The already infamous album rollout of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo was truly something to behold. It was drawn-out yet oddly sudden, patchy and shambolic yet somehow seemingly pre-planned. With reports dating that the album would be released as far back as late 2013, West has, without desiring to or not, strung along his fanbase for the better part of three years. Within that time, there wasn’t really much to get too excited about. A cameo here and there, some helping out with Big Sean, a few 2015 singles all vastly different and in some regards, kinda lacking that special Kanye ‘oomph’. Not to mention, West’s fashion industry ambitions were bizarre and perplexing at best. Then, we get to the actual release of the album. With at least four different album titles, multiple track-listings, and a number of lyrical rewrites happening days before the album’s release (and still to this day, ongoing), the impression that is unnavoidable is that Kanye West really doesn’t know what he wants out of his new album, or indeed, his new direction. The eventual release of the album, which should have been met with relief, was instead met with further groans, with The Life Of Pablo being released a tad belated, and filled with terms and conditions. Kanye West pulled a fast one on the world by announcing that its release would be exclusive to Tidal. Consequently, as a surprise to no-one, The Life Of Pablo has become one of the fasted illegal downloads in recent memory. But all this confusion, all this bureaucracy and bullshit can be easily forgotten if the album is a masterpiece, it’s worked before (look at how My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy silenced the naysayers…for a while at least). And is it? Is The Life Of Pablo West’s latest masterwork? To put it bluntly, no. The thing is however, it knows it isn’t.
An easy word with which to describe The Life Of Pablo would be “fragmented”. Not only with song structure, instrumental purpose, and themes, but sadly also, quality. Opener Ultralight Beam is a opener of suitable grandness for Kanye, replete with soaring gospel choirs and a scene-stealing turn from Chance The Rapper. The instrumental also succeeds, with its subtle and minor key pulse hearkening back to 808s & Heartbreak, before an uplifting brass section arrives late in to ascend the song to a higher plane. In many respects, Ultralight Beam, despite being a good song does not really reflect the remainder of the album, which zig-zags in all directions from here on out. Whether it be for better, like on the refreshingly minimalist Feedback, which features some of Kanye’s best and catchiest vocal and lyrical performances on the album, or worse, like on the well-intentioned but poorly executed Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & 2, (home to such stunningly obtuse lyrics as: “I just fucked this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get bleach on my tee-shirt/Imma feel like an asshole”). 30 Hours is a great tune with some good lyric and a smooth beat, but also features a relatively pointless 3 minute talking outro. Kind of like what West did on Last Call, but NOT grand or relevant in the slightest. The concluding two tracks Facts and Fade are abysmal at best, even with an updated production quality on the former. Thankfully, the dream team collaboration of West, Kendrick Lamar and Madlib yields fruitful results on the terrific No More Parties In LA, which features West’s best rapping on the entire album and some of his sharpest lines ever.
Real Friends still stands as the album’s most resolutely perfect moment. An arrestingly gorgeous four minutes of disarming beauty amid a maelstrom of hit and miss displays and at times cringey showcases. Real Friends is also definitely the most relatable of all tracks from The Life Of Pablo, with it detailing the frustrations and realities of losing touch with the ones you care about as life progresses. And while this can be tied to Kanye’s other lyrical endeavours throughout the album, Real Friends feels the most, dare I say it, real. Closely following this emotional honesty is FML, a track which paints a grim and sobering picture of a 38 year old Kanye attempting to address his tumultuous life. Revealing that he is trying hard to juggle fatherhood, creativity, and being a husband, and how that can all be placed in jeopardy by his vices, is as serious as it is moving. The dark, submerged instrumentation assists in the creation of this feel, as well as the creation of another stellar track. The real emotional core lies with Kanye’s auto-tune-drenched exclamation that “They don’t want to see me love you”, addressing his relationship to wife Kim Kardashian, in an obviously honest fashion that showcases just how much he cares for her.
While it is very clear that The Life Of Pablo is far removed from West’s albums of 10 years ago, one thing that has returned from those albums are the skits. And while I Love Kanye may be concisely brilliant as it is realistic and affecting, something like the rambling, directionless, inconsequential Silver Surfer Intermission is beyond filler, and shows a real lack of thought. The Life Of Pablo might just be his own version of an elaborate mixtape, like what If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late was for Drake. But whereas that was direct and focused, The Life Of Pablo seems only half sold on its idea to be a gritty mixtape, leading to a lopsided end product. And while it is possible to admire Kanye’s approach, with his short, abrasive tracks like Freestyle 4, there are more flaws to be found in this decision.
Kanye knows he is a divisive figure, he knows that he is a genius, and he knows a lot of other people do too. He also knows that he is an asshole, and even more are willing to call him one. And like never before, he has embraced this identity wholeheartedly on The Life Of Pablo. Everything about it, from its teasing marketing, to its unnecessary ‘Taylor Swift incident’ flame-warring on the faux-club track Famous, to its shameless business ploy to encourage people to get Tidal subscriptions, it is like Kanye West is saying to everyone out there, “So you think I’m asshole hey? Well fine! I’ll be an asshole! That’s what you wanted right?”
With the album’s title…West tries to connect himself to art, but also to drugs and crime. With this lightness and darkness, it is obvious that he is succinctly attempting to cover both facets of his identity. This metaphor can also be applied to the album itself, with its flashes of genius rubbing up alongside veritable head-scratchers. And while that may be the point, to create an album of disunity to highlight a conflicted personality, that does necessary mean everything is justified. Quality still needs to be essential in some way, shape, or form. And while Kanye West and The Life Of Pablo assuredly has it to a certain extent, as a whole project it never comes off as truly convincing. Almost seeming like he purposefully didn’t try. By no means is The Life Of Pablo a bad album, and it can only be seen as disappointing given the album’s strange rollout, and Kanye West’s staggeringly phenomenal track record. But a seventh straight masterpiece from Kanye West? No. Sure, we all sound like entitled assholes if greatness is what we expect, but its hard not to want that isn’t it?