Because The Life of Pablo pulls from so many parts of West's career the end result, unsurprisingly, is an absolute mess.
"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.