Album Review: Kanye West - The Life of Pablo

Album Reviews
02/24/2016
Casey Dunau

Kanye West is crazy. Or so people like to say with a sort of flippant superiority. Only thing is, this time around on his highly awaited, hotly debated, and incessantly fiddled with latest album, The Life of Pablo, he’s saying it, too. In three separate instances on the record, he declares instability. The first two come in “Feedback”, a song that pays fitting tribute to the ever-mounting tension between perception and persona, and sonically features samples of audio feedback that, like his contentious relationship with the public, begins innocently enough before squealing into terribly unsettling places. Twice in the song he repeats the refrain, “I’ve been out of a my mind a long time”, before trying to compromise with either himself or his audience or both in looking for a half hearted silver lining, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”These first two references to his mental state are vintage Kanye: self-aware and stubborn at the same time. But as usual, the validity of his assessment depends on whether or not you buy the “genius” part, thus dividing listeners into polarizing camps. Of course, the fun of every Kanye album has always been watching him try to prove his bold claims true, at least musically speaking. By the numbers, he’s nearly undefeated in that arena. Over nine LPs (seven solo and two collaborative), he’s maintained a critical and commercial success rate whose closest modern day rival is likely Radiohead. These “Facts”, along with the success of his shoe designs have only emboldened an already historic ego, and in turn, the negative reaction from those still unconvinced of his talent. For a career built on growing haters and faithful followers at the same time, The Life of Pablo feels like the moment when two opposing forces have reached a critical mass.And so brings us to his third mental health update, a breaking point of sorts on the standout track, “FML”. Here, he declares there’s nothing crazier than himself off his Lexapro prescription, and compared to the other two lines, his tone switches on a dime. A key component for anybody lining up on Team Kanye has always been recognizing a sense of humor beneath the ridiculousness. For example, if you’re not picking up a sort of wry self-denigration when he complains of bleach and orange spray tan staining his personal belongings after vapid sexual encounters ("Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" and "No More Parties in LA"), then his music will probably never be for you. But in this instance, there’s very little about having a psychotic break after falling off name brand anti-depressants that is particularly funny. And for fear of playing music blogger psychiatrist, it’s probably enough to say it just sounds sad.

At first glance, that reading feels at odds with Kanye’s own description of the album as gospel music. Certainly, even the most trap oriented songs such as “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” and “Facts” have soulful intros and outros that frame the music with a sense of holy revival. And on the super spiritual “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlights”, the description “gospel” actually sounds like an understatement.  Plus, on paper this approach makes sense. Now married with two kids, it might be fair to expect Yeezus to put down his crown of thorns and count his blessings for much of the album.

But then in "Wolves", there’s an almost paranoid sense of protection: “Cover Nori in lamb’s wool/we surrounded by the fucking wolves.” And on “FML”, endless temptation: “I’ve been waiting/for a minute/for my lady/so I can’t jeopardize that for one of the hos”. Finally, on “Real Friends”, there’s regret: “When was the last time I remembered a birthday/when was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry.” Even sonically, between the creeping strings in "Freestyle 4" and the haunting layers of Caroline Shaw’s stacked vocals in "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2", something feels amiss. If The Life of Pablo is supposed to be Kanye’s attempt at heavenly happiness, then his version of eternal bliss sure feels lonely.

Of course, even the king of gripe has acknowledged that most of his issues are now “champaign problems”. And yet, that doesn’t stop the volatile rapper from sounding off about his southside Chicago roots with blunt urgency and intense repetition (a feature of his rapping style in general on TLOP). Some have connected those hometown references as well as passing lines about police brutality as a less focused attempt to replicate Kendrick Lamar’s epic, To Pimp a Butterfly, but that comparison falls flat on inspection of the two artists’ history. While Kendrick has always leaned towards observing his surroundings, Kanye tends to stays focused on himself. (And jokes about ego aside, his introspective bent is one that Drake has leaned into heavily en route to stardom.) So when Kanye reminds us over and over again on the album that he’s a “Chicago south sider”, it feels less like a global approach to understanding Chiraq as Lamar does Compton, and more like a righteous indignation that even after years of success, his refusal to sever the ties between his culture and his personality still consistently lands him in hot water.

This is, of course, a valid perspective. Few have traveled from a life in one of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods to the gated homes of Mulholland Drive, and fewer have managed to stay artistically relevant once they got there. As uncomfortable as it may be to hear Kanye compare snubs in the high-end fashion world to slavery, it’s exactly that insistence on rapping about his current perspective and reality instead of retracing old steps that keeps each new album interesting. And while his latest headlines can feel like he's grasping at straws for controversy, one gets the sense that staying on top of the music game for the better part of two decades has left him rightfully weary and exhausted.

In this sense, The Life of Pablo feels like one big exhale away from the real world towards a place of attempted spiritual calm. The synths and drums are palatial throughout, lifted at every step by dense but short-tailed reverb. The arrangements are spacious but constantly shifting. With every song, Kanye presents his own personal Valhalla, and by enlisting the likes of nearly every relevant hip-hop and R&B artist (Rihanna, The Weekend, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Young Thug, etc.) he’s hired the world's best guides. It’s a testament to his stature and influence that they each act as such willing and graceful beacons of light as they illuminate beauty at nearly every turn. All in all, the group effort makes The Life of Pablo a stunning place to visit, but amid every strained transition, conflicting emotion, and incomplete thought is the feeling that one could become very lost if they stayed too long.

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