Review Summary: Excellence loves Kanye like Kanye loves Kanye.
At this point, it’s less a question of “if” than a question of degree: just how much is Kanye West fucking with us? Fans have been completely disoriented by Yeezy’s social media presence at least a half-dozen times in the four or five months before The Life of Pablo
’s eventual release on February 14 - the album’s cycling through four names, three within a month of it dropping; the nearly farcical yet absurdly well-attended (in person and online) album stream in Madison Square Garden last week; Kanye’s tweet - seemingly out of nowhere - of “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” which sent fans and writers all across the internet into a frenzy as they tried to work out what that meant; and so much more. The bloggerati have found themselves stuck in largely the same boat as the consumers in terms of their access to album details yet having to produce tens of thousands of words worth of coverage in order to appear to have a handle on things, only to have West tweet his wish that “white publication[s]” not “comment on black music anymore” in response. Even those within the music industry have reeled at the shock of Kanye’s financially disastrous album drop, losing literally millions of dollars as the powers that be bet on Tidal and lost spectacularly when the service failed to provide users with a promised album download upon purchase and fans turned to piracy instead. ‘Ye himself has revealed a $53 million dollar debt he ostensibly holds. In a few words, shit is bananas right now.
And all that is to say nothing of the album itself. The Life of Pablo
is an absolute mess, all over the place in a way that makes Yeezus
look positively docile. It flies through samples at breakneck pace, going from hi-hat-happy trap to jazz to electronic-inflected modern classical to soul in the span of seconds. It crashes from track to track with almost no buffer built into its segues, abruptly changing mode and mood with no warning whatsoever. It contains some of the vilest lyrics Kanye has ever written (“Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’mma feel like an asshole” probably wins for best line, but there’s a treasure trove of other similar lyrics here), made even grosser by their bluntness and matter-of-factness. It doesn’t even end “properly” - “Fade” awkwardly and audibly cuts out in the middle of an instrumental loop, leaving the listener befuddled.
The Life of Pablo
is a catastrophe of disparate ideas colliding without rhyme or reason and just exploding into color, much like the people chest-bumping into soda in that one unintentionally terrifying Sprite ad from about ten years ago (included in the comments for your viewing pleasure). And yet it somehow ends up coalescing gloriously into everything expected of a Kanye West album in 2016, which is to say that in its utter madness it somehow forms a coherent picture of Yeezy’s unhinged genius. It’s a shitshow, but it’s a shitshow that is quintessentially Kanye. The album sounds like a Jackson Pollock self-portrait might look, in that if you’re willing to take all the near-nonsensical individual elements and assemble them into an overcrowded eighteen-track whole, the final product, in its own twisted way, looks like Kanye West. ‘Ye imprints himself on this album in a way that is uniquely and undeniably himself, and the result is astounding in its nigh-incomprehensible design.
The excellency of The Life of Pablo
can primarily be traced to its production. The more traditional beats on the album are far and away some of the best things West has ever produced, melding the hip-hop pedigree he developed on his first three albums with the rawness of Yeezus
and some of the best production tricks on 808s and Heartbreak
and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
. “Feedback” stands out as the best of the bunch, amp distortion pitch-shifted over an industrial-lite beat to create one of the most bumpin’ songs in ‘Ye’s catalogue. The glitching at the end is one of the most sonically pleasing moments on the album, simplistic clap and occasional bass thump working to incredible effect. Similarly outstanding, “Real Friends” would feel right at home on a more morose Graduation
, silvery woodwind lead and harp resting tranquilly over a cavernous snare.
The slightly less conventional tracks often rise to the same heights. “Introspective” is the wrong word to describe a track like “FML” - it’s a little too focused on Kim for that - but it’s a stark about-face from the rest of the album’s bravado. Its syrupy guitars, doused in reverb, echo ominously and insistently, unaccompanied aside from Kanye’s Auto-Tune and The Weeknd’s croon for much of the piece. In pulling back, the instrumental reflects Kanye dropping his facade of dominance for a surprisingly intimate revelation of self. The apocalyptic “Wolves” does much the same thing, ‘Ye mulling over his past excesses over blocky bass and an utterly haunting vocal sample. Given the way he’s portrayed himself outside of his music over the past half-decade or so (and, more importantly, the way the mainstream media has portrayed him over that span), it’s almost surprising that he’d worry that he’s “too wild” in the same venue as the “bleached asshole” line.
“Almost,” because of course it’s unsurprising that Kanye is not just
an arrogant asshole, if he’s even one at all. He’s a human being, with hopes and fears and dreams and regrets, some of which he’d like to express and some of which he’d like to keep to himself. Except he can’t keep them to himself, for the most part, because his position as quite possibly the biggest musician of his day means that he’s subject to an impossible amount of scrutiny and coverage. The man has a largely coherent artistic vision, but that vision is inevitably corrupted by the media ascribing profound meaning to everything both important and insignificant that he does, to the point where he, in a very postmodern turn, no longer fully controls his own narrative - and that could drive a weaker man to the point of absolute insanity.
What seems to keep him afloat, at least judging from the 45-second Borges y yo
disciple “I Love Kanye,” is that, despite everything, Kanye still loves Kanye. He’s convinced enough of his own brilliance that he is willing to grit his teeth through all the criticisms of his character and tellings-off from major media organizations and generally racist shit thrown at him from comment sections worldwide and produce something he truly believes is special, something which reflects whatever he can salvage of that vision. At the risk of veering into a zone that’s too navel-gazing for its own good, what makes The Life of Pablo
most special is that, despite everything it has running headlong in all different directions, what does end up coming together in its complete form is fundamentally affirming. What’s clear - especially from the heavy doses of Christian praise featured here - is that Yeezy, if he’s not totally at peace with where he is, believes that he will persevere, that he will triumph, that he will be able to live his “God dream” someday.
So, when The Life of Pablo
ends up a tremendous mess, it’s a mess in the best sense of the word. Kanye takes all the crap that he’s received, throws it into his computer and microphone, and ends up with stuff splattering all over the place. It’s this unholy amalgam of anger and swagger and self-loathing and - above all - love, all served over some of the best production work the man has ever done. The love is for all those around him (even that cousin who stole his laptop, that dirty motherfucker
), but above all that love is for himself. Which is, of course, monumentally narcissistic, but in this case that doesn’t really matter. Kanye, in the media/fan/music-exec frenzy that’s been surrounding him, has all but drowned in other people attributing motives, feelings, and diagnoses to him that are not his own. It’s nice to hear his own voice finally shine through once again.