Kanye West has always been about pushing boundaries. For several LPs it was about stretching the outer-limits of what a hip-hop record could be: recording with live instrumentation at Abbey Road, sampling King Crimson and making soulful R&B records in spite of the fact he can’t sing a note. Somewhere along the way though, pushing sonic boundaries became secondary to pushing tolerability: this past month more than ever. On this record alone he takes jabs at his own wife, rape victims, his own step brother, and outside of the music: against ‘white’ music publications and in defense of Bill Cosby in the face of insurmountable evidence. With The Life of Pablo the actual music has taken something of a backseat: confounded further by a horribly shambolic rollout beginning in 2014 and culminating in a month long series of false track lists, title changes and some of the weakest quality tracks of West’s career. It took a couple of years to judge his last project, Yeezus, on its quality alone – and the controversy surrounding that release was nothing compared with this one.
What we eventually got (so far, West has promised that his meddling still isn’t done) is an album that is as open to easy readings as a duck’s back is to water. It seems ridiculous to apply deep analysis to an album with lyrics as one-note and vulgar as this one, especially when it seems to have to come together in such a last minute frenzy. However the scattershot nature of the end-result is probably its most endearing facet, intentional or otherwise. The record lurches from moments of serenity to depravity and chaos in a manner which makes West’s claims that this is his Born In The U.S.A. seem ridiculous. Even its best tracks are hard to conceive as hits, and the album’s sequence – seeing gospel songs, soul mashups from West’s early career and hard trap bangers side by side is one of its most compelling aspects. Not every moment here would necessarily stand alone, but together it’s an epic a journey as his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy opus.
“The moments he appears are so often the lowest points on the album that it’s hard not to see it as his being swallowed whole on his own project”
Like many of West’s records, but never to the extent of this LP, The Life of Pablo seems like a deeply collaborative project. Kanye allowing artists like The Weeknd and Chance The Rapper to so steal the show on some of the tracks here could be seen as his most humble gesture in years – but the truth is that the moments he appears are so often the lowest points on the album that it’s hard not to see it as his being swallowed whole on his own project. His lyrics here are so often vulgar, one note and utterly without wit or substance it’s like listening to latter day Lil’ Wayne. “Now if I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my t-shirt, I’mma feel like an asshole” are some of the worst bars ever laid to tape, he ruins ‘Wolves’ with the terrible “only tell you real shit, that’s the tea, no sip, don’t trip, don’t trip, that pussy slippery, no whip” – and we knew how bad ‘Facts’ was weeks before the project dropped… it’s inconceivable that these lines came from the man who wrote ‘Through The Wire’. It’s sad to hear an artist of West’s calibre so frequently threaten to ruin his own album, and his desperate jabs at Ray-J and Taylor Swift with lines that don’t even make sense feel like a man whose well has run dry, desperately trying to replace wit with controversy. Many of the songs he appears on would have been better left instrumentals.
That’s the conflicting nature of The Life of Pablo though: it’s just about the only record that could make you want to sit through his struggle-bars again and again, because the production and songwriting here is phenomenal. If the lyrics here were on the level of Twisted Fantasy, it could even have surpassed that hallowed high bar. Before the “asshole” line, ‘Father Stretch My Hands Part 1’ has a drop so strong it could have torn up the charts, and even West’s flows on the album are superior to anything since ‘Otis’. The Life of Pablo so strongly and boldly merges together the styles Kanye’s played with since his College Dropout debut, it sounds like a Greatest Hits collection,. Meanwhile moments like the end of ‘FML’ and the song ‘Fade’ break new sonic ground: closer to art rock ala Animal Collective than rap. There are even moments on the record where a relatable human shows his face: like the genuinely funny ‘I Love Kanye’, and on ‘Real Friends’ and ‘No More Parties In LA’ – two excellent songs which sees Kanye in the confessional mood of records past – humanising struggles which on the rest of the album are just plain obtuse.
“This is a fantastic LP, but for the first time it seems more in spite of Kanye rather than because of him”
In terms of production though, all else is outshined by four stunning highlights. ‘FML’ is a genuinely haunting song, on which The Weeknd croons a killer hook that makes an emotionally distant song somehow even more hollow and pleading. ‘Famous’ is a track which seems a no-brainer for a single (although the mess that is ‘Highlights’ seems the unfortunate candidate) with Rihanna bringing a killer cover of the Nina Simone line which is sampled on the song’s latter half, and the beat ingeniously presents two facets of itself: the first half being hard and Yeezus-esque, the second bright and rhythmic.
‘Ultra-Light Beam’ and ’30 Hours’ though are two of the best songs Kanye has ever produced. The former is achingly beautiful, the use of a gospel choir and its studio manipulation yielding spine-tingling results, while Chance’s verse is both courageous and delicate: “this little light of mine” being a heart wrenching denouement. ‘30 Hours’ meanwhile is desperately sad, and deeply hypnotic. The album version is unfortunately weighed down by a pointless Andre 3000 feature and annoying ad libs, but the GOOD Friday version exposes a heart breaking verse from a lonely sounding Kanye, and a beat builds on an Arthur Russell sample that utterly bewitches.
Just like his music, Kanye West is full of sad contradictions. On ‘FML’ he talks of revealing the “layers to [his] soul”, while presenting a work which lyrically sees him at his most shallow and onenote. On College Dropout he sought to prove naysayers who said he couldn’t rap wrong: on The Life Of Pablo he seems fifteen years later to try and prove them right. He talks on Twitter of love and good vibes, but his desperate flailing for attention is nothing short of depressing. This is a fantastic LP, but for the first time it seems more in spite of Kanye rather than because of him – and that lands him in dangerous water, because the insurmountable quality and creativity of his music so far is the only thing that he kept him as the man people love to hate – instead of the man they just hate.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘Answers Me’ by Arthur Russell
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.