‘The Life of Pablo’ is Kanye’s most divisive and divided record
RICHARD S HE goes deep inside the mind of Kanye and The Life of Pablo.
2016 has already given us a holy trinity of TIDAL releases. Rihanna’s ANTI rejects popstardom, while Beyoncé’s ‘Formation‘ injects black power back into pop. Both are the clearest mission statements of their careers. And now here comes Kanye, finally delivering So Help Me God SWISH WAVES The Life of Pablo, via a Madison Square Garden listening party/fashion show/video game showcase/worldwide cinematic event. Everything about its release has been chaotic, from the multiple tracklists, to the portions that were recorded after the MSG premiere.
This album gives you anything but answers
‘Ultralight Beam’ opens The Life of Pablo with a call to prayer, the most religious song Kanye’s ever made. There’s a gospel choir, but they don’t absolve him of the sins of the next 17 tracks. Kanye’s an egomaniac, but he lets Chance the Rapper have the best verse on the whole record. Everyone’s looking for salvation, but this album gives you anything but answers.
Let’s just get it out of the way: The Life of Pablo contains some especially tasteless lyrics. Of course, depiction is not endorsement. Kanye’s an artist; the already infamous ‘Famous’ isn’t a literal press statement about Taylor Swift. But none of that matters if you’re the target, being dragged through no fault of your own. Taylor wrote ‘Bad Blood’, the most slanderous pop song since ‘You’re So Vain’, but does that make her fair game?
By declaring “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex”, Kanye ensures it’s never gonna happen. But he knows it’s a ridiculous thought – was it ever going to? ‘I made that bitch famous’ – he didn’t, she was already nominated for a VMA. But as cruel as Kanye’s interruption was, there’s no doubt Taylor benefited professionally and artistically from it. Whether or not Taylor truly gave permission, Kanye’s line isn’t a diss. It only makes himself look bad. Was it worth the controversy? Should he have put it on the record? All of these things contradict each other – and that’s only TWO LINES from this goddamn album.
I know I confuse you guys sometimes but please bare with me.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Kanye namechecks Steve Jobs, one of his biggest idols, twice – on ‘Feedback’ and ‘No More Parties in LA’. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film describes the “reality distortion field“ around the man – part cult of personality, part delusion, part genuine source of inspiration for those around him. Kanye is all too aware of his own reality distortion field. If The Life of Pablo is about anything, it’s about the absurdity of being Kanye West. In ‘Famous’, Kanye revels in his celebrity; on ‘Wolves’, it nearly eats him alive. Sometimes, he’s interrupted by angelic voices – Nina Simone, Rihanna, The Weeknd, Chris Brown – that puncture his mood, act as his conscience. But Kanye arranged their parts himself. He can’t play his own foil.
On the record’s most quietly compelling songs, Kanye looks back at himself. On ‘Real Friends’, Kanye complains about the many hangers-on in his life, but his real relationships might be even worse. He doesn’t have time for anyone else – he can’t even FaceTime his own daughter. On ‘30 Hours’, Kanye reminisces about a cross-country drive to see his then-girlfriend, which blurs into a later incident where he decides to beat up her new lover. He never finishes the drive. He just lets the beat wash over his regret.
Since 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye’s been expanding the sonic palette of what hip-hop beats should sound like. But The Life of Pablo encompasses his whole career. ‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ have the same combination of soul and boom bap that fuelled The College Dropout – but there’s no nostalgia there. He’s looking forward, not back.
Meanwhile, ‘Wolves’ and ‘Facts’ have Yeezus and 808s’ sinister minimalism, but ‘Freestyle 4’ takes things a step further and literally samples a horror film soundtrack. At least Kanye’s delivery is more consistent – it’s been years since he’s just locked into a groove and rapped across the majority of an album. “I know some fans who thought I wouldn’t rap like this again”, says Kanye, midway through his 90-bar verse on ‘No More Parties in LA’, and you know it’s because he’s rapping alongside Kendrick.
You can say virtually anything you want about The Life of Pablo, and it’ll be true
Kanye hasn’t been traditionally “relatable” in years – not since Graduation. His ambitions are existential, universal: he wants to make the world a better place, bring people joy through art. But he frames his struggles in increasingly incomprehensible ways. Who among us knows what it’s like to be shut out by the fashion establishment for being a rapper? Or laughed at by developers for wanting to make a game about our dead mother ascending to heaven? Or $53 million in debt, asking Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion to do… what, exactly? These should be obstacles for geniuses to overcome, not to complain about to mere mortals.
To those of us who’ve grown with Kanye, he’s our provocateur. He’s the only true millennial rockstar. We love him because he’s defiant, because he pisses off “reasonable” white adults purely by being a successful, unapologetic black man. We love him unconditionally, so it pains us even more that he’s supporting(?) Bill Cosby, or still dissing women on record, and all that basic shit he should be long past. It’s one thing to play the heel; it’s another entirely to troll your fans, haters and peers alike.
Sure, no one’s pushed the boundaries of hip-hop quite like Kanye. But in a hundred years, when we tell the story of rap music in the 21st century, Kanye won’t be the protagonist – it’ll be Kendrick. Kanye makes incredible art about himself, for himself – do we expect anything else? But Kendrick constantly gives back to the culture. If Kanye’s the antihero, Kendrick’s the selfless crusader. Kendrick’s already a folk hero to rival Nina Simone or Sam Cooke, and he’s only 28.
Art’s supposed to help us make sense of the world, and To Pimp a Butterfly, surreal and labyrinthine as it is, does exactly that. But The Life of Pablo’s sprawl only makes things more confusing, and the media circus around it magnifies that tenfold. Kanye understands Kanye better than any of us, but even he keeps contradicting himself within the same song, the same verse, the same sentence.
You can say virtually anything you want about The Life of Pablo, and it’ll be true. He’s progressed musically, but not emotionally. He’s too misogynistic, too ironic, too earnest. He’s gone off the deep end; he’s more lucid than ever. He’s hyper-aware of his faults, but gives less of a shit about them. The purest version of this album would be an hour-long version of ‘I Love Kanye’, or a remake of Being John Malkovich where Kanye crawls into his own brain and sees an entire world of Kanyes looking back at him, saying “Kanye” repeatedly.
There’s only one thing you can’t say about Kanye: that he isn’t a genius. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”, he asks on ‘Feedback’. There are at least three Pablos, but there’s still only one Kanye.
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture writer. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod.