I’m a big fan of Kanye West. Let it be known! His music has never disappointed me, which is saying something considering he has seven albums under his belt (The Life Of Pablo being his eighth). His ear for layering, use of diverse samples, and honest lyricism makes him an extremely rare breed. He is a student of music and isn’t held down by the genre he inhabits. When it comes to artists, the only thing I focus on is their work, everything outside of that is irrelevant. To some, this approach may be ignorant, “how can you look past the weird, annoying, frustrating, or downright bad people that make up a portion of the industry of artists you support?” My answer is that appreciating someone’s art doesn’t condone their actions. Just because I enjoy what they create doesn’t mean I respect or look up to them as a person. Roman Polanski makes great films. Phil Spector was crucial in the progression of music. Ernest Hemingway wrote classics. That’s all I know. I’m not comparing Kanye to these people by any means, but it seems to me that the majority of Kanye’s critics have issues with him as a person and not the music he creates. Would it change your perspective if he was a recluse and put out the exact same body of work? In that reality I think the respect for him and his artistic abilities would be almost unanimous. Artists are different: they think differently, act differently, consume differently, and produce differently. Most of us don’t understand the pressure and intensity of having these ideas and aspirations caged inside our minds fighting to get out, having this innate desire to not only create but to release it into the world and for people to understand the depth and scope of what you tried to do, what you NEED to do. For those special few who have been deemed geniuses, this inner need is amplified. The path to the land of being understood can be cold and lonely, especially when you lack equals to feed off of. Now, genius is not a word that I throw out casually and while I think that Kanye is someone who will continue to produce incredible music and whose work will be recognized long after he’s gone, I don’t think the word applies to him. It could one day, but not yet. Now, let’s The Talk Life of Pablo.
I’ve listened to the album almost non-stop since it’s release, overall I’d say it’s played through about 15 times now. I wanted a fully formed opinion, to see it from different angles, feel it’s effects on multiple moods. So, to present my thoughts in the simplest way possible, it’s average. The Life of Pablo is average. I should preface by saying that at this point I’m reviewing Kanye’s album not against the work of his peers, but against his own body of work. We know what he is capable of, measuring him up against other artists wouldn’t do him justice, as I think his worst is better than most artist’s best. The only way I can think to present my case is by taking it song by song since that’s how the album plays to me. A series of songs. That’s what’s most disappointing here. One thing that Kanye has always done, and better than the majority (sometimes better than everyone), is create a theme and stick to it. Maintain a flow throughout the album, making it more than the singles that represent it. A single, cohesive piece of art, none more perfect than his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With The Life Of Pablo it felt broken even before it’s release. From its four name changes, to its ever changing track listing, to its multiple release dates, the whole process came across as sloppy. Because of this it’s no surprise that the album feels choppy and disconnected. Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune put it best when he said that the album “…sounds like a work in progress rather than a finished album.”
The album starts out in spectacular fashion with the vibrant gospel jam “Ultralight Beam.” Kanye actually takes a back seat here, letting features Kelly Price, The Dream and most notably Chance The Rapper, who steals the show here, take the lead. Chance’s verse, which is possibly my favorite on the album, isn’t challenged for another 15 tracks until Kendrick throws down some serious heat on the excellent “No More Parties In LA.” While we’re on the subject of verse quality, I feel I should note that that when you don’t have the best verse on your own album there is something wrong. I know Kanye’s lyricism isn’t his strongest, and he does have some affecting moments here, but for the majority of the album Kanye’s verse is not only weak but surprisingly un-clever. One thing that has made Kanye’s previous albums so good, from a lyrical standpoint, is that they’re just as fun as they are deep. For every “Monster” there is a “Runaway”, for every “Gold Digger” we have a ”Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, for every “The New Workout Plan” we’re given a…you get the point. He isn’t afraid to say exactly what he’s thinking regardless of how it will reflect on him. This candidness, whether you like it or not, is how I wish every artist would approach their work. This approach hasn’t changed on The Life Of Pablo; the difference is that while he has some poignant and vulnerable moments, he has just as many moments where he seems like he’s just saying whatever comes to mind. I’m sure some people enjoy that stream of consciousness style, I prefer it to be a bit more calculated. In fact, it’s not until halfway through the album that Kanye hits us with a memorable verse, which comes during the spectacular interlude “I Love Kanye.” In it he raps about his old self versus his new self, a subject that I think would have provided an excellent theme for the album, rather than just the song. Also, and this is just nitpicking, but I think this track would have been a perfect closer to the album. Short, funny, insightful, and lands a punch.
After “I Love Kanye,” the album falls into nice four song stretch where the tracks actually sound as though they were meant to be played in sequence. It starts with my favorite song on the album, the Chris Brown featured “Waves” (a song that originally didn’t make the final cut, until Chance basically forced Kanye to add it). The track has an immediate presence that can’t help but make you feel lifted. It’s followed by “FML”, whose calm start is a nice transition out of “Waves.” The song opens with an excellent self reflection by Kanye leading into a short but solid chorus by The Weeknd, then it’s back to Kanye who lets it fly on the second verse (one of the best on the album). The ending third of the song is interesting, and while I’m not sure I liked it, it transitions into “Real Friends” smoothly. “Real Friends” finds Kanye more vulnerable, questioning if the people that are in his life are in it for him or just for his fame and fortune. It’s songs like this that show what Kanye is really capable of and why we expect so much from him. The end of that track then teases the beginning of “Wolves,” easily the best song to song transition on the album. “Wolves’” eerie and melodic back beat (courtesy of Sia) is both haunting and beautiful, I put it in my top three songs on the album from a production standpoint. My only issue with “Wolves” is this; we were given an earlier version that I absolutely loved, a version which he scrapped in favor of this one. Some of you may remember Kanye’s appearance on SNL last year where he performed a short medley of songs. The closer of those songs was “Wolves” featuring Sia and Vic Mensa. In this new version Sia and Vic have been replaced by Frank Ocean, who also sounds good on the track, but in comparison with the original version I can’t help but feel like a big chunk is missing. Still, the production is top notch, as it is throughout, making it the only constant on the record. In fact, in that regard, this album actually ranks with some of Kanye’s best work. There are moments in almost every song where he’ll add a sample or transition mid song to a new beat and it’s just brilliant. But when it comes to the transition between tracks it’s anything but smooth. For instance, I’m obsessed with the beat on “Famous” and at the 1:50 mark he completely switches it up with a sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” taking the song to another level. But the following song “Feedback” doesn’t match “Famous” at all in sound or style making it an odd choice for the follow up. Same goes for the relaxed “Highlights” leading into the cinematic and ominous “Freestyle 4,” and so on and so forth.
Ultimately, all four of the songs I just mentioned, and many others, have one thing in common that brings us back to one of my original points; Kanye isn’t at best lyrically, and I can’t seem to get past it. Add that to the fact that the album can’t find a flow to save its life and we’ve got a problem, especially for me, as I put an album’s flow above all else. All of his previous albums defined who he was as an artist at that time. I don’t mean it in the sense that he has reinvented himself with each album, but in the sense that each album plays like a separate stage. He grows emotionally and artistically and as a result expands himself and the sounds he creates. Though he has a discernible style, he presents each album as a new chapter in his life and a new version of himself. Beginning The Life Of Pablo with “Ultralight Beam” felt like another new chapter (and one I’d surely love), but as the album went on it felt as though he was grabbing from his previous work: “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” sounds like Graduation, “Freestyle 4” sounds like Yeezus, “30 Hours” sounds like Late Registration, etc. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the whole time I was thinking what the record would have been if he had just kept with the feel of the opening track and truly made a gospel album (which is what he called this). I think we might have had something really special here. Instead, it feels like he had so many ideas and directions to explore that he finally got tired of trying to make it work, so he just said fuck it and gave us what he had. The only way I can simply explain it is this: imagine you’re watching a movie. The film’s score is on point and beautifully compliments each scene, yet the scenes for some reason are played out of order, and on top of that the dialogue is poor. But then there a few scenes where everything matches up and it hits you how good this film could truly be. That is The Life Of Pablo in a nutshell.
*Since Kanye isn't streaming his album on anything but lowly platform Tidal I uploaded a couple of tracks from the album for you to enjoy*