Album of the Month: Kanye West | THE LIFE OF PABLO

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” challenges Kanye West on “Feedback”. Over the weeks leading up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye treated fans and doubters alike to a seemingly endless string of updates and controversy — mostly through Twitter. From beefing with Wiz Khalifa (where Kanye brutally insulted Khalifa’s music and style), to tweeting that alleged rapist Bill Cosby is innocent (which may have been a prank pulled by his sister-in-law Kylie Jenner) to showboating an ever-changing list of collaborators and tracks on a notepad, where many of the signatures, including A$AP Rocky and Pusha T, didn’t even make it on the album at all. All in all, this added up to perhaps the most compelling album rollout of this musical era, put forth by the most compelling artist of his time.

And thank goodness that the album is this great, considering the exhausting process of keeping up with Kanye’s antics. While the record didn’t really gel with me during the viewing process of the Yeezy Season 4 event at Madison Square Garden, after a few listens, you start to get a feel for the cohesiveness of the album. I’ve seen people call The Life Of Pablo a “mess” or “disjointed”, but I really don’t see that at all. This is no less cohesive than Graduation or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Yeezus; Kanye has always toyed with different samples and sonic statements throughout his seven LPs. There is something to note: I’d go into the album considering tracks 1-13 (up to and including “Wolves”) the “meat” of the album; after the Max B intermission, I consider those songs bonus tracks.

Kanye frequently described The Life Of Pablo (née Waves, née SWISH, née So Help Me God) as a gospel album, and the album-opening “Ultralight Beam” is about as gospel as they come. It features both chicken-soup-for-the-soul vocals from Kelly Price and a heart-stoppingly delightful verse from Chance The Rapper, who many have deemed as having the potential to be “the next Kanye”. His Kanye-isms and throwbacks (“I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to Hell/ I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”) beautifully express Chance’s love and inspiration from Kanye’s music; he seems legitimately thrilled to be a part of this record.

Interestingly enough, that’s where the gospel influence ends. On “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, the beat is fine enough — it sounds like it would fit most at home on 808s and Heartbreak. Kid Cudi’s hook on this song is pretty sweet, but it also features maybe the single worst lyric of Kanye’s career, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now: he’s upset about potentially getting bleach on his shirt from the recently-bleached asshole of a model he’s trying to have sex with. It’s bad, and these moments are the rare times on the album where Kanye’s eccentricity is truly puzzling and off-putting. Luckily, “Pt. 2” is a bona fide banger; it’s essentially a remix of G.O.O.D. Music signee Desiigner’s “Panda”. Desiigner’s verses on this track are hard yet easygoing; mark my words, he’s going to be a superstar.

It’s fun to place tracks on this album into where in Kanye’s discography they fit most sonically; “Famous”, with its expensive samples and Rihanna feature, could’ve been an outtake from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, while “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”, with their grinding industrial instrumentals, sound like they would be right at home on Yeezus. All of these tracks have tiny vignettes of Kanye’s life, generally referring to his wife Kim and his children, North and Saint. Also of note: for a Kanye album, the tracks on The Life Of Pablo are very short; most don’t go over the three-minute mark. This fact, and some of the lyrical choices (referencing Steve Harvey and Bill Cosby), make it seem like Kanye recorded this album very recently, standing in opposition to the drawn-out recording processes and perfectionism that we expect from him.

The best stretch on the album is “Waves” to “Wolves”. These are the songs that are most difficult to place within Kanye’s discography; they are distinctively from The Life Of Pablo. The features on this stretch are, to put it lightly, overwhelmingly strong. The Weeknd’s affecting, vulnerable hook on “FML” harkens back to the pre-Top 40 days of Abel Tesfaye’s music. Kanye and The Weeknd have always had similar self-loathing narcissist tendencies, and the lyrics here are no different: “Even though I always fuck my life up/ Only I can mention me”. “Real Friends” which features silky smooth vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, exhibits Kanye’s struggles with family, and brings up the clichéd but apt question: When somebody asks you “How are you?”, and you respond with “Fine.”, what does that mean? Finally, we get to hear the return of R&B savant Frank Ocean with a coda on “Wolves”, yet another peek into Kanye’s family life.

This is Kanye’s family album, a look into the life of genius; from Picasso to Escobar to St. Paul, we never got much of a personal view of these visionaries. Kanye is no different, so he’s given us The Life Of Pablo, yet another group of songs to dissect in the years to come. On “Waves”, noted woman-beater Chris Brown gives us the vocal performance of his life. It’s fitting that a song so focused on positivity and the power of redemption would allow somebody so vilified to shine through; Brown’s lyrics were penned by Chance, who’s collaborated with legitimately terrible people like R. Kelly. Both Kanye and Chance show that even people that could be considered “bad” or “harmful” can be redeemed, in a way, through music. Maybe we were looking at the “gospel album” point the wrong way. It’s clearly not a gospel album sonically, but thematically, The Life Of Pablo is as gospel as it gets.

Album of the Month: Anderson .Paak | MALIBU

Malibu, the affluent Los Angeles suburb, has constant pop culture appearances that sometimes paint the town as a place of relative nirvana. The sunny beaches and lively nightlife express a feeling of carefreeness, as shown in both reality shows and sitcoms: from Million Dollar Listing to Zoey 101, Malibu is a place you want to be.

Unfortunately, any meteorologist could tell you that Malibu’s geographic location makes it as vulnerable as any other California city when it comes to natural disasters. It’s been affected by at least 25 wildfires over the past century, including the “Corral” fire of 2007, which caused nearly $100 million in damages. The destruction of vegetation makes Malibu a frequent location for mudslides, and its place along the San Andreas fault leads to recurrent earthquakes. While on the surface, Malibu seems to be an ideal living place, that façade crumbles after experiencing one of these disasters.

Los Angeles native Anderson .Paak has had firsthand experience with the dual sides of the Malibu coin. His upbringing was one of immense struggle. .Paak’s mother, a South Korean immigrant, was a compulsive gambler; his father, a former Air Force member, was sent to prison when .Paak was just a boy. He gives us an idea of his upbringing, describing the behaviors of all he was close to going up, then descending into cynicism of the cliché: “We never had to want for nothing/ All we’d ever need is love.” Try telling that to an impoverished child.

.Paak’s pain is a common theme in his major-label debut, Malibu. He grew up just minutes from the bright lights of L.A., yet struggled to find his place. He struggles to find his place musically, as well. Malibu is an incredibly smooth combination of neo-soul, R&B, and hip-hop, with an impressive list of collaborators who all seem to accentuate the music by adding to it but never overshadowing it. Two, in particular, stand out: Rapsody, who adds a pained verse on “Without You”, and BJ the Chicago Kid, whose deft crooning has left me stunned me for some time, especially on the Madlib-produced track “The Waters”.

Very little of his is left undiscussed on Malibu, where .Paak shows off his versatility as a vocalist and songwriter with ridiculous variety on song structures and topics. He discusses his entire life timeline in “The Season | Carry Me”; the two-part song talks about his childhood (“Six years old, I tried my first pair of Jordans on“) and his adult life (“‘Bout the year Drizzy and Cole dropped/ Before K.Dot had it locked/ I was sleeping on the floor newborn baby boy/ Tryna get my money pot so wifey wouldn’t get deported”). He later sings romantically on “Silicon Valley” and “Waterfall”. The latter track has a sexy groove, and .Paak’s deft vocals are the perfect compliment to the instrumentation. He occasionally falls into lyrics that are amateurish (“Lemme see wha’s under them tig ol’ bitties“), but the sheer genuineness of what he sings overshadows any brazenness.

Malibu is a musically and sonically consistent yet versatile album. The superstar cast of producers (Madlib, DJ Khalil, Dem Jointz, and 9th Wonder, to name a few) all add their own specific touches to make the music recognizable while still keeping in the cohesiveness of the record. 9th Wonder takes cues from 90s R&B and soul on “The Season”, and Madlib returns to his jazzy signature on “The Waters”. .Paak seamlessly switches from Kendrick Lamar-style rapping to scratchy, soulful balladeering on a number of tracks, giving him a sound that’s thoroughly unique in today’s pop landscape.

The instrumentals and production are beautiful; brassy call-and-response refrains complement deep grooves from the bass. But just because the album is a satisfying listen doesn’t mean it’s an easy listen; .Paak bares it all, revealing himself to the listener just like the best folk singers would. It’s no wonder he named the album Malibu: despite the pleasant exterior, the potential for self-destruction is there.

Here’s Anderson .Paak on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert:

 

January’s 5 Best Songs

Rostam | “EOS”

Wet | “Island”

Chairlift | “Moth To The Flame”

Savages | “Adore”

David Bowie | “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”