As a lifelong fan, it used to physically stress me out when people would criticize Kanye. I used to think that ultimately he was just misunderstood: that a greater, borderline profound message loomed behind every bold proclamation made at natural disaster telethons, or unscripted interruption of award acceptance speeches. Those who sought to cut down his perceived “arrogance” were too ignorant to understand that West was a defender of his people and culture, simply stating what no one else had the courage to say. That’s what I used to think anyway, but as of the writing of this article, I’m not as sure.
In 2016, it’s truly exhausting trying to still defend Kanye Omari West, as the once beloved rap superstar continues to exist as perhaps the most polarizing pop icon in the history of music. Whether voicing misogynistic tweets dealing with his most famous ex and Bill Cosby’s innocence, or by enabling Taylor Swift to be a victim yet again through controversial lyrics, West currently has the general population at large questioning him like never before.
The Life of Pablo, Kanye’s anticipated and newly released project, marks the Chicago artist’s seventh (solo) studio album. First unveiled at his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show last week, TLOP serves as another introspective look at the man Kanye West really is, making it even harder to separate the artist from the human being. One of the most telling lyrics from the album, as quoted and pointed out by many other writers before me, is the line “Name me one genius that ain’t crazy,” on the industrial, ego-driven track “Feedback”. Ultimately it begs the question: should we accept everything that comes with Kanye, including the craziness, if the end result is another testament to his genius?
The above question is still one that will divide both fans and critics long after he’s gone, but The Life Of Pablo indeed serves as another body of work that justifies West’s critical standing as a musical mastermind. Before this album, every project Kanye put out previously felt like both an extension and reinvention of his own self. But TLOP feels like an amalgam of the best (and sometimes worst) aspects that each release had to offer. At best, the album is a beautiful showcase for a number of artists and producers, centered around a brutally honest West as its boundless curator. At worst, The Life Of Pablo is a sloppily released, hastily put together patchwork that still contains moments of brilliance. I personally prefer the former.
With all of that being said, Kanye still has specific (avoidable) instances on the album you can’t help but roll your eyes at. The one that stands out above all else, as mentioned earlier, is the now infamous line expressed in the otherwise noteworthy song “Famous”. “For all my Southside niggas that know me best/I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why? I made that bitch famous,” West raps, making you wonder if regrettable decisions like that are made just for him to bask in the resulting controversy. (Sidenote: Swift won for AOTY monday night at the Grammys, where she made sure to seize the opportunity to subliminally blast West.)
There are also points where it feels like Kanye overthought it with his artistic input, like with the droning ending sequence of “FML”, or (to the dismay of most of the internet) him cutting out both Sia and Vic Mensa on the already perfect “Wolves” for a half-assed verse and what literally sounds like a phoned-in outro from Frank Ocean. Yet it’s this same artistic input that gives listeners moments of raw and welcome transparency, like the cheeky introspection of “I Love Kanye” or the unfiltered realness of “Freestlye 4”.
While there is definitely a gospel-like feel to TLOP towards the beginning of the album, there is no overarching theme made abundantly clear as with 808s, MBDTF, or Yeezus. There are brief allusions to the Black Lives Matter movement, but there is no underlying political statement to be had, or album-long blasting of a particular ex. The Life of Pablo instead functions as a chronicle for the life and times of Kanye West as a man now with a wife and a family. Whereas West arguably peaked with his technical skills rap-wise on MBDTF, his verses now feel secondary when framed in the overall context of the album. Yet, when Kanye fully commits, listeners are gifted with some of the best rapping of his expansive career, like with the hazy, reminiscent “30 Hours” or his blistering last verse on “No More Parties”. Particular moments on the LP are near indescribable though, and the MVP of The Life of Pablo should pretty much be collectively awarded to every single featured guest on the project.
Certain showings are grand, and scene stealing a la Chance with the verse of his life on the heavenly “Ultralight Beam”, The Weeknd’s operatic crooning on “FML”, Chris Brown’s surprisingly endearing turn on “Waves”, and Rihanna’s stage-setting vocals on “Famous”. There’s Kid Cudi on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, continuing his trend of turning in his best work on all things Yeezy-related. There’s the blink-and-you-miss-it appearances of Young Thug on “Highlights” and Andre 3000 back on “30 Hours”. Ty Dolla effortlessly works as a complimentary foil to Kanye’s ego on “Real Friends”, only to return just as seamlessly on the Chicago house-sampling album closer “Fade”, alongside a potent Post Malone (who honestly has no business being on this album but, suffice to say, knocked it out of the park.)
West has frequently referenced Steve Jobs as an idol and huge influence on him, which makes sense. There’s a scene in the 2015 biopic where Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak asks Jobs what exactly he does. Jobs wasn’t an engineer, or designer and, according to Wozniak, couldn’t even “put a hammer to a nail.” It was Wozniak who built the computer’s circuit board, so why was it that Jobs was the one hailed as the genius? To which Jobs smugly replied, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” The point of this is that early on in West’s career, he was praised for his ability and use of a variety of old, sometimes obscure soul samples and fascinatingly transform them into a nuanced sound in hip-hop. In contrast, Kanye’s role has increasingly changed from producer to conductor, dating back to MBDTF, through Yeezus, up until TLOP.
Only Kanye could get all of these producers and artists together, as wide-ranging as The Dream and Kelly Price to dance and electronic-based beat builders like Hudson Mohawke, Cashmere Cat, and DJ Dodger Stadium. Only Kanye could get preacher and gospel singer Kirk Franklin on a mainstream pop album without it seeming silly or contrived. Only Kanye could make Chris Brown sound this likeable again. All of it, including the long tweet streams of consciousness, problematic outbursts, and eyebrow-rasing public pleas, speaks to West’s unpredictable and magnetic persona. I may be in the wrong, but if Kanye’s collective flaws always leads to something as good as The Life of Pablo, then I’ll take the good with the bad, every time.
(featured image via Time)