Kanye West & The Life of Pablo
When the Larry Heard sample drops in Fade, I went a bit giddy. I had never imagined an acid bassline, which I had previously only heard in darkened clubs, as the perfect beat for hiphop. This moment of delight with sampling, is where Kanye West eats.
When I got into Kanye West at 15 or 16, I had a very white (indie)rock background. I slated electronic music, most hiphop, and anything that wasn’t real music. (I.e. guitar music).
Kanye on The College Dropout and Late Registration introduced me to soul and funk. Before those records, I didn’t listen to Curtis Mayfield or Al Green. I hadn’t heard of Teddy Pendergrass or Luther Vandross. I didn’t really know who Aaliyah was.
RnB, soul, gospel, jazz, funk, and this entire history of black music were suddenly introduced to me in an incredibly powerful way. Kanye was the perfect musical history teacher. And the tunes were catchy. They weren’t gangster rap. The lyrics seemed more clever than what I had expected from rap. There was a depth. And the guy wore a polo.
But it wasn’t that there was some slight surprise in the way he arranged lyrics or the chothes he wore. It’s that I saw something in how he produced music. His depth of his knowledge as a music nerd was clear. And I was a music nerd too.
I grew up in rural Cambrideshire. I went to school in rural Lincolnshire. There, race was entirely conceptual, but Kanye made it easy to enter this world in a tangible way. His life and background were so far detached from mine. Yet as one music nerd hearing another, I trusted my lesson implicitly.
Twelve years later, my cultural horizons have fortunately expanded. Yet each Kanye release that has come out, has been a new exploration of sounds and styles brought together in a beautiful way. The other great release of 2016 so far: Moodymann’s DJ Kicks does the exact same thing.
I’ve realised with TLOP that that love for Kanye is the same reason I love my favourite DJs. I want to discover music and find new ways of hearing things.
When I hear the Arthur Russell sample on 30 Hours, I am as taken aback as when I first heard Stevie Wonder’s As in a club. It blurred cultural understandings of music. That Fade sample works for the exact same reason.
The exuberant sampling of Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam made me search for the original. Hearing the new discovery, I couldn’t have imagined such a brilliant rework. Pitchfork described it as a dancehall remix of Pachabel’s Canon, which isn’t far off point.
The use of Father Children’s Dirt and Grime as the bookmarks on the otherwise weaker Facts is used to direct mood. He’s DJing. He’s cratedigging. And throughout his back catalogue, this is where he really nails it.
So if that is Kanye as a DJ, who is he as an MC?
I can’t listen to Father Stretch My Hands because that bleached asshole line is so bad. The Taylor line on Famous feels callous and unnecessary — especially as she’s the other greatest popstar in the world. (As an aside, I wouldn’t be suprised if this feud has been entirely predetermined as it is).
The issue is when it comes to his MCing, is when we start to look at Kanye West as a Character or a Personality. Here, is where most of his critics fill their bellies. A lot has been said on this, and I could not cover it all, but the ILX forum topic is a great starting point for those interested.
One idea I am interested in is the self-awareness and redemption. Dark Fantasy, my favourite Kanye record was so because it was an album of redemption. It was an apology to Taylor and to himself. It was raw but still beautifully crafted. Even in its overproduced moments and horrible loudness, that piano on Runaway still shakes you. It takes you to a place of guilt and regret. And he takes you there with him like all great storytellers do.
On TLOP, those moments of redemption don’t exist. This is the provocateur album. There’s no humility in his lyrics this time round. The album is peppered up with mysogony and homophobia. I don’t think he’s necessary mysogonistic or homophobic, it’s more he’s just stopped thinking about what he’s saying.
It is impossible to ignore the cult of personality that surrounds Kanye. Twitter was made for Kanye. Here we get a constant stream of consciousness. And when you combine that stream of consciousness with a lot of this record, you see someone who is broken.
Low Lights, another album highlight, is the plea for that. “He’s always there for me, with his arms open wide accepting me for who I am and I love him so much.” If ever there was a more biblical plea for acceptance despite his failures this could be it. And Kanye can’t even bring himself to sing it himself.
This record contains the second lyrical reference in a year Kanye has made to antidepressant Lexapro. You start to wonder whether the crass lyrical moments are in fact cries for help.
Whether they are or not, probably doesn’t matter. But there is something there that reminds me of when I first found Kanye all those years ago. I liked Kanye because he had this encyclopeadic knowledge of music. And we were both music nerds.
If we were to paint a picture of a classic music nerd, I wonder what words we would use to describe them? Introvert? Neurotic? Studious? Used to spending time reading album liner notes — or following credits on Discogs. Unsocial? (Is that a word?) What happens when you add fame and success to individuals like that?
I cannot imagine what the life of the rich and famous is like. But there were nerdy traits I saw in Kanye the music nerd when I was 15, which I recognised. And with that in mind, I feel some sort of empathy to his way of dealing with things now.
As Kanye keeps reminding us, many great artists can be dreadful people. Hemingway, Lennon, Floyd, Jobs. The list goes on. But history has shown us that what we remember about them isn’t who they were, but what they created.
And when you look at what Kanye creates, for me, they are incredible records. Records whose sampling and use of space is beautifully rich. Records with clever and witty remarks buried beneath the corny and crass. And records which surprise and delight me in the way that only the best music can.
One of the biggest accolades I see bandied around in DJ culture is calling someone ‘A DJ’s DJ.’ We should bestow a similar accolade on Kanye West. The Life of Pablo is a brilliant record: explorative, fragile, rich, a delight. Oh Yeezy, he’s done it again.