Kanye West’s latest project,
So Help Me God SWISH Waves The Life of Pablo, is perhaps his most adventurous and polarizing album to date. At first listen, Pablo feels like a mish-mash or smorgasbord of Ye tracks, an amalgamation of sounds/aesthetics found on earlier Kanye projects. It is surprising to hear a Kanye West album that doesn’t push the boundaries of hip-hop, at least sonically, after albums like 2004’s The College Dropout or 2008’s 808’s & Heartbreak that are considered classic, genre-defining, albums. Those, along with the majority of West’s discography, are revered as monumental cornerstones in modern hip-hop. Each album starting a new trend within the genre and its influence can be seen in the likes of Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Drake. The sheer amount of hype that followed this album set it up for disappointment for a lot of fans, which is warranted. This is Kanye’s weakest album lyrically to date, a lot of the mixing sounds rushed (perhaps in order to meet deadlines or perhaps he is preoccupied with being a father, fashion designer and more), and there is a distinct lack of a new and exciting Kanye West sound usually ties to his albums. But that’s okay, because Pablo contains some of the best production Kanye West has ever put out in his already gilded production career. After all, “Yeezus” himself is only human, and The Life of Pablo is a testament to that.
The album opens with the soulful, powerful ballad “Ultralight Beam” featuring Kanye West disciple, Chance The Rapper. A euphoric wave is felt as the gospel choir breaks through West’s lyrics praying to God for help, telling us that this is a “God dream”. The gospel sound found within this song is reminiscent of West’s debut album, The College Dropout, so it is fitting to start the album off this way. Chance’s verse in this song is inspiring. A true devotee to his fellow south side Chicago mentor, Kanye West, Chancellor weaves references to Arthur the Aardvark and Sodom and Gomorrah almost side-by-side with such intonation that the two seem to have always been destined to be together on a Kanye West album.
Uncharacteristically for a Kanye album, Pablo takes one of many twists and turns as the following tracks stand in almost direct opposition to the gospel, angelic sounds of the heavens to tighter, more vulgar trap-inspired songs of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Pt.2”. Both have gospel titles, but the content is not, having Kanye drop bars about model’s bleached assholes, and Future-sound-a-like Desiigner’s verse from his song “Panda” relaying the general braggadocio of money, cars and women. What is most interesting about this section of the album is that it is broken up and choppy, cutting from one sound to another, perhaps symbolic of West’s mind at the time; torn between multiple influences and projects. The braggadocious lyrics continue with “Famous” featuring Rihanna, as West asserts how he made Taylor Swift famous, and that she owes him sex, after their widely reported incident at the 2009 VMA’s. Juxtaposed with the lyrically weak Kanye verses in this song are perhaps the happiest two minutes of the album as the song transitions from Rihanna reciting Nina Simone’s first verse from “Do What You Gotta Do” to a reversed and warped sample of Sister Nancy’s underrated tune “Bam Bam”. It is reassuring to hear Kanye chop up and mix old soul and reggae beats, because this was widely considered his bread and butter as he produced for rap greats Jay-Z and Cam’ron for Roc-a-Fella Records.
The album swerves once again as “Feedback” begins, not shying away from the more industrial and mechanical sound of his album which preceded Pablo, Yeezus. Abbrasive and aggressive, this track has an edge to it referencing police brutality amongst black communities, and power-tripping bloggers culminating in his assurance that he is the “ghetto Oprah”. Never change, Ye. The following track, “Low Lights” is an intermission of sorts, containing only a minimalist beat and an acapella version of Sandy Rivera’s “So Alive”. The track listens like a hopeful prayer, or a sermon to a congregation. Knowing Kanye’s egotistical history, it would not be surprising if he has inserted this track as a sort of ode to himself, as if he is the one who can set people free, as if he is a God himself. The counterpart to this track is “Highlights” which features up-and-coming rapper Young Thug who offers backing vocals in his signature mumble-rap style. Complete with an autotuned Kanye, this song has an infectious beat but the lacklustre lyricism distract from what is otherwise a track that insists on someone jamming to it and snapping their fingers along to the hi-hats. This is followed up by what is maybe the most difficult and grading song to listen to on the album. Complete with an angry almost incoherent Kanye, jarring sample and Bond movie-esque violins, “Freestyle 4” is definitely a song that has to grow on the listener. Again, this song switches courses and directions, reiterating the fact that this album has no coherent theme, it is like a Pablo Picasso as it is disjointed, abstract and must be understood as such.
Transitioning from jarring and aggressive tones, “I Love Kanye” is a welcome, light-hearted acapella intermission track that has Kanye talking about himself in the third-person, both poking fun at his ego and playing with it as well. Kanye addresses those who say he is past his prime, and “miss the Old Kanye”, while insisting that he isn’t as he “invented Kanye”. Who is to tell him how or who he should be? A satirical take on the “Kanye loves Kanye meme”, he ends the short track with saying “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”.
The brightness and jovial tone of the album returns with the track “Waves” featuring Chris Brown. This track was originally not going to be on the album, but Chance The Rapper’s insistence that it must be included ensured it was going to be on the tracklist, however, at the expense of the album being delayed for a short time. This jovialness is short-lived as the two tracks that follow it, “FML” and “Real Friends”, are emotional testimonies by Kanye that bar his soul and expose his faults and fears. “FML” which features Toronto-based R&B singer, The Weeknd, has Kanye alluding to his difficulties with staying faithful to his wife, Kim Kardashian. The openness to which Kanye speaks of his marital troubles is humanizing for an otherwise megalomaniac with an aggressively inflated sense of self. It is refreshing to see Kanye use his music to humble himself and shed the image of super masculine bravado to create an emotionally driven and heartfelt apology. While he may be apologizing on “FML”, “Real Friends”, featuring Ty Dolla $ign, has Kanye share how alone he feels despite his fame. His fame may have brought him boatloads of money, and material wealth but he probably has not had a genuine interaction with another human being since, as everyone in his social circle, friends, family, has wanted to cash in on their proximity to one of the biggest celebrities in the game. He admits his own faults asking “When was the last time I remembered a birthday, when was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?” before pointing the finger at those around him with lines like “Money turn your kin into an enemy, Ni**as ain’t as real as they pretend to be.” He even alludes to a cousin of his who stole his laptop, and then ransomed it back to Kanye for $250,000.
As predatory as his own cousin seems to be, the proceeding track “Wolves” only reiterates how Kanye feels in the eye of the media. Featuring Sia, Vic Mensa and Frank Ocean, “Wolves” has been a highly anticipated track on the album ever since it was first performed at Yeezy Season 1, Kanye’s first fashion show. Riddled with biblical references, and other mythological allusions like that of Icarus, the symbolism within this song is rich. Feeling as if he is flying too close to the sun, and feeling like the media, the “wolves” he is referring to, Kanye is aware of how powerless he is in certain situations and how is subjected to whoever wants to talk about him, and how they talk about him. He ends the song asking to protect his children, North and Saint, in lamb’s wool to protect them from the wolves, a clever wordplay on the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” metaphor from the Bible, perhaps implying that his family is composed of wolves as well, and won’t be dormant any longer.
The album effectively ends with this song as the rest of the songs, “30 Hours”, “No More Parties in LA”, “Facts” and “Fade” are considered bonus tracks to the album, although it is difficult to tell what is a bonus or not as the entire album is disjointed and could be considered of the “bonus” variety. “30 Hours” is a melancholic song about loss and nostalgia, and the difficulties of Kanye’s life choices, but the reiteration that “he still drove 30 hours”, which coincidentally is the time it would take to drive from Chicago, where he was raised and has his roots, to LA, where is is living now. Fittingly, “No More Parties in LA”, although a “bonus joint” is Kanye’s best lyrical work on the entire album. The presence of lyrical genius Kendrick Lamar on this song maybe pushed Kanye to drop meaningful and clever bars like “Every agent I know, know I hate agents/I’m too vocal, I’m too black, I’m too flagrant/ Something smell like shit, that’s the new fragrance” and “I know some fans who thought I wouldn’t rap like this again/But the writer’s block is over, emcees cancel your plans”. If anything, NMPILA acts as a tease of what could be, what used to be, in a Kanye album but isn’t anymore, a seemingly never-ending 90 bars, something he has not done in years. “Facts” serves as the mirror to NMPILA, having simple bars over a Charlie Heat beat that is just begging to be blasted from Honda Civic speakers down the street at night. A diss-track against Nike, a lot of the bars fall flat but the tone and emphasis Kanye gives them, and the hard, angry beat laid over-top elevates them to listenable. The last track, “Fade” is interesting to say the least. Featuring Post Malone, the song sounds like it should be played in a Miami nightclub fueled by cocaine and neon. The infectious house beat makes staying still during this song almost impossible as the heartbeat of the song invokes a need to sway and ride the beat as it bends and sways with Kanye and Malone’s lyrics.
Despite it’s non-thematic elements and general uncohesiveness, in the grand picture of Kanye West, The Life of Pablo gives us a glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s biggest celebrity villains. Good press or bad, Kanye is willing to put himself out there and defend his art. The album roll-out was like nothing ever seen before. No concrete release date, no physical copies, no structure. After debuting the album at his fashion show at Madison Square Garden on February 12th, West has continued to tweak, alter and ‘fix’ TLOP and sees no reason to stop anytime soon, calling Pablo a “living, breathing, changing creative expression.” Even though West brings nothing new to the table with the contents of this album, the marketing and sale of the album is like nothing ever seen before. He sold-out MSG to people who wished to hear him play the album from his laptop over the speakers. He flip-flopped on the title and tracklist up until, and even after, the release of the album. Is this what an album release is like now? The seemingly messy and ramschackled release of the album could very much be completely contrived and only done so to profit off of multiple releases of the same album, and streamline users to Tidal, the only place to buy the album currently. Even with a mediocre product, at least in comparison to some of West’s earlier work, Kanye is able to generate an unbelievable amount of attention and hype. Kanye West is a figure that people love to hate, and who divides people into two distinct groups, those who adore him, and those who loath him. For Kanye West, it doesn’t matter which group you’re in, because you’re talking about him, and thats all that matters.