After all the stalling, after all the controversy, after all the changes, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo finally arrived (before being taken away, again). It comes following a preview of what was supposedly the album in its entirety at Madison Square Garden last week. Released to the world via TIDAL with yet another change to the track listing, do we finally have a better understanding of Kanye West and The Life of Pablo?
Kanye West is a complex character. A very misunderstood individual. But the truth is, he doesn’t give us much to work with in terms of understanding his genius. And before the haters jump in to slander the Chicago native simply because of his, at times, questionable actions and arrogant outbursts, you might want to peep this man’s back catalogue. Without Kanye there would be no Jay Z The Blueprint, no Be by Common, no Big Sean, no Watch The Throne. Hell, if you’re a true Hip Hop fan and you want to take it back, there would be no ‘The Truth’ by Beanie Sigel.
Musically, Kanye West is top tier. He’s a part of that upper echelon only a few will find ever themselves in. However, somewhere between 2010 and 2013 - after releasing the seminal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - he began a transformation. One that saw a personality conflict bloom. One minute he was a God, the next he was a slave. He went from physically attacking photographers to verbally taking pop shots at some of the fashion community’s most admired names. He released the “black punk rock” album Yeezus in 2013 to fanfare from those that bought into the rebellious never-smiling new persona he was selling, yet fans of Ye’s earlier work - the sample-based production and comical lyrical content that put him on the map - were not impressed.
More Hollywood than Hip Hop, The Life of Pablo continues along the same lines as Yeezus in terms of lyrical content - on Ye’s part at least - but it sounds more like a mashup of Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 808s & Heartbreak.
So what does that mean? The old Kanye we all know and love is back… well, sort of. Able to take the piss out of himself at various points throughout the 18 track album, just in time for the Valentine’s Day memes he takes a moment on ‘I Love Kanye’ to play up to the stereotype that no one could love him more than he loves himself - “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”
Returning to the “old Kanye”, album standouts include the previously released ‘Real Friends’, featuring Ty Dolla $ign, a song that hears Ye discuss the struggles of finding real friends in an industry where hidden agendas are all the rage. The popping drum taps and echoing backdrop helps the listener breathe a sigh of relief realising that Kanye is still capable of creating something that doesn’t involve his inflating ego.
Then there’s the newly released G.O.O.D. Friday record, ’30 Hours’. Sounding like something that wouldn’t have been out of place on the critically acclaimed Late Registration, some may question Ye going back creatively but when it sounds this good does it really matter? Produced by Karrim Riggins, the soulful direction the instrumental takes is simply frustrating because as a listener, you know Ye is capable of making an entire album like this.
Finding his lyrical confidence once again with a multitude of quotables - “Well, I guess a blow job is better than no job” - this is Kanye West at his best.
Always searching for the next new sound, Kanye doesn’t achieve this as successfully as he has in previous years. On ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2’, he even goes as far as to hop on the trap bandwagon with the current trap king Future. However, ‘Ultralight Beam’ is a stroke of genius. Before the album dropped, Kanye stated that The Life of Pablo was a gospel album. While the majority of the album doesn't fit this description, ‘Ultralight Beam’ does, in the non-conventional sense at least. Built around a gathering of deep synths and intermittent drum kicks, faith is the order of the day. More like a Chance The Rapper record featuring Kanye West, The-Dream and Kelly Price, there’s absolutely no denying the beauty in this particular song and there’s no denying Chance’s storytelling superiority.
Put it this way: some high profile celebrities have taken to Twitter since the release of The Life of Pablo to explain that ‘Ultralight Beam’ brought a tear to their eye. Its human appeal is very real.
The Life of Pablo still acts as a springboard for some standard Kanye West extravagant nonsense. On ‘Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’ he raps, “Now if I fuck this model and she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my t-shirt I’ma feel like an asshole.” While autotune overkill ‘Highlights’ - which sounds like Ye might have taken a bit of beat direction from DJ Mustard - is almost unbearable to listen to.
Other moments of excellence include the eerie strings heard on ‘Freestyle 4’, which also hears the braddocious and shocking Ye at his best - “What if we fuck right in the middle of this dinner table?” And taking a whole other direction all together, album closer ‘Faded’, featuring Ty Dolla $ign and ‘White Iverson’ rapper Post Malone, hears Ye embrace his home city’s greatest musical export, Chicago house music. A great record with an addictive groove, the clubs of Ibiza are going to be going nuts for this one.
Last week’s preview of The Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden was a clever move by Kanye. It was his very own feedback session. Taking note of the blogs and social media, the album went from 10 tracks to 18. Re-adding the Kendrick Lamar fan favourite ‘No More Parties in LA’, as well as a new version of ‘Wolves’, featuring Frank Ocean, The Life of Pablo is better now than it was just a week ago. Always pushing the envelope, even when it comes to the delivery of a project. Bravo Kanye. Bravo. There are glimpses of greatness, but is it enough?