For better or for worse, Kanye West is not just a musician. Listening to a Kanye album is always dependent, or at least enhanced by other ‘artistic’ factors. I’m not referring to his efforts as a fashion designer with Adidas, nor his various business ventures. I’m referring to Kanye as a persona, his life as spectacle. Sure, he is one of the most commercially and critically successful recording artists of all time. But I’d bet that, even in the wake of his seventh album release, more people are talking about and consuming through their screens Kanye West the person, rather than his music. Everybody knows that he’s a narcissistic douche, and that he’s delusional about his own godlike artistic superiority, but nevertheless there’s something quite captivating, brilliant even, about just how chaotically imperfect he is, and the contradictions and paradoxes he embodies like an anti-hero character fallen from between the pages of a novel. The Life Of Pablo, while a piece of work in its own right, is ultimately just another brushstroke in the fatally flawed masterpiece that is Kanye West, himself. We don’t love Kanye despite his imperfections, we love him for them, and the same can be said of his music.
On The Life Of Pablo, Kanye has never sounded more Kanye. It’s a complete mess, but something tells me that’s the point. It starts with Ultralight Beam, a stunning, sparse, yet uplifting gospel song. Kanye starts it off, singing with his trademark warbling autotune about his faith in God, but centre stage is given to its features. Kelly Price’s soulful verse is breathtaking, and Chance The Rapper perhaps pulls off the best rap verse on the entire album. But then the incongruities start. While Ultralight Beam has Kanye piously baring his soul, Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 starts with a line on fucking a model and haphazard anal bleaching — the juxtaposition foreshadows the illogic and unpredictability of what is to come. The whole album is littered with similarly crude, but instantly memorable one liners. Take the already infamous line about Taylor Swift: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” The jury’s still out as to whether it’s outrageously hilarious, or just a bit mean.
Elsewhere, there are instances of Kanye at his most sincere and reflective. FML, perhaps the best track here, is a beautifully minimalist, and deeply honest track about the sexual temptations that come with celebrity. The Weeknd makes a perfectly cast appearance on the song’s chorus, and the outro, with the bizarre, tortured robotic voices is a genius touch. What’s best about it is that, unlike many other instances on the album, the song doesn’t get carried away with itself.
Profound reflections on family, faith and celebrity are pitched next to shock value misogyny; a prayerful skit about how good God has been is juxtaposed with an interlude of Kanye freestyling about how he “love you like Kanye love Kanye.” We get old-school College Dropout style Kanye on No More Parties In LA, alongside abrasive Yeezus-era Kanye on Feedback and Freestyle 4. It’s almost as though The Life Of Pablo, with its fickle, senseless brilliance, is a window into the life and creative process of the artist himself. This was even reflected in the lead up to the album’s release, with four different album titles announced, and the tracklist going through multiple changes, even hours before its official release, all very publicly. I wouldn’t be surprised if, even now, more changes were made.
The album as a work in progress – it’s an interesting concept, and works for the most part. I could get all profound and talk about how The Life Of Pablo’s fragmentary nature is a commentary on the disorientating nature of celebrity culture, or something. But while this may potentially justify the collage-like messiness of the album, it isn’t an excuse for the moments which are plain mediocre. Highlights is a directionless, largely forgettable pop-rap track. 30 Hours is about three minutes too long. Kanye even towards the end tries to justify why. “This is my version of a shoutout track… I’m just doing a… doing an ad lib track right now” really doesn’t cut it. The closer Fade is a real dud, a completely redundant, meandering dance track, the vocals being so half-baked and forgettable that it might as well be an instrumental.
But despite these imperfections, I love it. It constantly pushes the boundaries between creative and pretentious, eye-opening originality and bizarre eccentricity, hilarious and offensive, genius and madness. But most of all because it embodies all that I love, and love to hate, about Kanye. The “WHICH / ONE” plastered twenty times across the album’s cover provokes the question, “Which Pablo is he comparing himself to?” Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord, notorious and villainous? Picasso, the artist and innovator? San Pablo, St Peter, Jesus’ self-acclaimed right hand man? The answer is of course, all three, and probably more, but despite what the title might suggest, the album is no narrative autobiography, yet still it comes closer to real life Kanye then any autobiography ever could. Like the life of Kanye, The Life Of Pablo is an illogical ramshackle spectacle of irreconcilable contradictions. And that’s why it’s so good.