Kanye West is a man who needs no introduction in 2016. Some call him an eccentric genius, some call him an asshole. Whichever way you slice it, the man cannot be ignored. Kanye has always been a part of the conversation ever since he started producing for Jay-Z and performing on the Chappelle Show. Every move he makes becomes a headline, whether being celebrated for his contributions to music and pushing the genre of hip-hop forward, or being scrutinized when his near maniacal ego gets the best of him (seriously Kim, take your husband’s Twitter privileges away). The man has been the topic of discussion with each new album he drops and each subsequent controversy that is paired with it. The Life of Pablo marks Kanye’s seventh official solo effort, and comes paired with his wildest marketing rollout yet.
The Life of Pablo follows Kanye’s 2013 abrasively minimalist record, Yeezus, his most polarizing work to date. It was a record that proved who Kanye’s most hardcore fans were, and created a divide between old and new fans. Kanye traded in his extensive verses and melodies for the most part on this record in favor of more aggressive delivery fueled by simplistic, yet powerful statements, and harsh, experimental production. This album can be mirrored with Kanye’s life at the time. The stubborn artist was struggling to be taken seriously in the fashion world and battling constant scrutiny from the press in a post 2009 VMAs world. The Life of Pablo finds Kanye in a different place mentally and creatively. The now father-of-two is collaborating with new artists, using new instruments to drive his instrumentals, and creating a sound that is entirely new for Yeezy.
The news of a new album from Mr. West is enough to peak my interest, and my anticipation only grew with the return of G.O.O.D. Fridays, where Kanye would drop a single on the internet for the world to hear. The official return of G.O.O.D. Fridays brought us “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in LA.” The first of which gave us a vulnerability from Kanye that we haven’t seen since 2008’s breakup classic, 808s & Heartbreaks. It’s an introspective and honest song that reminds me of last year’s I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside which was brought to us by Earl Sweatshirt, my personal favorite album of last year. “No More Parties in LA” brings back the themes of decadence and the deconstruction of celebrity culture heard on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The song paired with a beat driven by a groovy bassline and sample based production, matched with that old school Kanye flow and a hint of the trademarked Kanye bragging, both of which are sure to please fans that miss when Yeezus was known as The College Dropout. Couple that with a dream feature from Kendrick Lamar himself, who delivered an incredible and extensive verse, and you have every hip-hop head freaking out. It’s safe to say these songs were getting me excited for the record.
Alas, no Kanye record rollout is without its share of controversy; he doesn’t like to quit while he’s ahead. Multiple tracklist and album title changes, Twitter rants, confusion on how and when fans could purchase the album, and a head scratching SNL performance left a bad taste in some fans mouths. I have to be honest, I think Kanye started working on this album last week. Still, as ridiculous as the rollout may be, it seems to have succeeded as you can’t go online without someone talking about Kanye and this new record.
The Life of Pablo opens with “Ultra Light Beam,” a cathartic musical experience with a strong gospel vibe. It features a guest verse from Kanye’s fellow Chicago native and upcoming hip-hop superstar in his own right, Chance The Rapper. I’m not sure I’ve felt this passion in a Kanye song since “Jesus Walks” off his first record. The song also features a church choir and pastor, another throwback to the Kanye of yore. This track could make Anton LaVey a born again Christian.
From here, the record gets interesting to say the least. “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1” beings with an intro from a pastor, similarly to the opener, but that vibe is quickly thrown out the window when the trap icon Future declares, “If Young Metro don’t trust you, I’m gon’ shoot you.” and any notions about the rest of this album is thrown out the window. Kid Cudi also throws in the pre-hook on this track, which was nice to hear after the news that him and Kanye had some problems with each other, and it was also nice to know that Cudi still knows how to make music after the abomination that was his last album. Though beyond that, this song really didn’t do much for me and I feel was one of the weakest tracks on the album, mostly do to Kanye’s perplexing lyrics that I found neither clever nor entertaining. On the other hand, “Father Strech My Hands Part 2” is a certified banger that I feel better encompasses what the previous song was trying to accomplish. As the chorus proclaims “I just want to feel liberated”. This second installment of the song also features who I thought was Future, but turned out to be Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, sampled from his “Panda” track. While his appearance was a blatant bite off Future’s tone and flow, it still succeeded in making the song BANG.
Much of the album still has me scratching my head, I can’t lie. Take for example the song “Famous,” a song that has Kanye rapping about the past from his current status in life. On end, we have Rihanna’s amazing hook, a beautifully sung melody about how people like them can be hard to love, and then Kanye’s braggadocious verses where he goes the full Yeezy. While the song gets its point across, the lyrics can be so cringe-worthy at times it’s hard for me to actually enjoy the song. It begs the question of how far a song should go to prove a point before it becomes unbearable to listen to.
My largest criticism of the album is that I feel like it’s just a little bit too long. Like I said, the tracklist changed multiple times leading up to the release, and was even delayed to add more songs (#BlameChance). The final tracklist consists of 18 songs. While many songs are quickly becoming my favorite Kanye songs, there is definitely still some filler that I’m puzzled over how they made the record. Songs that feel scatterbrained and make the album feel disjointed when listening in its entirety. Listen to a song such as “Feedback.” It’s a song named for what I assume is the microphone feedback used to drive the beat and is only memorable because Kanye goes absolutely ballistic, but not in the way that he snaps on the track, more so in the way someone like him would feel after just doing a long line of cocaine. There’s also the “We Love Kanye” freestyle. I actually thought was a pretty fun song that jabbed at the critics and fans alike while showing some self-awareness about Kanye’s tendencies. Still, I fail to find its place on the album and I think it is better left to be one of the G.O.O.D. Friday singles. I feel the same about FACTS, his Future “homage” and Nike diss track, although I will admit that I prefer the new beat on the album to the original Metro Boomin handled production. It’s songs like these that I feel distract from the central themes of the album.
Filler tracks aside, when and where this album succeeds, it blows me away. To reiterate myself yet again, this album is unpredictable. At times, that unpredictability may have disappointed me, but also pleasantly surprised me at others, and even blew me away at times. I never expected to like a song with The Weeknd on it, but then here comes “FML” to prove me wrong. It’s a fantastic song with an amazing hook provided by Abel himself. A song that, and this is just my theory, gives a lot of insight into the creation of this album and why it is the way it is now.
What I appreciate most is the attention to detail on the stronger tracks. You can definitely tell which ones he tried the hardest on and they’re fleshed out in full effect. “Wolves” is a song that lives up to its name. The beat is dark and eerie. It’s like being in the dark where you can’t see a thing, but you know you’re surrounded by “the fucking wolves.” The tone, atmosphere, and topic are all perfectly aligned on this song. Plus, the outro by the reclusive Frank Ocean is like the post credit scene in a superhero movie that adds fuel to the fire in the hope that Frank’s next album is on the way. The songs that succeed on the album all do this. Each song is very distinct and entirely unique to one another, each with its own entirely realized topic and an instrumental to match.
Amidst all the drama and controversy, Kanye managed to deliver an album that is sure to please fans old and new with his return of lyrically driven songs and spots of the throwback soul sampled production, while still continuing to throw people for a loop with his continued use of abrasive experimentation. The Life of Pablo may not be Kanye’s finest work, or his most consistent record front to back, but it is an album that will still be remembered for years for what it did accomplish and has certainly earned its place in the Kanye West gallery. (Johnny Athey)
For fans of: Kanye West.
Favorite songs: No More Parties in LA, FML, 30 Hours, Waves, Real Friends