‘The Life of Pablo’ review
Erin McAuliffe | Thursday, February 18, 2016
“The Life of Pablo,” Kanye West’s seventh album, is not regular.
The album fluxes without floundering. It is powerfully disjointed in celebration and reconciliation. West begs for absolution, exalts in corporeal consecration and, as usual, demands recognition. In “The Life of Pablo,” he’s justified.
From his apprehensions about religious rap on 2004’s “Jesus Walks” to 2013’s “I Am A God,” West’s contradictions can be summed up in the poignant “Wolves” lyric “cover Saint in lamb’s wool”: He can both canonize and sacrifice. Fittingly, West teased “The Life of Pablo” as a Gospel album and touted it as gospel on Twitter.
Kanye is self-assured yet self-conscious. He’ll tweet that he is “the greatest artist of all time” and follow it up with “Ima fix wolves.” He has always been an entitled underdog — a vulnerable venerable.
The sloppy track lists, deleted and reposted songs and changed deadlines are relatable, even accessible. You can call his erratic “spaz in the news” persona schizophrenic, disingenuous or just human. Because honestly, who hasn’t sent their a professor a “sry THIS is the final draft” email?
Many will proclaim they “don’t want to know how the sausage is made,” but it was through this erratic process that Kanye guaranteed fans a 100-percent Certified All-Beef hot dog (his music) while experimenting with unique and innovative condiment combinations and buns (but not THOSE kind).
His process was not entirely prompted by introspection: He welcomed other artists’ opinions (“Waves” was pushed on at the last minute by Chance the Rapper) and even audience feedback (he continually prompted the audience, “What do you want to hear?” at Madison Square Garden, crafting the hypest focus group to date).
“Which/One,” the mantra repeated on the album cover that prompted the search for the “TLOP” namesake, is a question entertained throughout the album. West alludes to Pablo Picasso (artist), Pablo Escobar (drug lord) and Paul the Apostle (Biblical figure) at different points throughout the album — when has West limited his inspirational credits before? He called himself, “The day Ice Cube met Michael Jackson,” on 2010’s “Chain Heavy,” and now it’s “Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin” on the album’s “Freestyle 4.”
Besides his internalized influences, West has always been known to call on collaboration and is an expert at getting the very best out of new talent (Caroline Shaw, the youngest Pulitzer Prize-winning musician, brings electronic ambience to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2”) and old (Section 25’s New Order-esque electro angst on “FML”). This again evokes the “Which/One” question as listeners hear the Future-esque rolling “braaaaat” firings and drippy, under-breath rhymes originating from Brooklyn-native Desiigner on “Pt 2” and “Freestyle 4” and Post Malone (“White Iverson”) on “Fade.”
In his Oxford Guild speech back in March, West pointed out collaboration as the only thing that checks his ego — he continued on to call his ego his “Achilles heel.”
On “The Life of Pablo,” West gleefully introduces fellow Chi-town presence Chance the Rapper on the opening godsend pop track “Ultralight Beam.” Chance raps his own take on West’s lyrics from “Otis” and angelically bellows a version of “This Little Light of Mine” that harkens back to Kanye’s lyrics in “Hey Mama.” It’s a new Kanye taking on old Kanye while new Kanye beams from the sidelines. His album may be divisive, but it unites the rap game. And he’s ecstatic.
When left alone, Kanye’s egotism remains unchecked, and his ego struggles to restrain his primitive, contentious id. The carnal growls of drug-fueled aggression on “Freestyle 4” turn into introspected confusion on the existential, acapella soliloquy “I Love Kanye.” The back-to-back tracks show his id in its uncontrolled, anarchic state — a state his Twitter followers have grown accustomed to. However, underlying the tumultuous rants is a keen sense of self-awareness, embodied by the laugh at the end of “I Love Kanye” as he quotes the famous “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye” meme that made its usual way around the web on the album’s Valentine’s Day release.
On “The Life of Pablo,” West turns to family, religion and even consumerism to manage life’s stress — don’t we all? He is human, and his actions can mirror a headstrong child, independent in his pursuits. West walks a thin line between entitled and vulnerable. His MSG announcement, “I want to be the creative director of Hermès,” was more endearing than entitled: It’s an aspiration, not an expectation. He’s like a kid unrestrained in announcing his plans to become an astronaut when he grows up. In fact, he’s so open and accessible people steal his laptops and sandwiches — and maybe even his lunch money, #ZuckerbergPlsHelp.
West touts himself as an underdog in anything he doesn’t have immediacy in. First it was rap, then it was fashion, now it’s video games, and looking forward, the next conquest seems to be hotels. The idea is humorously addressed in the “Highlights” lyrics, “I just shot an amateur video, I think I should GoPro.”
While he may no longer be an underdog, his discursive ideas brace, more so now than ever, a DIY punk aesthetic. His process remains unchecked and is, fittingly, deleted or taken back and reworked if interpreted wrong in the freeform. He made sure we all knew how to say “zine,” his album artwork is jarring in minimalism, he answers Gabe’s phone call on “30 Hours” and tracks like “FML” are introspectively emo, as West mumbles, “Pour out my feelings / Revealing the layers to my soul” through Auto-tune.
In a time when top pop hits are written by a collective few, Twitter accounts are run by managers and albums are physically and painstakingly curated and tested, West’s tracks reveal deep introspection, his tweets have spelling errors, his website is a voicemail on loop and he’s getting emails to a beat-up laptop as he plays jams through an aux cord among friends in Madison Square Garden.
This is not a “Dropout” revival or an “808s” breakaway; it is West drawing on his past to sort out his present — it’s a rebirth. He is and always has been vulnerable and vindictive. His process conflicts with his progress. His messages contradict his lifestyle. There are so many Kanyes. In one Kanye.
West’s lyrics give us some more of what we don’t need (troublingly misogynistic claims and corny, questionable lines about a–holes), but he also addresses mental health on “FML” (referencing antidepressant Lexapro and an alleged episode in Mexico) and male-specific body image issues (comparing himself to Ray J’s sixpack and wishing his trainer would tell him what he overate so he can rock a beach body on “Highlights”).
“The Life of Pablo” reflects Kanye’s multiphrenic life as a married father of two: He delves into family values and spirituality amongst time-crunched regrets on “Pt 2,” while presenting unrestrained guttural “Arrrghs” that teeter between frustration and ecstasy on “Freestyle 4” (and his SNL album announcement) and wailing trombones on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” that sound like he recorded Saint (who was credited alongside North West as Creative Consultants on the album).
This is a dance record, from the joyous sanctification on “Ultralight Beam” to the celebratory “cookout music” sample via Sister Nancy on “Famous” to the siren-inducing drop on “Feedback” to the Chicago house music vibes reverberating on closing track “Fade.” It was initiated by the house party vibes at Madison Square Garden, when Kanye passed around the aux cord to the likes of Vic Mensa and Young Thug, and the sound system continued to blare hits by Beyoncé and Waka Flocka Flame as he walked off stage.
“The Life of Pablo” is an album that has kept me awake as I sort through its layers while lying in bed. It also has me springing up — no snooze slap — the next morning to get back to dancing in the streets with it. What more can I ask for?
15/5 shamrocks (but actually 4.5)
Faves: “Ultralight Beam,” “Pt 2,” “Feedback,” “Fade”
Similar Artists: Old Kanye, New Kanye, There’s So Many Kanyes