“The Life of Pablo” — Album Review
St. Paul the Apostle was essential in the early spread of what-is-now-understood-to-be Christianity. The story of his life is one of immense risk; he rejected his of life as Saul of Taurus, choosing to preach the gospel of a recently-deceased Jewish mystic named Jesus in dangerous and foreign lands. He is highly exemplified within Catholic doctrine, and remains one of the most favored saints in public opinion.
Jesus’ gospel was one of humility, self-sacrifice, and reservation, traits that one might not be too quick to use in describing the thirty-eight year old rapper. Indeed, if Jesus were a member of twenty-first century society, West could ended up being someone Jesus condemns as a prophet of hedonism (unlike West’s heavenly vision in Yeezus’ proclamation “I Am a God”). West’s seventh album, “The Life of Pablo” begins with a proclamation of sorts as well, with the album’s opening voices being those of a screaming child filled with the Holy Spirit. Whereas West has recently been playing the roles of the reality-TV star, husband, rapper, designer, producer, it is the role of the preacher that has been eluding him for some time now.
When West delves into the depths of his soul in search of religious guidance, hip-hop masterpieces such as “Jesus Walks” are born. There, we witnessed a younger West attempt to make meaning of his Christian faith. The album’s introduction, “Ultralight Beam” starts with West as the preacher, leading the cavernous gospel choir in with a sermon about some kind of dream God had, pronouncing that we are, in fact, collectively on an ultralight beam (whatever that means). The choir pours in, filling the room with angelic hymnal voices. The strength of Kelly Price’s voice and Kirk Franklin’s final prayer come to face-to-face with a spectacular Chance the Rapper verse in between. Here, Chance sounds more like a protégé under West’s tutelage than ever before, harrowing back to the pre-VMAs/Kardashian rapper in his heyday. The-Dream is mixed above the gospel choir, but they work hand-in-hand finishing each other’s lyrics while thundering drums and oddly-looped guitar strums warp back and forth. West’s humanity is established in the first sung lines of the album: “I’m tryna keep my faith”.
“The Life of Pablo” dissects the pieces of a man fragmented by incessant media surveillance and an impossibly vast ego to boot. The lawlessness and chaos soon become obvious; at the start of “Father, Stretch My Hands”, dense synths suffocate the soul vocals singing hymns, spiraling into twisted fantasy after twisted fantasy. The church has been ransacked, with West going back to shocking his audience with bizarre sexual escapades with Amber Rose, his former girlfriend: “If I f-ck this model / And she just bleached her a — hole…” “Pt. 1” features Kid Cudi delivering a very Kid Cudi-esque hook, while “Pt. 2” breaks down courtesy of Desiigner’s SoundCloud hit “Panda” into a demented trap-meets-gospel frenzy. Neither focuses on a musical conception for too long, favoring a collage of disjointed noises rather than straightforwardness early on.
West goes on the defensive for the majority of the following tracks, going back to role of the “media spectacle” that has garnered him praise and hatred. On “Famous”, he namechecks Taylor Swift, America’s first princess of pop, calming that he’s the only reason “that b*tch” is, well, famous. Agree with his claim or not, West does not care, using his music to rant on his frustrations knowing the public will react strongly whether his frustrations be meaningful or not. The song grows into a bubbly interpolation of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”, a familiar vocal line to hip-hop oldheads (think Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones”). “Feedback” polarizes West even further against his haters with the sharp corners of a distorted synth line.
“Low Lights” and “Highlights” work together to describe ways in which we, outsiders looking into West’s life, see him. Some recognize the humility in his downtrodden mother, Donda, personified in “Low Lights”, understanding that it was her faith in the future that kept her pushing, eventually inspiring West to do the same. Others glorify or criticize (depending on you are talking to at the moment) his wealth, along with his reality television mogul and similarly wealthy wife Kim Kardashian. Commonly cited as one of the world’s most desirable women, she is a telling muse for West’s expression.“Freestyle 4”, a bizarre somewhat-terrifying song, sounds more like a nightmare, becoming too much, even for West’s history until it disintegrates into a static glitch.
“I Love Kanye”, previously titled “I Miss the Old Kanye”, lampoons the tendencies adoring fans have toward holding their favorite musicians to ridiculous standards. We criticize some musicians for “selling out” or “falling out of touch”, while we praise others for “evolving”. It is a song that, for its short length, says more about us than West this time. The interlude leads into “Waves”, an energetic banger with jittery strobe-light rave synths, where Brown delivers his first killer hook in a while. The song is unique in that it puts Chris Brown and Kanye West, two black musicians that have dealt with their fair share of criticism from mainstream media, in the same space and allows them to bask in the glory that is art’s influence on society and culture: “waves don’t die.”
West’s attempts at portraying his life as perfect fail with close inspection, showing the cracks in his celebrity identity that make it easier to relate to his human flaws. On “FML”, he confronts the demons residing within him that tell him not to take his antidepressants and showcases an essential part in understanding any marriage: fighting happens(“Now we finna lose all self-control / But you ain’t finna be raisin your voice at me / Especially when we in the Giuseppe store.”) West wants to get last laugh in the end in regards to the public’s willingness to vilify him for every mistake, but this façade breaks away at the song’s end as he repeats depressingly “they don’t wanna see me love you”. West, underneath the reverberating hypnotic voice calling to its listener to see through his “veil”, begs us to see his life through his perspective and understand that he is human. West makes it clear that he’s been there to comfort his wife literally as the media tears apart every aspect of their lives. Like everyone else, when West tries to say he does not care, he definitely does.
West has really never been one to shy away from lamenting his feelings akin to 1990s emo, but the sadness on “Real Friends” is strikingly real. The degree of introspection and hurt tells you that sometimes, even for millionaires, life’s complexities leave us all struggling to stay in good contact with those close to us. “Wolves” strips Sia and Vic Mensa of their previous contributions, leaving West alone to compare himself, once again, to a major Christian figure. Here, the difference is that he includes Kim, his children, and their haters in the metaphor. His faith is apparent but his lyrics twist the original Biblical tale by portraying Mary as a club-going free-spirit a la Kardashian. The album’s thematic centerpiece “30 Hours” follows suit with Andre 3000 harmonizing near the song’s back end. Sonically, it is spacious and recalls both the carefree “Dropout”-era West and the emotionally drawn “808s and Heatbreak”-era West. He hints back to spending time with a nameless woman, harkening on how he had to drive thirty hours like any other schmuck with a car just to see her before his big break. Now, it is clear he has “his family” to thank on this conventional-outro track, neglecting to specify who he is referencing (it could be Roc-A-Fella, G.O.O.D. Music, his production team, the Kardashian cult, or an assortment of all these and more). Notably, one line about needing “a happy beginning, middle, and ending” is eerily reminiscent to one in “Gorgeous”, one of West’s most honest reflections on fame, musical influence, and racial identity off of MBTDF.
After a series of lapses, West finds a common tempo once more in “30 Hours”, rooting himself in the pains of his past and the music that inspired him to launch his own career. The song carries on like a jam session, inviting the listening to personally join in the appreciation of his art. It would be an acceptable finish, but West tags in “No More Parties in LA” and a reworked version of the Adidas/Kimoji commercial “FACTS”. The album ends with “Fade”, a funky collage of emotion assisted by Post Malone, Ty Dolla Sign, Ms. Barbara Tucker, and a Rare Earth sample. The album’s least complex song, it closes out on something of existential crisis: “When nobody watching / I just fade away.” In today’s media-driven society, Kanye’s staying power comes from the fact everyone is watching him 24/7. As much as he may hate the “wolves” that surround him and his family and judge their every move, West’s influence would not be what it is today without us constantly hounding him.
This album is scattered, but also whole at the same time, highlights the scars of West’s personal and emotional struggles at some intervals while asserting his masculinity at others. West asks his wife to choose between “a boss or an R&B n*gga with a six-pack”, seemingly suggesting that his wife’s previous “R&B” boyfriends were too “soft”. Ironically, the latter half of the album proves that no matter how West may front, he, like any other human, must confront the sadness and complexity of his life. The listener is constantly being told to choose “which one” of Kanye’s identities to embrace, the showy superficial one (“Famous”, “Feedback”) or the humiliated depressed family-man one (“FML”, “Real Friends”, “Ultralight Beam”). He uses his music the music to empower and pay tribute to the several women that have affected the trajectory of his career: Donda, Kim, Amber, North or even Taylor Swift. These muses, like Picasso’s muses, show up along the way to guide West into twisted fantasies of success, familial expectations, and mortality: “If mama knew how / You turned out, you too wild.”
Kanye’s appeal has always been his ability to innovate and inspire in many different fields. His success as a fashion designer says leagues about racial opportunity within the hierarchic nature of the lily-white fashion world. He is a living hip-hop legend whose albums demonstrate a keen sense of observation, wit, and rap skill. Unlike his mentor, West’s music as always been focused on themes foreign to mainstream hip-hop like religion, poverty, and family. Rather than claiming he’s some drug lord Mafioso slinging weight with Jay-Z, he puts himself out as a geeky mama’s boy college dropout with a biting wit and keen sense of observation instead. His lyrics change depending on how rich he is at any given time (making things rather difficult for Ray-J). West will get richer and his life will continue to be a major source of revenue for the parasitic press. His history, however, as a lover of black music and an advocate for artistic expression could never be compromised by the words of others: “Money never made me / Make me do something? Nah, can’t make me.”
In a world defined by the weight of one’s pockets, it is hard to remember sometimes that being rich does not necessarily make anyone’s life easier. Coming from West’s perspective, money isn’t even something crucial to his identity. His personality and charisma have always been critical components of his verses, preaching a gospel of decadence and reverence at the same time. He is not one to shy away from describing the bizarre, even if he only were rap about shooting pornos with his wife. West takes back his sexual freedoms in the face of a hypocritical society that condemns him just for existing, hoping to unshackle himself akin to Kendrick Lamar’s more focused socio-cultural movement. By doing this, he embraces the pieces of his own fragmented identity, searching for answers to his life via sex, fashion, and God. He leaves behind a challenging, albeit unforgiving album, that chronicles the mundane and the meaningful in the same sermon.