Kanye West is a modern-day Icarus. Arguably the most divisive figure in pop culture, West teeters precariously on the fence between being one of the greatest artistic geniuses of our generation and being a man who has flown too close to the sun, his wings melted by the heat of ambition and hubris.
A series of tweets by West — after an uncharacteristically long and scattered silence on Twitter — described his seventh studio LP, The Life of Pablo, as not “album of the year” but “album of the life.” Many people interpreted this as another one of West’s statements of self-aggrandizement, but upon listening to the album, it seems as though there’s a truth behind the message. The Life of Pablo is not the greatest album of all time — in fact, it’s not even West’s best work. But rather, it is the album of the life of Kanye.
The palpable hype surrounding The Life of Pablo culminated in the Tidal-streamed Yeezy Season 3 fashion show and listening party at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11, during which all eyes were on West. According to Tidal, more than 20 million people attempted to view the stream during its peak. Yeezy Season 3’s execution, however, was like a school presentation thrown haphazardly together before class — disorganized and, at times, uncomfortable. West, continuing to follow this theme, edited and added tracks to The Life of Pablo after the show, further delaying the album’s commercial release.
The album, whose momentum was perhaps primarily exacerbated by the public process in which it was manufactured and the subsequent public pressure surrounding its release, snowballed to the point where it became a cultural phenomenon that West could no longer control. West referred to The Life of Pablo as a gospel album, but its lack of cohesion in both its sound and thematic progression raises questions about the veracity of that statement. As a result, The Life of Pablo can sounds unpolished and disjointed.
Although the messy nature of the album seems to work against its artistic value, The Life of Pablo’s individual tracks, thankfully, remain far from disappointing; paradoxically, what it lacks in the gestalt is made up for in the details. The album opens with “Ultralight Beam,” in which West powerfully harmonizes with a church choir hymns in his inspection of the personal faith holds in his life. West’s refrain is followed by a verse by fellow Chicago-raised MC Chance the Rapper, who masterfully delivers over echoing organ sounds and faint brass instrumentals, leaving the spotlight securely fastened on Chance while adding subtle texture to the track. “Ultralight Beam” ends with a sample of gospel musician Kirk Franklin saying a closing prayer for “everybody that feels like they’re too messed up”—assuring wayward souls that there is always a place for them back home.
Inevitably and predictably, however, the vulnerable version of West is followed by its audacious and confident-to-a-fault counterpart, as seen in “Famous” and “Facts,” the former of which introduced the controversial couplet “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” to public ear and subsequent outrage. But that’s not to say that these self-celebratory tracks aren’t without their strengths. In fact, “Famous” remains one of the album’s best tracks, with Rihanna’s soulful cover of Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” leading into Swizz Beatz’s stormy synths and hard-hitting bass thumps and the infusion of melodic reggae from a sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam.”
The four-track-run in the second half of The Life of Pablo, composed of “Waves”, “FML”, “Real Friends” and “Wolves” is the album’s emotional apex, highlighting the intensity of West’s self-doubt, fear, paranoia and loneliness. “You ain’t never seen nothin’ crazier than / this nigga when he off his Lexapro,” West says over solemn piano keys, alluding toward possible problems with his mental wellbeing. The four songs are also backed by a cast of star cameos — the Weeknd, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign and Frank Ocean — whose talents are complemented with nuanced and dynamic production that allows them to shine.
The Life of Pablo is the album of Kanye. Kanye sees himself in Pablo Picasso the tortured artist, Pablo Escobar the hedonistic drug lord and Paul the Apostle, the man who finds faith after denying it. The Life of Pablo becomes a documentation of the different parts of West’s life and West’s psyche.
The different vestiges of old Kanye interspersed throughout the album seem to corroborate this: The bleak autotuned crooning of 808s Kanye, the visceral industrial beats of Yeezus Kanye, the unapologetic maximalism of MBDTF Kanye, the eclectic genre-mixing of Graduation Kanye, the soul instrumentals of College Dropout Kanye and the orchestration of Late Registration Kanye. Thus, its lack of cohesion subsequently becomes the quality that unifies the album as the conceptual mirror of West’s journey as an artist.
“Tell my mama, that I only want my whole life to only be highlights,” he sings on the The Life of Pablo’s seventh track, “Highlights,” and from the looks of it, West has certainly kept that promise.
Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].