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Assessing the Damages–Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo

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The road to release for Kanye’s sixth solo LP has been incredibly strange — he’s been recording the project for three years, scrapped numerous singles from it, switched its executive producers

from Q-Tip and Rick Rubin to Paul McCartney to just himself, cycled through four different titles, and changed the tracklist about a thousand times. In fact, he’s rumored to still be editing the damn thing — I don’t even know how much this review will reflect the final product (whenever the fuck that even comes out).

One thing that I’m fairly confident is final at this point is the record’s title, The Life of Pablo. Yeezy announced the name by posting a picture of a notepad with the title along with the (since changed) tracklist. Next to the title is scrawled “WHICH ONE?” — as in, which Pablo is supposed to be the guiding force behind TLOP’s themes and aesthetic?

An interesting question indeed. It could be that the Pablo here is Escobar. Not that Kanye would be even halfway convincing if he tried to posture himself as an imposing kingpin (the thought alone is pretty laughable), but because Mr. West has made a point to transform himself into popular culture’s greatest villain. It’s sort of shocking how fast he went from being the observant backpacker making tracks like “Jesus Walks” and “Heard ‘Em Say” to a confrontational, excessive, and arrogant prick whose music is largely about how much of a confrontational, excessive, and arrogant prick he is.

Dave Chappelle once said, “you can become infamous, but not un-famous,” and truer words about celebrity have never been spoken. Most superstar rappers (like Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Eminem, and beyond) achieve their infamy by continuing way past their prime when they could easily just retire, putting out shitty projects that have tarnished their respective legacies. Kanye, on the other hand, has found a much stranger, more exciting way of gaining notoriety — namely by becoming more incendiary and unhinged (both musically and otherwise) as the years have gone on.

The Life of Pablo’s more trap-influenced cuts find Ye more brash and offensive than ever. His first extended verse on the record comes with second track, “Father Stretch My Hands,” which he kicks off with these shockingly terrible bars: “Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my t-shirt / I’ma feel like an asshole.” So just in case you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into, that should clear things up pretty quick. And like he did on Yeezus, the ways in which he talks about Kim Kardashian are extremely out of pocket; on “Highlights” he raps, “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain’t love the same bitch / Yeah, he might’ve hit it first / Only problem is I’m rich,” and on “Wolves” he repeats “I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could un-follow / I know it’s corny n****s you wish you could un-swallow.” I feel bad for North and Saint West more than anything — if (somehow) nothing else tips them off as to how fucked up their parents are, The Life of Pablo will surely clue them in.

I’ve only mentioned duds worthy of latter-day Eminem thus far, but there are plenty of times when Kanye assumes the role of hellraising megalomaniac with the same spark he has in the past. He attacks the half-woozy, half-abrasive banger of an instrumental on “Feedback” with some serious bravado, growling, “Awesome! Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin / Rich slave in the fabric store picking cotton / If Hov’s J, then every Jordan need a Rodman” on the fourth verse. Another fantastic dose of volatility comes with “FACTS,” an interpolation of Future and Drake’s “Jumpman” that’s way more impassioned and frantic than anything a brooding nihilist and a pathological liar could ever come up with. The song was pretty lame in its original form, but the remixed version that made it to the album features bolstered production and re-recorded verses that push the manic intensity to a fever pitch.

But perhaps the only thing Kanye holds more dear than himself and his preternatural knack for saying unbelievably outrageous things is his love of experimentation. Kanye may be hit-or-miss as a rapper, but he’s without question one of the best beatmakers to ever do it, and he’s pioneered entirely new sounds on every one of his solo projects; The College Dropout was driven by expertly flipped soul samples, Late Registration by lavish original soul music arrangements, Graduation by stadium-status pop-rap beats, 808s & Heartbreaks by bleak synthpop, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by prog rock and trip-hop, and Yeezus by industrial grit and grime.

With that in mind, maybe TLOP’s Pablo is Picasso. Again, the comparison is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but just as Picasso moved through different periods and media, so too has Yeezy made it a point to always push himself — and, by extent, rap music as a whole — in fascinating new sonic directions.

So while it should come as no surprise, the beats and song structures across The Life of Pablo’s eighteen tracks are astoundingly inventive. Evaluating it so close to its release, it’s hard to narrow the record’s sound down to a few key qualities. Just as he did with Yeezus, however, Kanye uses this record to experiment with imperfection; but where he brought to Yeezus the pretense of making “dark” and “edgy” music, TLOP feels liberated and impulsive. The record feels more like a series of quick sketches than a fully-formed, Crystal Period masterpiece, but that’s what makes it so enthralling.

The record kicks off with “Ultra Light Beams,” which is probably its most straightforward track. That’s not saying much, however, considering it’s an eccentric, five-and-a-half minute piece of electro-gospel that alternates empty space and huge hits of compressed bass while mixing singing, rapping, choral chants, and prayer.

From there, things get downright strange. On one end of the spectrum, there are songs like “FML,” which for nearly half its running time consists solely of vocals from Kanye and The Weeknd backed by a sparse four-bar synth loop. On the other end, there are cuts like the two-parter, “Father Stretch My Hands,” which is constantly on the move. It starts with some nice gospel samples before diving into a Metro Boomin banger with heaps of grand pianos and synth bass piled over it, then moves onto some different gospel samples, another trap beat (this time spurred by some dramatic bowed strings), then a third batch of samples, then a brief pause for a robotic, Daft Punk-esque vocal break, then ends with yet another gospel sample — all in less than five minutes.

In between these two extremes, The Life of Pablo offers a bit of everything.“Famous” features switches back and forth between an imposing trap beat and a slow, synthetic chorus that finds Rihanna interpolating Nina Simone, washing the blues in neon colors. “Fade,” meanwhile, launches into the stratosphere thanks to a blissful house-influenced bassline and some eerie vocal samples. And “30 Hours” is a shout-out track akin to The College Dropout’s classic “Last Call,” effectively serving as TLOP’s credits crawl despite the fact that it’s not the final track on the album. Its sequencing is confounding and a poor choice overall, but it’s hard to be too off-put given the song comes equipped with a smooth-as-hell instrumental Kanye co-produced with Karriem Riggins that also happens to feature Andre 3000 harmonizing with the track’s centerpiece vocal sample.

There’s also the brilliant late-album cut, “No More Parties in LA,” which features Madlib on production and Kendrick Lamar with a monstrous verse, marking yet another thrilling meeting of the minds. But even as Madlib lays down a warm, bassy beat and Kendrick Lamar switches flows a half-dozen times, Kanye steals the spotlight (as he is wont to do) with a three minute verse that’s more charismatic and technically impressive than any of his raps have been in years. The list of quotables could go on for a long time; there’s references to his early days (“A backpack n**** with luxury tastebuds / At the Louis Vuitton store with all of my pay stubs”) and his odd family (“Pink fur, got Nori dressin’ like Cam, thank God for me / Whole family gettin’ money, thank God for E!”), along with some good old fashioned absurd Kanye-isms (“A thirty-eight year-old eight year-old with rich n**** problems / Tell my wife I hate the Rolls so I don’t ever drive it / It took six months to get the Maybach all matted out / And my assistant crashed it soon as they backed it out”).

Most great artists working in any medium only have one or two masterpieces in them. Once those works come into being, their authors either fade into irrelevance or stay popular artificially through the echo chamber of celebrity. Genius artists carry on making whatever the fuck they want regardless of outside influences and pressures and still inexplicably end up with interesting and unprecedented material. Whether you like him as a person or not, it’d be difficult indeed through Mr. West’s discography intently and not see that he possesses at least some level of this genius. The Life of Pablo provides good enough proof of that assertion in and of itself, as he’s yet again thrown his legions of fans for a loop, forcing them to wonder how the same guy who made The College Dropout could’ve even dreamed something like this up.

So Picasso — another artist defined by a constant search for reinvention — may be our Pablo. But leading up to the record finding its place in the middle-ground hellscape between release and production, Kanye quietly alluded to another potential TLOP namesake: Paul the Apostle.

Just as with Escobar and Picasso, the notion that there’s some parallel between the life of Kanye and the life of Paul is insane on all but a few levels. But get this: some of the most significant Pauline writings espouse Christianity’s assurance of salvation — the notion that faith leads to forgiveness. And though Kanye has quite the god complex, his music has always found him seeking guidance from his faith, from “Jesus Walks” to “I Am a God.” But The Life of Pablo finds him dwelling on his religion — specifically the notion of forgiveness — more than he has on any other project.

With this in mind, it seems as though Yeezy crafted The Life of Pablo as a monument both to his sins and his belief in redemption.

If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy saw Ye embracing his inner madman and using it drive his creativity, TLOP finds him realizing he may be too far gone. When he’s not crooning about bleached assholes on “Father Stretch My Hands,” he’s pleading for liberation, and even calls in Kid Cudi (fresh off one of the worst albums ever) to lay down a sweet, Bible-referencing hook.

The album’s other two-parter that easily could have just been one song, the back-to-back “Lowlights” and “Highlights,” is an even more pronounced mashup of piety and vulgarity. On the former part, an uncredited vocalist delivers an incredibly moving spoken word piece echoing some of the ideas about salvation Paul expresses in Romans: “I won’t always be crying these tears. I won’t always be feeling so blue. Some day he will open the door for me and call my name.” A warm synth bassline and glowing piano chords create the perfect, all-enveloping backdrop.

The song then sharply transitions into its second half “Highlights,” a Young Thug-assisted banger which finds Kanye shouting “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had GoPro / So I could play that shit back in slow-mo.” The switch is jarring to say the least, but it makes for TLOP’s biggest statement of purpose — Yeezy seems to be expressing some deep-seated dissatisfaction with his life, but he still can’t resist the urge to be the abrasive “thirty-eight year-old eight year-old” we all know him to be.

A few mid-album cuts paint a vivid picture of Kanye’s realization that the walls are closing in. The aforementioned “FML” is a hymn for the self-destructive. The second verse opens with an ominous vow (“See before I let you go / One last thing I need to let you know / You ain’t seen nothing crazier than / This n**** when he’s off his Lexapro”) just after The Weeknd chimes in with his signature moody falsetto: “They wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up / Can’t let them get to me / And even though I always fuck my life up / Only I can mention it.”

“Real Friends” and “Wolves” express similar doom-and-gloom sentiments. The former is one of the most lyrical tracks on the album; over a spartan beat laced with a foggy piano sample and a thunderous bassline, Kanye raps like he did in the old days as he finds himself without “Real friends to the real end / ‘Til the wheels fall off, ‘til the wheels don’t spin.” Ty Dolla $ign is featured on the track, though he only has a few brief contributions; like any good R&B singer though, he knows how to make a little go along way, accentuating the exact right moments with beautiful harmonies.

“Wolves,” meanwhile, takes things to an even darker place. The beat is propelled by an earworm vocal melody and huge bassline that sound like they’d be written by Ennio Morricone if he was hired to soundtrack the end of the world. Full of shame, Yeezus loads up on vocal effects and belts out “If mama found out / How you turned out, you’re too wild / You’re too wild.” Vulnerability shifts to tripped-out paranoia as that vocal lead becomes increasingly warped and he winds the song down with some incredible imagery: “What if Mary was in the club / ‘Fore she met Joseph, around hella thugs / Cover Nori in lambs’ wool / We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves.”

On last year’s best single, “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar raps “I’m fucked up, homie, you fucked up / But if God got us then we gon’ be alright.” In the context of To Pimp A Butterfly, this represents a moment of positivity — a confident declaration that the odds are only against you if you allow them to be. These few tracks represent a similar epiphany, but while Kendrick finds some inspiration in his conflict against forces both internal and external, Kanye simply resigns himself to the fact that he’s got bad habits that he’s doomed to repeat over and over again.

A couple days before Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo released in its final form, a version of the album made its debut via livestream that doubled as the unveiling of West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion line. Ye — who acted as the event’s Macbook DJ — hit play on “Lowlights,” commencing that fantastic spoken word piece about faith and self-love. For the song’s first few seconds, the camera was set on Kanye and his posse, which included Pusha T, Travi$ Scott, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Frank Ocean, Vic Mensa, 2 Chainz, and A$AP Rocky.

Off-camera, however, one of the clothing models presumably began tearing up upon hearing this intro. Unfortunately for him, the camera only cut over to him crying as the song sharply segues into the first verse on its sibling song, “Highlights,” where Kanye spits those regrettable lines about wanting a GoPro camera on his dick.

The image of a grown man with tears streaming down his face at an ostensibly artsy and high-class event as Kanye West makes dick jokes is both hilarious in its absurdity and, more importantly, a perfect summation of the aesthetic the Louis Vuitton Don has created for himself over the years.

Kanye’s music has always been the sonic equivalent of a stone-faced high fashion model bawling his eyes out upon hearing a crude joke worthy of a seventh-grader. It’s seriousness and stupidity, art and schlock all at once. And while this essential balancing act is his signature, he’s imbued it with fascinating new musical sensibilities with each new release. Indeed, Kanye’s gotten away with making platinum hits out of some of the most off-the-walls and innovative material in hip-hop and pop music, and The Life of Pablo is no exception. At this point, the influence and importance of how he’s presented his volatile attitude musically can’t be denied. You may not like his public antics, but now they’re simply part of his art. If he didn’t continually dig himself deeper down, my guess is that his music wouldn’t be as compelling. He may be a man of Christian faith, but he seems intent on sacrificing himself on the strange, intoxicating altar of pop idolatry.