When it comes to the caustically brilliant hip-hop star Kanye West, the signal accomplishment of a major new work seems forever in danger of being subsumed by the background noise that surrounds him. Yet even by that standard, The Life of Pablois a remarkable case of highly orchestrated chaos.
Since debuting the project during a heavily publicized Madison Square Garden listening session that was live-streamed and doubled as an Adidas-sponsored showcase for his Yeezy Season 3 fashion line, West has continued to alter TLOP, from adding and removing verses, to altering arrangements and track titles.
The sweetened chipmunk soul that made Kanye’s College Dropout raps slip into our ears like a palliative, Kanye has now become an artist we either love or hate
To explain his motivations — he’s mostly stopped giving interviews after his infamous debacle at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards –- he has relied on his Twitter account, where he has 20 million followers. “Fixing Wolves 2day… Worked on it for three weeks,”he wrote on March 15 in reference to the TLOP track “Wolves.” “Life of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression. #contemporaryart.”
History is littered with examples of musicians changing an album after its release. In 1993, Snoop Dogg removed “Gz Up, Hoes Down” from Doggystyle when Isaac Hayes threatened to sue over an unauthorized sample of Hayes’ “The Look of Love.” In 2002, Nas removed “Braveheart Party” from Stillmatic after Mary J. Blige, who sang the hook on that track, complained about the song’s misogynistic tone.
Even West has a few previous examples of this, thanks to a well-documented perfectionist streak. He leaked “Home,” which featured John Legend on the chorus, on his 2003 mixtape Get Well Soon; and then re-titled it “Homecoming” and replaced Legend with Coldplay’s Chris Martin for his 2007 album Graduation. (Cue the British-born Martin humming about Chicago and Lake Michigan.)
Kanye’s evolution speaks to one of his greatest talents: His uncanny ability to channel our cultural mood
In the past, manufacturing delays at pressing plants ensured that a revised album on compact disc, vinyl record (or cassette!) would take weeks, if not months, to reach the public. But this process has been accelerated with the slow demise of physical product, and the rise of streaming services. Now, West can shorten “Feedback’s” run time from 2:36 to a 2:27 differently, split Frank Ocean’s closing vocal on “Wolves” into a new interlude called “Frank’s Track,” and have the results appear online within hours. As he tinkers with bits and pieces of The Life of Pablo, he has left fans and a media landscape struggling to keep up with the ever-changing results.
“Mr. West has turned the album release process –- historically a predictably structured event, and lately written by stars like Beyoncè as precise, sudden assault –- into a public conversation, one taking place on Twitter, YouTube, Periscope and in Madison Square Garden,”wrote Jon Caramanica in The New York Times. Yet West not only adapts such old-world techniques as fixing an album post-release to our post-millennial demands for instant gratification, he also fuses that strategy with his burgeoning celebrity to become a trending topic amidst the cacophonous noise that circulates through our Internet-dictated pop culture. Whether actually listening to The Life of Pablo is worth our time or not, we seem to care about this “living breathing changing creative expression.”
‘The Life of Pablo’ Is Kanye’s Movie
West doesn’t break from his two-decade artistic trajectory on The Life of Pablo. He continues to envelop his rhymes about struggling with fame with a spiritual fervor, a theme that dates from The College Dropout and “Jesus Walks” to TLOP’s “Ultralight Beam.” He continues to praise and slander women with brutal candor on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt.1” and “Famous,” the same as he’s done since “The New Workout Plan” and “All Falls Down.” Judging by his cursory defense of alleged sexual predator Bill Cosby on TLOP’s “Facts,” he continues to indulge in a good conspiracy theory now and then, continuing a pattern that dates back to 2005’s “Heard ‘Em Say” and his belief that “I know that the government administers AIDS.”
Kanye has fashioned himself as the ultimate pop iconoclast
While West strikes familiar lyrical notes, he finds new ways to render his music more abrasively and pointedly. He underlines his introspective singing about revealing the layers to his soul on “FML” with a synthesizer loop from post-punk obscurity Section 25’s “Hit,” and swathes a freestyle on “Feedback” with circulating guitar noise. To paraphraseSusan Sarandon’s controversial comments on the 2016 presidential election, West sharpens his contradictions by matching his provocations with jarring and noncommercial music. This is partly thanks to his prodigious use of co-producers, songwriters and guest vocalists that supply him with unusual and outré sonic ideas.
No longer a man we can tolerate for the sweetened chipmunk soul that made his College Dropout raps slip into our ears like a palliative, West has become an artist we either love or hate. His evolution speaks to one of his greatest talents: His uncanny ability to channel our cultural mood. In an era when politicians bait the public with populist rhetoric, and college campuses roil over race and gender debates, Kanye West has fashioned himself as the ultimate pop iconoclast.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I gave TLOP a fairly negative reviewon another website, and called it “his worst album.” Many critics, such as one at Rolling Stone, showered TLOP with hosannas while The Guardian gave it qualified praise. Objectively, TLOP appears to produce more fractious response than the widely acclaimed Yeezus. However, I’ve encountered plenty of music fans who hated Yeezus, too, and don’t like how West has recently pushed his music to extremes.
Hilariously, West mocks our lingering nostalgia over his golden years on “I Love Kanye”
Let’s set aside that “worst album” opinion for the moment. For the sake of this article, the key takeaway from my earlier piece is when I write, “It’s how West manages TLOP with an artless ineptitude that belies his well-deserved reputation as one of the most inspired musical conceptualists in recent memory.” But what if the confusion he sows throughout TLOP isn’t a result of “ineptitude,” but entirely intentional?
Hilariously, West mocks our lingering nostalgia over his golden years on “I Love Kanye.” “I miss the old Kanye/Straight from the go Kanye/Chop up the soul Kanye,” he riffs in a third person voice. “I hate the new Kanye/The bad mood Kanye/The always rude Kanye/Spazz in the news Kanye.” West has moved on, even though much of his audience has not.
Kanye Throws Shade, Plays With Prettiness
One of the most poignant songs on TLOP is “Real Friends.” Co-produced by Havoc of Mobb Deep, Boi-1da, and Frank Dukes, it finds him admitting he’s a “deadbeat cousin” at family reunions and asks himself, “When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?” West is supported with a well-placed hook from Ty Dolla $ign, who specializes in street-oriented R&B, and the kind of down-home sentiments that West, for all his “honesty,” seems increasingly removed from.
“Real Friends” is one of the rare moments on TLOP where he confronts his feelings and emotions honestly. He spends most of the album channeling his inner turmoil and some of his most brutal putdowns at women. “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life/I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right,” he claims on “30 Hours.” He raps on “Wolves,” “I know there’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow/I know there’s corny niggas you wish you could unswallow,” and then repeats the phrase three times, as if he’s charmed by it. But West is much better at displaying his humanity through his musical arrangements, like “30 Hours’ ” use of a warm and melancholy Arthur Russell vocal sample, and Caroline Shaw’s ghostly chorus on “Wolves.”
West’s achievement on TLOP is a structural one. It’s akin to a shattered Tiffany vase, with shards of prettiness that cut against our sensibilities. We can hear his longing for an idealized Chicago youth in his use of deep house on “Low Lights” and “Fade,” and his tributes to distant family members on “Real Friends.” On “No More Parties in L.A.,” he wonders, “When did I become famous?/I wasn’t even on A-list.” He hides these moments of lucidity in discordant sounds and lyrics that muddy our impressions of his intentions. “Famous” juts from a Rihanna vocal to a churchy keyboard dirge, and then a swatch of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam.”
Perhaps he means to reassure us by offering “Ultralight Beam,” an ecstatic swirl of religious testimonial featuring gospel star Kirk Franklin and R&B singer Kelly Price. Isn’t he the same Jesus-loving man we met on The College Dropout so many years ago?
Yet West has changed. He makes a corporate ad for current benefactor Adidas on “Facts,” and subverts Drake & Future’s “Jumpman” into a dis against former client Nike and its iconic Michael Jordan brand. He throws shade on all those “second class bitches that wouldn’t let me on first base” when he wasn’t famous on “No More Parties in L.A.” He refers to his wife Kim and the rest of the Kardashian clan as a “superstar family” and “the new Jacksons.” It’s too late to turn back now.