“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.