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Amid controversy and expectation, Yeezy’s latest finally dropped this week. Joshua Hughes tackles a divisive, tempestuous record in The Life of Pablo. Has Kanye gifted a world he often seems out of touch with to a genius piece of art or have the wheels come off the Yeezy Machine?….
The Life of Pablo (2016)
“Pablo bought a Roley and a Rottweiler / Seem like the more fame, I only got wilder”, Kanye West notes on ‘Feedback’, one of the most telling songs on his new, controversial album The Life of Pablo, comparing the way in which notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar surrounded himself with material possessions and vicious guardians as he rose to power and wealth while West’s mental state has been publicly and spectacularly unravelling before the world for almost a decade. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”, he continues. It’s hard to argue with either side of that statement and seven albums in, he shows no signs of running out of steam creatively or artistically.
Indeed, album-opener ‘Ultralight Beam’ could creditably make a top five list of his best songs. It is a stunning, powerful statement of faith that sees West at the peak of his powers as an orchestrator – taking a back seat to a towering choir, a passionate The-Dream and a razor sharp Chance the Rapper. It is a gospel song that would inspire chills in even the most cynical of atheists. It is also the first instance of many where West calls back to his past, in contrast to the utterly foreign sound that dominated 2013’s Yeezus. There are elements of ‘Two Words’, ‘Bring Me Down’, ‘Jesus Walks’ and even ‘Dark Fantasy’ to be found here.
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As if continuing that theme, the use of guests is extremely effective and beneficial here as it has been throughout Kanye’s career. Kid Cudi shines on the hook of ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’, as does Desiigner on ‘Pt. 2’. The former and the latter move seamlessly into one another, as the album descends into an unceasing assault on the senses with sounds and features coming out of nowhere. Future and Cudi give way to Rihanna (in a very effective turn) doing her best Nina Simone on the now notorious ‘Famous’. It is ironic and sad that the “I made that bitch famous” line, clearly written in good humour and jest, has been taken so ridiculously out of context. If Kanye is Pablo Picasso then Taylor Swift is Niccolò Machiavelli.
The juxtaposition between attempted gospel and purposefully vile and decadent rap record (“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”) is a fascinating one, particularly as it is peppered with self-aware confessionals and parody. West seems particularly troubled by the thought of what his late mother might have made of all of this (hardly a song passes where he doesn’t reference her in some way). The fantastic ‘Waves’ is both a musing on his own mortality and an 808s & Heartbreak style longing for what he has lost while the poignant, terrifying ‘Wolves’ showcases his self-loathing and paranoia. “If mama knew how you turned out, you too wild…I need you now” he croons in a strained and auto-tuned chorus that a distraught-sounding Caroline Shaw provides backing vocals for. Once again, biblical imagery is drawn as his fears for the future of his family are laid bare while he rails against the media presence that plagues him: “we surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves”. Frank Ocean sings magnificently over the outro, a welcome burst of light in an otherwise sparse and grim landscape.
On ‘FML’, West writes about his depression and the drugs he has been prescribed to treat it (Lexapro, apparently, as he also mentioned in his excellent feature on Vic Mensa’s ‘U Mad’ in 2015) in some of his strongest verses lyrically on The Life of Pablo, an album where he otherwise seems to struggle to consistently put his thoughts into words. Meanwhile, The Weeknd expertly delivers a chorus that is right up his self-destructive alley on what is surely a single-in-waiting.
It is an album that is not without its faults. As a traditional rap album, it features some of his weakest writing to date while a skit like “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” seems perplexingly out of place, even on a production as schizophrenic as this. The inclusion of an improved “Facts”, which sounds like a glorified freestyle that should have stayed on Soundcloud, is disappointing while the rambling at the end of the otherwise enjoyable ’30 Hours’ feels like it got lost in the shuffle and not edited properly. It is referential to College Dropout’s ‘Last Call’ but for some reason comes a couple of tracks before the album’s official close. Yet, in a funny way, even the stuff that is not necessarily good feels like it belongs. A perfect album from this stage in West’s life, troubled as it seems to be, somehow wouldn’t feel right.
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The Life of Pablo perhaps doesn’t quite reach the same levels of consistency as some of Kanye West’s other work, but that is part of what makes it such a wonderful record. It is a scatterbrained, tempestuous and contradictory mess. A snapshot of a man who is perhaps in the depths of some kind of mental illness, struggling and failing to maintain his composure in a world that he doesn’t seem to understand and vice versa. If, as suggested, it does become a sort of rolling post-modern art installation on Tidal it is fitting. Is he fifty percent more influential than Stanley Kubrick and Pablo Picasso? Certainly not, but his body of work will stand the test of time as theirs did. And The Life of Pablo will go down as one of his finest exhibitions.