Form Follows Function: 'The Life of Pablo' and 'Blonde' Challenge the Notion of an Album
Kanye West and Frank Ocean have created imperfect perfect albums which invert our notions of flaws and challenge our perception of the album as an art form.
There are many different ideas about what makes a perfect album. Let’s use the Beatles for some examples. Some might prefer their best song-for-song albums like Revolver or Rubber Soul. Others might prefer the more holistically rich, more conceptual albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road. There are still some others that might prefer The Beatles (The White Album), which is their most unruly collection, recorded when the band was in shambles.
There’s something to this last idea: The White Album isn’t a perfect Beatles album, but it’s certainly their most honest album. Originally titled A Doll’s House, the album was meant to capture every aspect of the Beatles, from their most delicate work, like Lennon’s “Julia”, to their heaviest as on McCartney’s “Helter Skelter”, and most experimental, like “Wild Honey Pie”, which was only included because George Harrison’s girlfriend, Pattie Boyd loved it. The album’s form follows function approach blew up the concept of the double-album, simultaneously innovating upon it and defining it for the future. Every single choice on The Beatles (The White Album) illustrates artistic courage and vulnerability, providing a greater picture of who these musicians were in their lives at that time better than any other work they released as a band.
Kanye West and Frank Ocean have both created arguably perfect albums, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Channel Orange, respectively. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the hip-hop equivalent of what Fellini’s 8 1/2 was for cinema: a look inside the id of its most powerful personality. All versions of West coexisted on this album: the cartoonish buffoon with knowingly whack rhymes, the pained lover, and the genius. Channel Orange was the more conventionally “classic” album. It featured tasteful experimentation atop of masterful songwriting and beautiful singing. These twin peaks were early masterpieces of this decade, and their status is unlikely to change at any point in the future. So, what happens after reaching this level of craftsmanship?
For West, he went on a tear, making collaborative albums like Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer, which seemed uniquely primed for their times. Both were boastful and acutely reactive to the meme-driven nature of the internet -- something that West’s personality is particularly appropriate for. West’s run culminated in 2013’s Yeezus, the now-classic firebomb that reimagined strains of his entire career, from idiosyncratic sampling to lyrics that analyze toxic masculinity, and pushed them to their logical end. From its squalling opener “On Sight” to the incredible Nina Simone and C-Murda juxtaposition on “Blood on the Leaves”, West created a work that hip-hop is still actively reeling from.
For Frank Ocean, it’s been a quieter and maybe a unique road. After releasing his flawless Channel Orange, Ocean soon appeared in interviews by 2012’s end saying that he was already knee-deep in the next project. This was followed by a slew of canceled concerts, including OVO and FYF festival appearances where West served as his replacement. But then, Ocean all but disappeared from the public eye, moving to London and living in near-total anonymity. Fans were left wondering if they would ever hear a follow-up to Ocean’s epochal debut studio album.
But 2016 has marked a return for both artists. West with The Life of Pablo and Ocean with Blonde and its companion visual album Endless. Even in the modern music era that’s rife with surprise album drops or delayed schedules, these albums stand out. It’s not only that they mark a full-length return from two of music’s most singular and talented artists, and it’s not because the releases are notable for their quality -- their riches and flaws are beside the point. The Life of Pablo and Blonde are essential releases that will live far past the end of this fucked-up year because they challenge the very nature of an album, both in the fashion of release and how we consider the quality of an album.
The Life of Pablo might be Kanye West’s weakest album -- it privileges process and immediate expression over measured focus and editing, the very things that West has used to make masterpieces in the past. There’s a demarcation between West’s longer works: The College Dropout, Late Registration, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and his shorter ones: Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and Yeezus. Historically, we could treat the shorter ones as West’s transition albums -- Graduation was him doubling down on crossover pop and feel-good music. 808s was emo in sound, but punk in spirit -- a quickly recorded gem that suffered mixed reception initially, but, in hindsight has quietly become one of the most influential albums of the past decade. Yeezus, the aforementioned firebomb was his reaction to the dynamic success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the clique-driven collaborative releases Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer.
Yet, The Life of Pablo fills in both of these brackets. In its final, “Saint Pablo” assisted version, it’s over an hour in length and spans 20 tracks. It certainly has the scale of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it lacks the curatorial specificity that made that album a stone-cold classic. It’s rife with songs that feel unfinished. The two-part “Father Stretch My Hands” never fully coheres into the multi-sectional epic that you’d expect it to be. The same goes for West lyrically and vocally. He hums his way through the melody on “Wolves”, as if hearing it for the first time. He answers a phone call at the end of “30 Hours”, after ad-libbing for a few minutes as Andre 3000 coos the titular phrase. The Life of Pablo also includes “Freestyle 4”, which is probably the first freestyle that West has ever committed to record -- a mild shock as West’s art-making has always been fussy.
After reaching the Mecca that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (or Late Registration, as some Kanye Stans like Big Sean will say), what’s left for the man to do? We, the audience, don’t have the answers. It seems that West doesn’t, either. There's nothing like, “Power”, where West adroitly contextualizes himself in the greater cultural stratosphere with lines like “I was the abomination of Obama’s nation.” On The Life of Pablo, he comes to grips with his limitations as a man, charting the inner struggle of his hubris and his hedonism. He pairs Kelly Price’s pained monologue about God’s love “Lowlights” with “Highlights”, one of his most specifically LA tracks, with Terius Nash singing about “bad bitches” in Equinox.
Note the curious, very Westian juxtaposition between Price saying some of the most pained words on the album to the next song’s misogyny. The same goes for the exuberant, buoyant, beautiful “Waves” and its following track, the pained Kim Kardashian ode, “FML”, which ends with West warbling, “They don’t want to see me love you.” This has always been Kanye -- it certainly doesn’t feel new, but there’s an urgency to the music that makes it feel that way.
The Life of Pablo is spiritually analogous to something like Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy classic Tonight’s the Night, which was Young’s pained response to the death of his guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. That album was a live-in-studio dirge that was mostly recorded in a single day, featuring drunken playing and rough vocals. It’s clear with The Life of Pablo that West is lamenting something -- maybe it’s the growing complexity of his life, his marriage, his uneasy monogamy, or even a sense of his own fading artistic power and relevance. All this conflict has real life consequences because, as of this writing, West is now in his second week at a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles for sleep deprivation and exhaustion after cancelling the remainder his Saint Pablo Tour.
From the beginning, West was never the best rapper or even the best producer, but he’s always had a painfully human quality that’s informed everything he’s done. This raw honesty is what allows him to transcend his shortcomings. We understand him and we judge him, but we know that he’s a real human being just like us. In that way, he might be as much of a modern expression of Prince Hamlet as there ever has been: simultaneously larger than life, but so human that his existential quest mirrors your own.
That’s why The Life of Pablo is entirely necessary and compelling: it becomes flawless through its flaws. For every flubbed lyric or incomplete thought that West gives on the album, he gives a greater picture of personal and artistic vulnerability. Despite what his media persona might say, or what his Twitter says in fits and starts, The Life of Pablo evinces a sensitive and challenged man who is actively trying to make sense of all that’s around him. His status, family, and money are all reflective of eternal American problems, so his self-lacerating look into them is reflective of our own struggles.
The sloppy rollout and release of The Life of Pablo is an important aspect of how we think of it. The morphing nature of the album, from West live-tweeting its track listing, to adding previously songs to the back half of the album, to augmenting / revising songs after the release, illustrates not only how West thinks musically, but also how he responds to the responses to his music. West even asked, of course via Twitter, whether fans preferred the first or final version of “Wolves”. (This also has precedent, such as his re-recording / mixing of “Love Lockdown” after the mixed reception it had at the 2008 VMAs.)
Ultimately, the final changes that The Life of Pablo underwent (aside from the addition of a spate of those one-off Soundcloud tracks) were mostly non-essential to the album’s experience. Yet, the precedent it sets not only for West, but for any major pop artist releasing music in this fashion, is indisputably innovative. It removes the often economic circumstance of an artist re-releasing an album with bonus tracks or an augmented tracklist. It makes these changes and additions an actual aesthetic choice, forcing us to consider how they affect this album and how it affects the greater overall definition of an album as a concept.
Frank Ocean’s Endless, seemingly released to complete Ocean’s contract with Def Jam, is more elementally similar to The Life of Pablo than its full-length proper successor Blonde, both in its release and content. Endless was something of a stunt: a 40-minute visual album that has no stand-alone release for its audio track, which contains a multitude of fragments with some fully formed songs. Coming a few months after Beyonce’s formidable monolith, Lemonade, Endless seemed to pale in comparison, with many criticizing its lacking visuals, which document Ocean literally building a staircase in a studio space.
But Endless is process-driven art both in form and function, with the visuals creating a metaphor for what the music contained therein likely was: a necessary staircase for Ocean to reach Blonde. Although Endless is visually and aesthetically much more minimal than Lemonade, it’s every bit as valuable as Beyonce’s meditations. Endless doesn't attempt to form a greater narrative with a suite of videos connected with interstitial scenes. Instead, it employs minimalism to challenge our expectation of a visual album, the narratives possible with the form, and the overall utility of the form. If a visual album is a delivery system for its music, doesn’t it make sense to supplement the music with visuals that are inherently meditative, predicating emotional resonance on the sound? The short answer is: Yes. In the context of Ocean’s own career, it’s also a cunning and playful move: pairing his first release in four years with a minimalist film implicitly comments on the patience and expectation Ocean’s audience put on him during his silence.
Musically, Endless is also process-driven, with its fragments charting Ocean’s process and its full songs, like his incredible cover of “(At Best) You Are Love” and the beautiful “Rushes”, illustrate places that Ocean wouldn’t go on Blonde. All of it is pleasing, but it doesn’t necessarily become anything more than a document of where Ocean was during the years between 2012 and now. On its own, Endless is maybe a more intimate and less refined analogy to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. Both works are short experiments from great artists. Both works were by their very nature disruptive. Also, similarly, there's something in their respective releases that is performative -- our introduction to songs from Untitled Unmastered came the way of Lamar’s live performances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Grammys. But those live performances and the Lebron James-demanded release of Untitled Unmastered were the victory lap that followed Lamar’s pivotal To Pimp a Butterfly. Endless is instead a risky preamble for Ocean’s mercurial masterpiece that is the purest representation of his art that’s ever been laid to tape.
The day after Endless was released, Ocean dropped Blonde and a video for its first single, “Nikes”. The video is incredible and antithetical in nearly every imaginable way to Endless in its fragmentary editing, the incredible amount of varied imagery, and its cultural references, from the notorious Heaven’s Gate suicide cult to Trayvon Martin. Similarly, Endless was no real sonic preparation for the splendor of Blonde. At its core, the album is a brilliant synthesis of classic R&B songwriting with experimental production. Its experimentation isn’t necessarily similar to FKA Twigs, Kelela, or the producer Arca, though it's not without its edges, like on “Pretty Sweet” or “Futura Free”. Blonde feels more passingly similar to Dave Fridmann’s work with Mercury Rev on Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin: this is symphonic, gorgeous music that opens up new possibilities for the genre as a whole.
The album’s most intriguing motif throughout is Ocean’s use of treated vocals. First, this is a subversion, as Ocean’s singing voice is beloved, but it becomes innovation as Ocean employs these varied voices in service to his own conflicting monologues. It’s similar to Prince’s Sign ‘o’ The Times classic “If I Was Ur Girlfriend” or his alter-ego Camille: the Purple One altered his voice in order to further articulate something inside of him. On songs like “Nikes” or “Self Control”, Ocean does the same. Like these voices, Blonde itself has a shifting, unknowable quality. Even after months of listening, songs are never quite how you remembered them. Just as you think you might know them, they slide through your fingers like water. It’s a ‘grower’ in the most classic sense, but that term doesn’t seem accurate for Blonde’s nature. While The Life of Pablo captured the process of growth -- the butterfly’s struggle out of the chrysalis -- Blonde somehow conjures the experience, generating a feeling of creation itself.
It is with Blonde that Ocean perhaps becomes the most appropriate successor to David Bowie. This analogy is fitting not because of their respective chameleonic qualities or their relationship to gender and sexuality. Instead, there's a deeper similarity in the fashion in which both of these artists were/are able to blend pop music and experimental music to create something that’s wholly familiar, built on the syntax of inherited mainstream art forms, yet so distinctly alien to what’s preceded it. For Bowie, this was a form follows function premise: his identity shifts from album to album were both aesthetically superficial and artistically resonant with the overall design of his performances -- art and wardrobe -- dovetailed into the stylistic choices in the music. But Ocean’s a different artist from Bowie -- he’s never made overtures at being within the pulse of the culture like David Robert Jones did. Instead, Ocean is more similar to the Bowie of the canon-approved Berlin Trilogy of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. On those albums, Bowie brought influences from Krautrock and African music and butted them up against his hammy approximation of soul, creating a theretofore unknown melange of Western pop music.
As with Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Blonde is inherently imperfect. Even compared with Channel Orange, it doesn’t feel as well-rounded or consistent. But this, again, is not the point. Blonde is, at once, a deconstruction of R&B music, the album as a form, and a deconstruction of its creator’s many selves. As Walt Whitman once chimed, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Ocean also seems obsessed at creating a multifaceted self here, one that treats identity as fluidly as sexuality. Think of the chirped up voice on “Ivy” made to sound like an adolescent dealing with heartbreak and how that same voice appears on “Futura Free”, talking about going from making sandwiches to getting paid to sing songs. Both voices are used in service for entirely different ends -- it's but a small picture into what Ocean achieves throughout his hour-long opus.
Many have spoken about the end of the album. Whether it be the advent of file sharing at the beginning of this century or the later monetization of streaming services in recent years, it’s clear that the album is a liquid form. Something that listeners only indulge in because artists continue to perpetuate the form. The ambition of creating an album is commiserate with that of making a statement. An album is still a sign of legitimacy, both fiscally and aesthetically. And yet, West and Ocean (along with Beyonce, Solange, Bon Iver, Danny Brown, and Nicolas Jaar) have proven that the album is still capable of being a piece of real art.
These releases are reflective of the turbulent nature of our times in both the micro and the macro, synthesizing the conflict an individual faces in the greater culture, and all the while challenging notions existent in popular culture with powerful music. As we see maverick musicians like West and Ocean remake pop music in form and function as we know it right in front of our eyes (and ears), it makes one wonder what kind of evolution could be afforded in feature films and television shows if primacy was not given to monetary gain and creation by committee, but to those individual artists who can will their dreams to come true.