Kanye West — The Life of Pablo (GOOD Music)
“Deliver us serenity, deliver us peace/deliver us love, you know we need it.”
The first words uttered by Kanye West on The Life of Pablo are a plea, a prayer. Whether it’s to a higher power, humankind in general, or himself as a divine figure is really up for debate. But it proved a truly prescient demand, especially coming so early in a year marked by historic turmoil and division. It’s difficult to remember sometimes that Pablo came out in 2016, but it did. All the way back in February, before we realized just what a morass this year would ultimately become. We needed all the serenity and peace and love we could muster to get through this one.
But if we were looking for that divine relief in The Life of Pablo, Kanye West refused to deliver it. Prior to the album’s release, in which West dragged the music press on a leash as he toyed with release dates and ever-changing track listings and album titles (RIP, SWISH) and even updated versions of songs, Kanye tweeted several boasts about the album: namely that it was, “the album of your life,” and that it was “a gospel album.”
Neither of those claims held true. Pablo is most certainly not the album of your life, and ultimately it’s only sort of gospel-influenced. Rather, it’s a messy, schizophrenic incomplete collection of songs, with the fear of monogamy and isolation the only thing threading them together. Up-and-comer (and self-proclaimed Kanye prodigy) Chance the Rapper fully realized that gospel/hip-hop fusion on his mixtape Coloring Book. Fittingly, one of the few true gospel moments on the entire album, album opener “Ultralight Beam”, features an exuberant Chance taking his mantle as one of hip-hop’s most valuable, proclaiming, “this is my part, nobody else speak.” Surrounded by church choirs, the soulful belting of Kelly Price, the sermonizing of Kirk Franklin, and Kanye’s own minimal, auto-tuned vocals, Chance is the beating heart of one of the most striking songs of the album, and maybe one of the most arresting of Kanye’s career. And it’s not necessarily because of Kanye.
That’s a theme that follows West throughout the album. A lot of the best moments don’t belong to him; sometimes he drags his own songs down. Pablo continues a longstanding tradition of following insane, slamming Kanye West intros with pretty garbage Kanye West opening lyrics (see: “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt.1”, “Famous”). On “Father”, we get one of the most glorious intros of the year (complete with Metro Boomin’s tag) before ‘Ye ruins the party with the now infamous “bleached asshole” line. And we all know what happens in “Famous”. Elsewhere, Kanye perpetuates the take that he’s an expert producer and music historian (his samples are among the best in the game) but a pretty weak emcee. The Ray J reference in “Highlights” is highly unsavory, and “Wolves”, which borderlines on overwrought to begin with, features Kanye spitting bars about stolen sandwiches and comparing him and Kim to Mary and Joseph.
Kanye might not be able to get out of his own way on Pablo, but the parade of collaborators he brings on more than make up for any of his own shortcomings. Chance becomes a bona fide star on “Ultralight Beam”. Desiigner’s quasi-Future gruff is introduced to the world on “Pt. 2” (also does anyone know what the fuck this guy is ever saying). Rihanna does her best Nina Simone on the intro to “Famous” (before the real Nina breaks through at the end). The Weeknd turns in a stellar vocal hook on “FML”, a desperate song about the travails of monogamy. Frank Ocean emerges from hibernation to lend his golden voice to the end of “Wolves” (later separated as “Frank’s Song”). Even Chris Brown supplies a soaring chorus on the skyscraping “Waves” (even though it could’ve been anyone but Brown — seriously, fuck that guy). As is often the case, Kanye elevates his guests above their usual levels. And sometimes, like on “No More Parties in L.A.”, those guests (Kendrick Lamar, in fine form as always) push ‘Ye to do better himself.
All told, The Life of Pablo is not the cohesive vision we’re used to seeing from Kanye. It lacks the maximalist ego manifestation that was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the abrasive dissonance of Yeezus. Rather, it’s an album of moments. Chance going into overdrive, barking “I’m just havin’ fun with it!” as horns swell around him. The joyfully chopped Sister Nancy sample at the end of “Famous”. Future warning you not to cross Young Metro on “Father Stretch My Hands”. Kanye’s winking self-awareness on “I Love Kanye”. The weariness of “Real Friends”. The massive, earth-shattering house beat of “Fade”. These are some of the greatest moments in Kanye’s discography. It’s just a shame they’re sometimes overshadowed by the messiness, the sense that we’re listening to an incomplete record. But Kanye envisioned this as an album in constant motion, an ever-evolving work of art. If he can get himself back on track, that might still happen. As it stands, let’s enjoy some of the sublime moments he’s offered us here. We all definitely need them.
ADDITIONAL: also a great meme album. The whole thing, really. The “Father Stretch My Hands” craze. “I Love Seinye”. The album cover. The (unofficial) “Famous” video. The (official) “Famous” video. Just a great, great time for memes. 2016. Wow.