“I miss the Old Kanye
Straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye
Set on his goals Kanye
I hate the New Kanye
The bad mood Kanye
The always-rude Kanye
Spaz in the news Kanye”
—“I Love Kanye”
“While Mr. West is acknowledged nearly universally as a musical heavyweight, he has strained to sell himself as a fashion genius, at least to those in the industry whose validation he seems alternately to crave and reject.”
—Matthew Schneier, The New York Times (2 December 2015)
Despite what Kanye West may say, no: The Life of Pablo is not a masterpiece.
To some, the above statement is outright heresy, because let’s be real here: we’re talking about Kanye West, an artist who is constantly referred to as one of the most innovative musicians of our time. He was a forward-thinking rapper and producer who dolled out classic, trendsetting albums time and time again, whether it take the form of his sliced-up-soul debut album, 2004’s The College Dropout, or the synth-heavy summer jams that made up 2007’s Graduation, or the wintery and cold depths of his heart that he revealed on the still-divisive 2008 set 808s & Heartbreak.
Indeed, West was at times lauded for his creative achievements and at other times derided for his public antics. His ego is the most frustrating aspect of his public persona, but it’s also the driving force behind his creativity, leaving his art and his life so intrinsically intertwined that you cannot fully appreciate one without the other.
By the time 2016 rolled around, West obtained such an omnipresence that he could tweet out something as outrageous as “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” and that single tweet would generate full-length stories in news sources such as USA Today, NBC News, and even The Guardian. West isn’t always the center of the cultural conversation, but when he wants to be, he manages to do so through sheer brute force, and time and time again, the media happily plays along.
Yet per the Matthew Schneier New York Times article quoted above, West’s relationship with the media and industry can be summed up in the form of validation: accepting it when it’s unequivocal praise and rejecting it if it’s anything but, all the while existing like he’s the living embodiment of a Noel Coward quip. The knee-jerk reaction from critical circles is also reflective of West’s toddler-logic: he’s a genius until proven otherwise, as evidenced by Rolling Stone infamously dropping a loving review of 2013’s aggressive Yeezus mere hours after it was leaked.
Similarly, for the bumbling, haphazard release of The Life of Pablo, not only has the tracklist and title been rejiggered numerous times, but some publications started rolling out reviews based around nothing more than the low-quality stream from his Madison Square Garden fashion show (we’re looking at you, Vanity Fair). In early 2014, Zach Schonfeld even published an article about why so many publications were hailing Yeezus as a masterpiece on nothing more than a snap-judgment, here asking “How Much Time Should a Critic Get?”, wondering if in such a rush to consensus (and, let’s admit it, site traffic), something gets lost along the way.
Yet Yeezus, for all of it’s atonal, aggressive sounds and pointed, palpable anger, was a thrilling but flawed record, one that clearly wanted to present itself as a new type of protest music that had a clear lineage to groups both old (Public Enemy) and new (Death Grips), but unfortunately gave in to what is West’s greatest weakness and easiest artistic vice: his too-casual misogyny. His constant dismissal of women and use of the derogatory term, “bitches”, was almost tolerable, given how little it played into any of his previous records given themes.
But on Yeezus, it crossed a clear moral line. SPIN‘s Brandon Soderberg penned an article in 2013 that was aptly titled “Is Yeezus the Tipping Point for Rap Misogyny?”, noting how “Frankly, there is a tendency for rap critics to hide behind our liberalism and entry-level sensitivity training when it comes to sexism and misogyny.” Soderberg later called other critics to arms, saying “let’s stop this pseudo-high-minded junk where we invoke art every time Kanye West or Gunplay tell a woman to suck his dick. It’s lazy and insincere.”
Even a rapper like Drake, so often maligned in more hardcore subsets for being “sensitive”, was put into place by NPR’s Ann Powers, for constantly telling “good girls” what to do back in 2013, way before he made a pop hit out of those exact same tropes in the form of “Hotline Bling”. While lesser rappers get away with worse every day, West and Drake get called out for such behavior because, like it or not, they have captured our current cultural zeitgeist. Drake relishes such influence; West wields his like a weapon.
All of this is important, because in coming to terms with The Life of Pablo, one has to realize that because it pulls from so many parts of West’s career, the end result, unsurprisingly, is an absolute mess: an 18-track set that doesn’t even clock in at an hour due to a surprising number of songs come in at under three minutes. It’s less an album than it is an amalgam, as if everything were taped together in a hurried fashion, the end result being as feverishly uneven as one would expect, some predictably genius moments mingling with the laziest, basest tracks that West has ever been associated with.
Some critics have already bought into West’s pre-release proclamation that The Life of Pablo is, in fact, a gospel album, which on paper seems ill fitting but in practice, it applies in only the loosest of terms. The disc’s opening track (and easily the album’s best song) “Ultralight Beam” uses a Kirk Franklin/Kelly Price-driven choir to add some real soul to the very stark but emotionally potent reverse-flipped backing track, the choir singing of how this is a “God dream” and the great Chance the Rapper delivering a dynamite guest verse that is as soulful as it is smart and relatable. Further backing up the gospel claim is the sampled testimonial that makes up “Low Lights” and West’s lightly sprinkled Biblical allusions (although Chance still gets away with the nod on “Ultralight Beam” when he says “I bet that my ex looking back like a pillar of salt”).
But a few Mary and Joseph namedrops do not a gospel album make, and even if the benefit of the doubt were given and it was classified as such, The Life of Pablo is remarkably bereft of redemption, with some songs (like the funky closer “Fade”) seeming to be about nothing, while other tracks like “Feedback”, whose minimalist tones make it sound like a Yeezus reject, are about West’s own success, where he mixes in a few great, pointed lines (“Rich slave in the fabric store pickin’ cotton”) with a dull, dry chorus about being “slept on” that he repeats four times over the course of two and a half minutes. Also, most albums with spiritual intent don’t have lines about attaching a GoPro camera to your dick.
From there on, we draw closer and closer to West’s true hedonistic intent. The penultimate track, “Facts”, exists as a dull, dim spotlight that tries but fails to illuminate his own greatness. It exists as a proclamation of his wealth (he apparently made “a million a minute” after wife Kim Kardashian’s Kimoji app was released), it attests to the greatness of his sneakers, and, at one point, he ponders if Bill Cosby “forget the names just like Steve Harvey?”
The Rihanna-assisted ode to gratification “Famous”, meanwhile, features that infamous line about how he and Taylor Swift “might still have sex” because “I made that bitch famous”, a line which Swift herself dismissed when she accepted her second Grammy for Album of the Year, a move that no doubt stung the man whose life goal is, according to him, to have 100 Grammys before he dies.
Lyrics such as these are base and inconsequential, designed to generate headlines but bereft of artistic intent. It’s a kind of beef-igniting that’s better suited for mixtapes but, as we well know, West doesn’t do mixtapes. Instead, he puts songs like “Freestyle 4” on the album, which uses a haunting string sample from Goldfrapp to present the raging id of his dreams in, well, these terms:
My dick out, can she suck it right now?
Fuck, can she fuck right now?
I done asked twice now
Can you bring your price down?
Lil’ Boosie with the wipe down
A little woozy but I’m nice now
What the fuck right now?
What the fuck right now?
What the fuck right now?
What if we fuck right now?
What if we fucked right in the middle
Of this motherfuckin’ dinner table?
What if we just fucked at the Vogue party?
Would we be the life of the whole party?
There are those who argue that lines like this and “Highlights” closing couplet “I need every bad bitch up in Equinox / I need to know right now if you a freak or not” qualify as subversive humor, to say nothing of that line about that GoPro. Yes, West has always had a sense of humor, but in going back to the Soderberg article, sometimes misogyny is nothing more than just blatant misogyny, just like it was on Yeezus and just like it is here, each time dampening the impact of his message.
West albums are very much like a Rorschach test: people often see and project what they want into them, finding their own internal logics to justify some of his more abhorrent behaviors, claiming that he’s a genius because he followed Yeezus with non-album single “Only One” or that, again, all that misogyny is just a joke, guys, don’t you get it? Yet once you divorce The Life of Pablo from its many lesser moments, one realizes what could’ve been: an album about family, about fame, about being lonely at the top, even with a wife and kids surrounding you.
Although the aforementioned “Highlights” opens with a pretty weak Ray J diss, the string-assisted, bass-synth beat makes for a dynamic, spirited swagger. What West will never admit is that he’s always been an immeasurably greater producer than he is a rapper, and on The Life of Pablo‘s second half, he unleashes a quartet of minor-key moody masterpieces that are distinct and provocative each in their own way.
For album highlight “FML”, he projects that usual amount of braggadocio that we’ve come to expect from him, but that echo-hall beat, especially when paired with that hook by the Weeknd, hints at something deeper behind the facade, a strange vulnerability from a man who so often wants to just strut. Similarly, “Real Friends” is a unique look at West’s own difficulties in trying to maintain actual friendships after having ascended to his level of fame. West feels isolated and frustrated about the fact that he doesn’t have any one to share those frustrations with. That polarity creates a compelling, kinetic tension.
The previously-previewed “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in L.A.” remain strong tracks, the former proving surprisingly (and welcomingly) simple in both tone and subject matter, wherein West only occasionally dips into metaphor to reflect on a past relationship. “Parties” has West again in a mode where he resents the fakeness of L.A., but in bringing Kendrick Lamar along for the ride, he still manages to have at least a little fun while out on Sunset Strip, even if Lamar ends up having most of it. Closing track “Fade” is lyrically insubstantial, but has a simple, dancey beat that grooves like the quieter, introverted cousin to “The New Workout Plan” all those years ago.
In pulling references from his entire discography, there’s still some fun to be had on The Life of Pablo, whether it be simple call-outs to Late Registration‘s opening cry of “Wake up, Mr. West!” to Chance the Rapper’s so-subtle-you’ll-miss it line about West telling him to do a “good-ass job”, which, prior to the release of College Dropout, West had told interviewers was going to be the name of his fourth album (he diverted from that plan but only after following through with it on his first three LPs). Yet if one were to encapsulate the ever-contradictory nature of The Life of Pablo in less than five minutes, you couldn’t do much better than dissecting “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”, the latter of which has West worrying he will get consumed by his work just like his father did before walking out, and the former of which has him talking about… bleached assholes.
West proclaims that this album is a God dream. Indeed, in the case of The Life of Pablo, it’s just as unfocused, problematic, and meandering as most dreams are. The misogyny this time out isn’t even remotely close to art: it’s crass and terrible, but West, as we know, shields any criticisms—be it about said misogyny, the album’s lazier moments, or that he’s anything but the greatest rapper alive—behind a veil of spirituality. This spirituality is more overt on The Life of Pablo than any of his previous sets, but it’s damn near impossible to decipher. Sure, The Life of Pablo‘s obscurities and eccentricities make it ripe for endless dissection by West’s fans and followers, but make no mistake: this albums is flawed, it’s problematic, and most of all, it’s no masterpiece.