfully constructed “Wolves.”
Some tracks aren’t thoroughly polished - the final forty seconds “Pt. 2” is a mess and “30 Hours” feels as though it’ll go on for that long - and the reworked version of “FACTS” still won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s a great single. But these imperfections make TLOP as a whole more closely representative of Kanye’s personality - which at its core is built around imperfections - so in a way they add to the experience of the album as a whole.
Any Kanye fan will tell you that he’s always been a better producer than rapper, and never has this been more evident than on The Life of Pablo. While the music here is some of his strongest ever, sometimes his absurd, tiresome, and even upsetting lyrics threaten to derail the tracks they’re included on. He opens “Famous” with his already-notorious lines about Taylor Swift, and the song is only salvaged by Rihanna’s intervention and the excellent chopped-up sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” which ends up being perhaps the catchiest moment of the album. “Highlights” includes the cringeworthy lines, “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had GoPro / So I could play this shit back in slo-mo.” We’re used to Kanye’s braggadocio by now, but some of what he says on The Life of Pablo crosses over from obnoxious to flat-out repulsive. Lyrics like these should be called out for the problems they pose - especially Kanye’s attitude towards women - and significantly detract from inventive music that surrounds them. Even when Kanye’s not being blatantly misogynistic, much of what he raps on The Life of Pablo is largely inconsequential and frankly boring. His most noteworthy to “Fade” is an Aaliyah reference, and “FACTS” amounts to a three-minute Adidas ad. Kanye’s usually at his lyrical best when he’s more somber, but it’s a side of him that appears far too rarely on TLOP.
As a result, some of the best moments on the album occur when Kanye steps back from the mic and lets his guest stars take advantage of the excellent foundations he's laid out. Chance the Rapper steals the spotlight on “Ultralight Beam” with a celebratory verse so attention-grabbing, you’d think it’s Kanye who’s the featured artist on the track. Kendrick Lamar does his Kendrick thing on “No More Parties in LA,” managing to show up Kanye even when he gives one of his best performances of the record. As mentioned above, Rihanna and Sister Nancy not only steal the show on “Famous,” but redeem Kanye’s transgressions earlier in the song. Maybe the single most exciting minute of The Life of Pablo is when Frank Ocean shows up at the end of “Wolves,” if for nothing more than the sheer joy to hear him making music again.
Of course, most of the credit for what makes The Life of Pablo a great album goes to Kanye. Very few people could dream up so many different musical creations, let alone execute them at as high level as he does. He is the mastermind behind it all, the director who sets the stage for his cast of actors to play with, and no amount of mediocre lyrics or overshadowing can take that away from him. Moreover, every guest Kanye brings onto the album is carefully selected to fit perfectly into each song; just when you start to think “FML” sounds a bit like Kanye doing his best The Weeknd impression, there arrives The Weeknd to sing the hook. The tracks featuring Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, and (as stated earlier) Chance the Rapper also all sound designed for each of them respectively, further signifying that Kanye knows exactly what he’s doing at the mixing table.
Still, there’s a worthwhile debate about the overall statement The Life of Pablo makes, and where it fits into West’s discography. His biggest strength has always been his status as an innovator, sometimes aided by his persona but also sometimes hindered by it; plenty of people love Kanye the musician, but hate Kanye the person. On The Life of Pablo, the two are more connected than ever, either part inseparable from the other, as his strength as an innovator overlaps The album’s an unobstructed glimpse into the life of an artist, but Kanye’s life at the moment is one of chaos, egoism, and questionable politics, all of which are reflected by The Life of Pablo. As a result, the record forces us to reckon with Kanye the musician and Kanye the person at the same time, when we’ve never had to to this degree before. Depending on your opinion of Kanye West and your ability to analyze art independently from all the noise surrounding it, you may love or hate this album. But like everything Kanye does, it’s certainly worth talking about.