A lot of music nerds like myself, while they listen to tons of music, always have that one artist that they always go back to. The artist with which their love for them runs deeper than music and they’re just generally inspired in all areas of life by that person. The artist that comforts them in difficult times, the artist whose albums and songs are the soundtracks to their lives, the artist that brings them “home” no matter where they are. The artist that opened up new avenues of musical discovery for them. The artist where they know every song on every album, word for word, even the bad songs. The artist that they love so much that other people often mistake it for strange and unhealthy obsession. Their absolute, unquestioned, no doubt, favorite artist. For a lot people, it’s the recently passed David Bowie, or for others it’s Bruce Springsteen, and for others it’s Miles Davis. For me, that person is Kanye West. He’s not only the creator of my favorite album of all time (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”), and the guy who got me into my favorite genre of music (hip-hop), he’s my main inspiration in life. My hero, so to speak. I’ll get into all of that stuff later to avoid rambling in this intro, but just know that Kanye West is the reason I write album reviews and love music, and myself, as much as I do.
So you can probably understand my excitement when it comes to the release of this album. I kept up with every detail, stalking Kanye’s twitter for every title change, track list alteration, word of possible features, etc. The lead up to the album was crazy, but it was all coming to an end on the eleventh when Kanye streamed his listening party/fashion show in Madison Square Garden. After the stream, the album was supposed to be released. And then it wasn’t. And then it was supposed to be out the next day. And then it wasn’t. And then it was supposed to be out after he performed on SNL, and it was, but we had to wait 25 minutes because TIDAL didn’t have their shit together. All of the jerking around was honestly starting to get on my nerves and had me wishing that Kanye would just be normal for a change. But now that it’s out, none of that matters. Because “The Life of Pablo” is one of his finest works and one of the finest works in recent memory. He’s done it again.
It’s strange that the album is as great as it is, given how messy the release and promotion was. I was expecting an incredibly flawed and messy record, and for sure, it is messy. The track order doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense, and the mixing could be better at some spots. But songwise, this is one of Kanye’s most flawless albums. He threw a bunch of things at the wall to see what would stick, and quite literally everything sticks. Front to back there is not one bad song, and that is quite a feat considering how many things he tries here. Everything from gospel to trap to autotuned pop rap to deep house to hardcore hip-hop shows up here, and that’s just scratching the surface. It might not all blend perfectly, but the parts by themselves are all damn near (if not) perfect.
The album opens with the gospel and hip-hop fusion of “Ultralight Beam,” one of Kanye’s best songs to date, and easily one of his most low-key and beautiful. There’s not much to it: a gorgeous chord progression and some chopped up drums, but the light shines through in the vocals. The refrain Kanye provides is wonderful (especially when he reaches into his lower register when singing “…this is everything.”), Kelly Price blesses the track with beautiful singing, and Kirk Franklin offers a really touching prayer at the end. But the real star here is Chance the Rapper, who steals the show with his extended verse about family, religion, and his success. The best thing about it is that he’s rapping (and singing) with such enthusiasm. He sounds amazed that he’s on a Kanye West song, which is a just a great thing to witness. Chance, being in his early twenties and from Chicago, grew up on Ye’s music, and that is made apparent if you listen to his solo stuff (which features a lot of things ripped straight from “The College Dropout” handbook.), and his fandom comes to a head here. He references “Good Ass Job,” the once tentative title for what would become “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” He quotes the “Late” line, “just throw this at the end if I’m too late for the intro.” He plays off the “Otis” line “I made ‘Jesus Walks’ I’m never goin’ to Hell,” by replacing “Jesus Walks” with “Sunday Candy,” and saying that he “met Kanye West, I’m never goin’ to fail.” It feels like a huge moment for him, and he owns every second for him. The verse calls to mind Bruce Springsteen playing with Bob Dylan or Charles Mingus playing with Duke Ellington. It feels like a passing of the torch.
‘Torch’ is actually a good descriptor for this song. It really does feel like a beacon, a guiding light that will take you on the right path. It’s transcendent, in other words. What’s more transcendent though, is the fact that the album just keeps going with no real dips in quality.
After the uplifting gospel of the opener, we are treated to the trap rap and pop rap of “Father Stretch My Hands,” which is one of the catchiest songs on the album. It begins with an establishing sample (that features a shot of cool shot of echoey space reminiscent of Dilla’s “Airworks”), and then it heads into a Metro Boomin produced trap beat. Kid Cudi’s prehook is catchy enough, but the hook Kanye repeats throughout the song is instantly memorable. (“I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I…”) These two opening tracks, including the darker second half of “Father Stretch My Hands,” are just crazy good. Most other artists would struggle to maintain that level of quality, but Kanye and his slew of co-producers and guests manage it extraordinarily well. There’s the melodically nimble hook Rihanna provides on “Famous” that goes perfectly with the grandiose beat. There’s the banger “Feedback,” that features a beat that literally sounds like amp feedback. (With some great shots of noise at the end.) There’s the crazy catchy “Highlights” led by an autotuned Ye and Young Thug, and then the claustrophobic and sexually depraved “Freestyle 4.” Songs that we’ve already heard show up, like the fantastically dreary “Real Friends,” the bar fest of “No More Parties In LA,” the ominous “Wolves,” and the deep house groove of “Fade.” Even the much maligned “Facts” is reworked here by Charlie Heat and vastly improved upon. This is an album that is impossible to describe because every song deserves its own paragraph. I didn’t even mention the emotionally desolate “FML,” featuring The Weeknd, and its extremely unsettling outro.
In terms of song crafting and beat making this is among Kanye’s very best efforts. Lyrically, though, that’s another story. He’s all but abandoned really going in on a verse save for “No More Parties In LA,” “Real Friends,” “FML,” “30 Hours,” and the acapella “I Love Kanye,” and instead opts for a “did he just say that?” lyrical style. He brings up Ray J, Taylor Swift, bleached assholes, Nike, etc. To many people, this lack of lyrical focus and refinement would be a drawback, but I don’t care. Kanye is one of the only people that could pull of a line like:
“If I fuck this model
and she just bleached her asshole
and I get bleach on my T-Shirt
Imma feel like an asshole.”
Really, the often times ridiculous lyrics just add to the freewheeling and off the cuff spirit of the album. And this makes the more personal and serious verses all the more real, like on “FML” where he addresses his use of the antidepressant Lexapro, or on “Feedback” where he addresses police brutality. “Real Friends” is a super honest take on fame’s effects on family, and “30 Hours” is a really interesting diary like take on wealth and relationships. (That calls to mind Drake, no wonder he’s in the credits for this song.) The lyrics certainly aren’t at the level of “The College Dropout,” but if you ask me, they don’t detract at all.
“The Life of Pablo” is an album that is full of surprises. From the multiple ideas present to the small unexpected moments, like Andre 3000’s simple but effective harmonizing on “30 Hours,” and the out of nowhere robotic vocals on “Pt. 2,” Kanye has given another brilliant album to dissect and debate about. This record could have been extremely flawed and messy, but the messy nature is endearing and miraculously, it has almost no flaws. You’re looking at 18 fantastic songs here that combine all of Kanye’s past efforts perfectly while also absorbing the now and looking toward the future. Awe-inspiringly strange at times, emotionally powerful and honest, over the top, endlessly intriguing, and highly memorable. In other words, another great Kanye West album.
Standout Tracks: “Ultralight Beams” “Father Stretch My Hands” “Feedback” “Highlights” “I Love Kanye” “FML” “Real Friends” “Wolves” “30 Hours” “No More Parties In LA” “Fade”