Album Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (2016 LP)

First off, who is this Pablo to whom Kanye West refers with his album title, The Life of Pablo? Picasso? Neruda? Escobar? Is he inexplicably trying to revive Petey Pablo’s career? Referencing Radiohead’s classic debut? Maybe he is likening himself San Pablo (St. Paul), another biblical reference following the religious megalomania of Yeezus. Most likely though, he is making multiple connections here; Picassco’s intricacy, Escobar’s notoriety, Neruda’s wordplay, Radiohead’s inventiveness, and St Paul’s piety, all forged to create the Mr West we know of today, a man who has been transformed so much by an unfair villainous media narrative and an impressionable public that buys into it; a man who just released what is sounding like one of the best albums of his career (only time will tell if it tops My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy); possibly the best.

(Half) Debuted at a bizarre worldwide streaming event live from Madison Square Garden – which this writer watched in a Sydney cinema at 8am – The Life of Pablo was played in it’s entirety (or so was the impression at the time) via laptop, a mostly all-smiles West partying with some of his closest collaborators while many around the world watched and listened to the project one track after the other; no skipping, just straight front-to-back. West has come too far not to be pulling off these dramatic and experimental album releases, and even though the listening party-cum-fashion event was a slightly awkward and patience-testing watch, all the show-and-prove came down to one thing: the music.

Dreamy opening track “Ultralight Beam” is a soulful introduction to an album which is essentially the light to Yeezus’ dark, transcendental and dramatic, lifted by a tender The-Dream and a powerful Kelly Price, building to a mind-blowing, upstaging verse by Chance the Rapper, whose presence makes sense since the entire track sounds like it was, at least partly, inspired by Surf.

“I’m trying to keep my faith/but I’m looking for more”, sings The-Dream towards close, backed by a commanding gospel choir, lending credence to Kanye’s claims that T.L.O.P is ultimately a gospel album, albeit one which pulls greatly on drill, vintage soul, and a variety of other influences. This choral aspect doesn’t come as a surprise here; Ye’s strongest tracks have always employed a “take ’em to church (or chuuuuch)” element of gospel, from “Family Business” and “Never Let Me Down” to “Jesus Walks” and “Dark Fantasy”, a category to which he can easily add “Ultralight Beam”.

Having a prayer from acclaimed gospel artist Kirk Franklin is a beautiful way to wrap this introductory piece, punctuated by the stop-start choir chanting the single syllables of “Faith. More. Safe. War” for a stunning, operatic finish that has more substance than most of his peers can manage in one album. Not bad for a song that opened with a sample from a random vine.

Second and third track (packaged together), “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2” presents something completely different to “U.L.B”, but it’s no less impressive and theatrical, with Metro Boomin’s most ambitious production (or rather co-production with Rick Rubin, West, and Mike Dean) to date. The St. Louis producer was to 2015 what DJ Mustard was to 2014, or Mike Will Made It was to 2013: consciously on-trend and formulaic, but still stepping up to ‘Ye’s standards here, changing his mold and turning in a heartfelt package of synths, hand-claps, and drums with a gospel sample in the background. The beat is split in two and both sections have a different tone signaled first by a lively, relaxed Kid Cudi on a Pastor T. L. Barrett sample, and then an aggressive, urgent Desiigner, who sounds like Future without the excessive reliance on autotune, recreating his own single “Panda” to great effect. Kanye raps about his parents in the second half, sticking with the many references to family, friendship, and loyalty that characterise T.L.O.P, capturing a more humbled and profound yeezy than ever before. One whom seems to be calming down from his tumultuous past and edging towards self-actualisation.

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Organs behind Rihanna bring in “Famous”, with a pastor-like Swizz Beatz providing his regular ad-libs before all attention turns to an impudent Kanye’s brash, obnoxious rhymes, weighing in on his supposedly high chances of having sex with Taylor Swift, because he made her famous (For all my southside ni**as that know me best/I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/why? I made that bitch famous/I made that bitch famous). The controversy seems purposeful, and it sure has worked in launching plenty of think pieces because if Kanye West is media’s dusty music villain then Taylor Swift is surely their flawless heroine, tied together by a stage-invading moment that continues to live on in the annals of pop culture history.

Despite the backlash, it’s a solid track speaking to the dual themes throughout the album; Kanye is moving towards maturity and closure, providing introspection which is balanced against flawed, childish rhymes that are purposely provocative and irreverent, with the same wit and juvenile humour that first endeared the world towards Kanye the rapper (for example, “I got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson” from “Slow Jamz”, or the goofy “You’re My Type”), as compared to Kanye the celebrity (the very, very hated celebrity).

As with all of his albums, T.L.O.P confronts us with a complex artist who is both arrogant and charmingly vulnerable, sincere in his pursuit for growth and creativity but still throwing his own weight around like a petulant, disrespectful rich kid who values levity over reverence. Though, even if you aren’t feeling him on the lyrics, it’s hard to deny his talent as a producer when he introduces such a simple sample like Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” at exactly the right time, pitched and chopped up with an organ lift to fit in with the album’s ethereal aesthetic, slotting right alongside an excerpt from Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do”.

At times Kanye’s raps are brimming with the raw energy of an unrehearsed freestyle, and at other times it’s just pure melody and autotune, stepping back to let the beat dictate the direction, showcasing both Kanye the rapper and Kanye the producer. He never stumbles over himself in his raps because he never tries to be overly technical; Yeezy knows that emceeing isn’t his strongest suit, he isn’t a Kool G Rap or Black Thought, rather he is more concerned with tone than straight up lyricism. You’ll hear this on the brilliant “Highlights”, which shows off all sides of West alongside Young Thug, El DeBarge (!!!), and The-Dream, Thugga especially impressing here as the bouncy beat seems to be molded to his eccentric style; it might even be inspired by the Atlanta rapper’s hit 2015 collaboration with Jamie XX (“I Know There’s Gonna Be [Good Times]”). As one of the album’s strongest cuts, “Highlights” is a sure-shot for a lead single and will likely dominate DJ playlists throughout 2016.

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“Feedback” edges into Yeezus territory but gives us something more rap-focused, Kanye spitting a discursive flurry tackling bloggers, police, and PETA, calling himself the “ghetto Oprah” before bringing in metallic atonal industrial noise that ends abruptly, it’s tone being picked up later with the curiously named “Freestyle 4”, a hard-to-swallow, off-the-wall blend of sex, vocal effects, and a vintage horror film beat that’s syncopated and strange, with another, albeit weaker, turn from Desiigner. This is the ‘new Kanye’, the one who split so many when Yeezus was released, making for an appropriate precursor to interlude “I Love Kanye”, a 44 second tongue-in-cheek acapella wrly drawing the many angles his public persona has taken over the years, winking as if to intentionally mock former fans who can’t seem to stomach what West has become.

I miss the old Kanye, straight from the gold Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye

“Waves” was the cut that Chance the Rapper insisted be added at the very last minute, delaying the official release of the album for a day or so and piquing interest in the once-scrapped track. Featuring Chris Brown on the hook, it feels a bit out of place on the album as a whole, ultimately messing up the consistency. Thankfully, it’s one of the shorter numbers on T.L.O.P and is quickly followed up by the delicate, measured “FML” with a poised The Weeknd assisting Yeezy in expressing his inner struggles and pleas with a higher power before all things descend into drugged-out noise, anchored by an Auto-tuned West contending with a submerged Larry Cassidy (of post-punk band Section 25).

The mournful “Real Friends” remains one of the highlights of Kanye’s work these past few years, giving Ty Dolla $ign the best role of his career, laced with Havoc’s head-nodding drum pattern which has the same eery tone as vintage Mobb Deep, perfect for a more vulnerable and contemplative West to take a deeper look at his own relationships, both positive and negative, turning the scope outward rather than inward; self-centered if considered in isolation, but completely necessary when considered as part of the exploratory album.

“Wolves” is a risky departure back to 808s & Heartbreak that works with deep, vibratory bass and tortured wolf-like wails from award-winning classical composer Caroline Shaw, jaw-dropping as it drips with emotion from a surprise appearance by Frank Ocean, whose brief, brilliant performance doesn’t do anything to help fan the flames of demand for Boys Don’t Cry.

Max B shows up for an unnecessary interlude that was likely only included to throw Wiz Khalifa’s shout out back in his face, a dick move from Kanye but easily ignored once the beautiful “30 Hours” comes in, with a melancholic sample from Arthur Russell and a barely noticeable contribution from Andre 3000. Both sound and lyrics are steeped in sorrow with ‘Ye reminiscing on a pre-fame relationship and how eager he was to impress others, while simultaneously nodding to his post-fame life. He also references Nelly twice for reasons unknown as the track runs a bit overtime, West extending the cut for shout outs a la “Last Call”.

It’s a relief the charming “No More Parties in L.A” was included on the final version of T.L.O.P, the Kendrick Lamar buddy-rap collaboration helped along by a flurry of vocal samples and Madlib’s golden touch. It does clash with the consistency of the album. Though it’s not as incongruous as the trap-version of “Facts”, a banging, aggressive re-work that comes with a buzzy Street Fighter II sample. Album-closer “Fade” is more a celebration of Kanye the producer than anything else, melting three samples (“Mystery of Love” by Mr Fingers; “Deep Inside” by Hardrive; “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by Rare Earth) into a head-nodding, house-inflected, dancefloor-minded jam that’s solely about the groove. All three tracks play out as bonus cuts, not making sense for the album, but welcome tack-ons all the same.

The naive warmth of The College Dropout (“Ultralight Beam”; “Real Friends”), the theatre and soul of Late Registration (“Father Stretch My Hands”; “30 Hours”), the pop-mindedness of Graduation (“Waves”; “Highlights”), the desperation and melody of 808s & Heartbreak (“Wolves”; “FML”), the refined complexity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (“No More Parties in L.A”; “Famous”), and the abrasive audacity of Yeezus (“Feedback”; “Freestyle 4”); it’s all here, it’s all on display throughout this album, tied together by Kanye and his collaborators. It’s all (mostly) unified by themes of family, friends, loyalty and celebrity, as well as Ye’s tendency to be both self-aggrandising and self-flagellating, often in the same verse. He knows how to do beauty, he knows how to do ugly, and he measures the two here with meticulous, impeccable production, the words only designed to latch right onto the textured beats and shift with the nuances these many samples bring.

There are blemishes here and there, but when considered as a whole, in the context of Kanye both inside and outside the studio, it’s about as perfect as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and should be celebrated as such. We’re never going to get the ‘old Kanye’ back with the concerns he has today, from being slammed on tabloid MediaTakeOut to the Taylor Swift incident forever defining him to the public, and though that may drag content at times, all signs point to The Life of Pablo being looked back upon as yet another game-changing classic from Kanye West.

Review Score: 9.5 out of 10 AU-APPROVED

The Life of Pablo is currently available for streaming via Tidal.