The Kanye West Dichotomy
by Oliver Rose
Deep breaths everyone – the farce is finally over. The Life Of Pablo is streaming over on Tidal. At last, we might sleep.
Don’t misjudge me, reader. To those who know me in particular, I’m being entirely sincere. For a moment, I was truly worried. I say a moment – it was more like days by the time Kanye eventually got his shit together and finished blaming Chance The Rapper for this LP’s botched deployment. In-between times, there was a very real risk of this record being good. After the Lou Reed-approved sonic abrasion of Yeezus, a successful (tasteful, even) foray into postmodern fashion and a few great non-album singles (particularly the soulful, auto-tuned masterstroke, Only One), Kanye had me a-wonderin’. Could this be the record where maturity caught up with him; could Kanye West, for the first time ever, commit to making truly great art?
Don’t be ridiculous. As a realist will be unsurprised in telling you, The Life Of Pablo has, after many months, various name-changes and several ingredient revisions, dropped underwhelming into earshot. It’s groaning with lousy metaphors, misogynistic imagery, and excessive run-times. Comprising eighteen tracks and clocking in at a massive fifty-eight minutes, it’s not only way longer than Yeezus, it’s way less innovative – and given that Kanye’s key requisite here was innovation, what we’re left with is a very disappointing trope indeed.
Or is that disappointment simply a mirage? Didn’t you already know it would be this way? Well, the PearShaped review on this record was taken when I requested it (a good thing too – I’d probably have been very harsh), but here’s my tuppence on the topic anyway…
Kanye fans don’t normally listen to what I have to say when it comes to discussing their hero’s alleged greatness – which is a shame; I’m more compassionate than most outsiders to their audaciously ignorant camp. But the truth is this: Kanye West is a genius behind the mixing desk. Regardless of the fact that it’s utter crap, you really should listen to The Life Of Pablo – it’s got higher production values than anything I’ve heard since Yeezus – it’s likely that nothing this year will top its superb mastering. The mix is superbly clean; the sample edits are fantastically brutal. If it were instrumental, this record would be teetering excitedly on the cusp of a 10⁄10 rating. Unfortunately, riding the waves of this gorgeous sound, Kanye makes the mistake of opening his fat mouth – and he’s misguided in doing so. This constant battle between excellent music and tragic arrogance constitutes a critical headache I have christened, “The Kanye West Dichotomy”.
Annoyingly, this conflict is not confined to the music. Criticism of his records is notoriously imbalanced and, invariably, at both extremes of the argument, badly qualified. Everyone tends to ignore the more intellectual arguments available – that the inconsistency and disparity of Kanye’s music are significantly contemporary as markers of postmodern music, that his ego could be intentionally engineered to annoy, that his production is masterful for bringing the industry to its knees with idiotic, fetishized lust for cheap thrills. Instead, one is left with the quarrelling of chumps. Kanye’s supporters have a weak resolve to the debate: that he has a “nice flow”, that he perhaps admirably “gives no fucks”, that he can do what he wants because it’s all a big joke. Arguably, his detractors are worse; eschewing the art of critical deconstruction, most reviewers of this persuasion will blindly reference the Yeezy’s massively egotistical Twitter-feed, or his overwrought comments in the press, latching on to any and all moments of objective distaste without regard for the art that is, quite frankly, unquestionably present in his music, even if it serves exclusively, to undermine him.
I previously ran into this issue on Yeezus. It was my first Kanye West album and it despaired me from beginning to end. Not because I’m a camp, minimal wave nut who can’t handle anything off the Def Jam roster – not so. My struggle with Yeezus was its torrid inward wrestle; it’s a record that sparkles with exciting textures and well-placed experiments in both original instrumentation and, particularly, in its choppy sampling technique. It’s also a record whose opening track features the line “black dick all in your spouse again”. This kind of pathetic, eye-rolling crap permeates Yeezus – constantly, you’ll find yourself enjoying a fantastic, edgy work of production, only to have some inarticulate rubbish thrust aggressively your way in the form of Kanye’s acclaimed “purpose of revulsion” (shut up, Pitchfork).
Now, the situation on The Life Of Pablo is different. This isn’t so much an offensive record as it is a silly one. Seemingly, Kanye’s interim experiences of marriage and fatherhood have dulled his previously irrepressible vulgarity. Alongside a set of instrumentals that are discernibly more ‘chill’, this ‘new Kanye’ is a largely subdued version of the militant misogynist narrating Yeezus. This means that when he does say something off-hand, it comes off inarticulate and dumb rather than sexually violent or spiteful (e.g. “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”). Success right? A move forward from Yeezus? Yes, and no. The Life Of Pablo is still an LP fraught with annoying instances of a good thing spoiled. The throbbing beat on Father Stretch My Hands (Part 1) is damned by the line I’ve quoted; similarly, a brilliantly edited, buoyant outro sample on Famous is marred by West’s degrading Taylor Swift reference in the first verse.
Most surprising, is the development of my formula into the Kanye trichotomy, as this seventh album is laid waste to by a new, but equally unwelcome guest – ennui. The Life Of Pablo is just too long. Songs like the six-minute No More Parties In LA, drag (30 Hours is perhaps the best example of this; it needs cutting in half). A further dimension complicating matters is the seemingly clever self-reflexivity at work throughout this album (though it’s impossible to tell whether or not this is just pseudo-intellectualism). For example, I Love Kanye: it’s the funniest, least offensive, most truthful and quick-witted moment on the entire album – forty-six seconds of clean, accurate and funny rap. And what about the cover and title? Concerning any one of the possible titular Pablos, the Peter de Potter sleeve is a landmark in visual culture. It could reference Pablo Escobar’s grossly exuberant lifestyle, Pablo Picasso’s own conflict between refined artistic tradition and contemporary, textual chaos or maybe the image of marriage, a typically religious construct, links to the disciple San Pablo? And as for the rotund, model’s ass? Well if ‘does what it says on the tin’ is still a thing, I think we’ve got a pretty excellent tin right here. Hate on the music, as well you should; the sleeve is good, stimulating art.
So that’s it basically. It needs no further addressing. Kanye West has dropped a new album. There’s been a lot of hype. Between this and his last, monstrously appalling verses on record, the performer at hand has demonstrated time and again his eye and ear for exquisite taste, with apocalyptic fashion shows and Weeknd-sampled micro-tracks to boot. Ultimately however, his new album? The ‘music’? The tunes? Well, despite exquisite handiwork behind the desk and probing visuals, it’s not very good stuff. It’s full of what dearly departed Lou referred to as “the same old shit”, in a review that expressed, as I have here, the grapple with better judgment as elements of competing quality impact. And so, just as before, if not perhaps more painfully, Kanye West proudly (oh, so proudly) presents a record that has its listeners constantly sighing, as the sound of superb music is tarnished with tactless garbage, borne of erroneous supremacy.