Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

Photo: Tyler the Creator

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

Kanye West

The Life of Pablo

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2016-02-14
"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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.