For the Love of TLOP
The Life of Pablo, what is now as much a household reference as the largely-loved Graduation, was released quickly, exclusively, and—indubitably—sloppily. A conundrum to long-time fans, ravenous critics, and indifferent listeners alike, the haste and discontinuity in the original piece was difficult to ignore. Upon my first listen, I, a fourth-grade devotee since the College Dropout days, was disappointed. After my metamorphosing understanding of Yeezus, an album I had initially chosen to ignore in Kanye West’s discography as an auto-tuned, pop-saturated mistake, it’s safe to say that TLOP was not, in any way, what I expected.
In fact, let’s table The Life of Pablo for a moment to talk about the aformentioned work. Yeezus, to many, was an oversight: a lilted transition period between the “old Kanye”, as he has colloquially been called, and the “new Kanye”. It was, in few words, both a pupating period and an emergence, masterfully produced into a neat and concise record. I emphasize the latter because of its former importance in West’s work: no song, let alone album, escaped the artist’s unmatched scrutiny. What made—what makes—Kanye West illustrious is his ability to discern greatness from excellence, to carry an idea “from cradle to casket”, and to fundamentally redefine that idea in the process. While listening to College Dropout, to Late Registration, to Graduation, we were met with consistency and comprehension. The heavily explored topics of education, opportunity, and perception in relation to race were Kanye’s forte; coupled with the venerable voices of Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Nas, Jamie Foxx, and Chaka Khan, among others, his verses earned him the title of one of the greatest samplers of all time. That is to say, with an unrivaled dependability on song snippets, West was able to not only elevate the racial activism promoted by these musical giants, but to ask loaded questions of his audience while doing so. In Yeezus especially, Kanye West’s calculated lyrical talents shine through the syncopated tracks in a way we had not seen before. Perhaps most notable in “Blood On the Leaves”, Kanye samples Billie Holiday’s revered black hymn “Strange Fruit”, TIME magazine’s 1999 song of the century, over an explicitly sex-and-drug-induced frenzy. This is not meant to be disrespectful, but rather inversive: even before the song is specifically sampled, in “New Slaves”, Kanye raps, “I know that we the new slaves / I see the blood on the leaves”, as a massively powerful insight into the modern black condition—affluent blacks included. As it happens, he begins the song with a rather robust explanation:
My momma was raised in the era when
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin
Doin’ clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And it’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more”
“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”
Used to only be niggas, now everybody playin’
Spendin’ everything on Alexander Wang
Touching upon corporate greed may seem like an interesting choice for a man who sells ripped shirts for $3000, but the genius of it is precisely in the irony: it is deeply ironic that Kanye, although proven to be successful, still has to barter for society’s respect, that despite wealth, black Americans (particularly black women), struggle daily to be taken seriously, and that black culture, impactful as it has been, is still largely discredited. All this, in the context of Yeezus, is downright groundbreaking in its time; from “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” to “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last / Thank God almighty, they free at last,” the album is peppered with seditious emblems of black power disguised as sexual innuendo—and vice versa.
This talent is not a question of technicality, since from a purely executive standpoint one can easily find rappers with more lyrical finesse and highly structured composition (see: To Pimp A Beethoven, a piece about how Kendrick Lamar does just that), but rather one of societal norms. West constantly brings to the table — normalizes and even popularizes — elements of rap that are not prodigally “safe”. Furthermore, he is able to constantly use subversive and consequently revolutionary imagery and his popularized platform to catapult the youth into his specific view of society: namely, the treatment of blacks, sex, and religion in pop culture, individually and as a whole.
While on the topic of religion, it is important to note that Kanye West has always relied on allusions to faith and God to solidify his brand. It is no secret that the names of both Yeezus and The Life of Pablo are pious remarks, just as “Jesus Walks”—his alleged rise to fame—was. All of his albums to date, in fact, have been riddled with gospel, prayer, and hymns, devices that have worked to add yet another dimension to West’s acute rebellion against purity and censorship; yet another irony.
With TLOP, Kanye outdoes himself. Everything from his inclusion of another Chicago-based, heavily-holy artist, Chance the Rapper, to a bonafide full-length testament to God in “Lowlights” screams biblicism—perhaps too loudly. At first glance, it seems that this godly disposition, previously only a unifying (but underlying) vein in Kanye West’s work, is the single thing that ties it together. I mentioned my first impression of TLOP was “sloppy”, because there was no other metonymy to hold onto; no new ground explored, and certainly no radical pseudo-erotic emancipation to speak of. The record boasted the largest array of features of any album in the last decade, but none of them maintained a solid presence—and Kanye kept switching them around. His newly-released album, while on TIDAL, underwent a couple of modifications a week, begging the question: why did he, a well-known perfectionist, decide to release it unfinished?
As it turns out, the answer to this question—the purpose of this essay—is what has allowed Kanye West to maintain his “genius” status. While taking advantage of the digital platform that streaming services such as Spotify and TIDAL provide, Kanye was able to supply listeners with insight into his artistic process, not simply the output. This had never been done before. Indeed, to “old Kanye”, it may have been unspeakable to release a partially completed, irregularly produced album, but to Yeezus, this counted as an exercise in legitimacy—a snapshot, so to speak, of his own imperfect life, of his own reliance on religion, of his own eclectic amalgam of influence. For avid fans, the early versions of now-popular songs carry an odd air of nostalgic solidarity: some like them better than their “finished” counterparts, others agree with the changes that Kanye made to them. For all listeners, it’s a dynamic, breathing work—one that carries Kanye’s original goals of freshness, transparency, and truthfulness to fruition, regardless of their choice between the, “Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye” and
“…the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye / The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye”.