The Life of Pablo is sometimes brilliant and very often baffling. It’s baggy, unfocused and, much like the bizarre Madison Square listening party that preceded its release, lacks any sense of direction and plot. This is naturally a shame, for whatever else can be said about the almost self-parodying egomaniac, none of his previous projects have wanted for vision and concept.
The album has moments that remind you just what a master auteur and lyricist Kanye West can be. The problem is that they are almost always followed up by such indefensible dross that it makes listening to the album from start to finish very infuriating. The opener, Ultralight Beam, would have you believe that this is a Kanye back on form, with its gospel croons and stripped-back production. With the exception of the hokey ‘Pray for Paris/Pray for the parents’ line, it is an engaging and affecting start. Kanye has never been much of a singer, but somehow he makes it work here, despite being completely flat. It almost sounds, dare I say it, tasteful.
But then you have ‘Father Stretch my Hands Part 1’, with perhaps one of the most uninspired trap beats going this year (and there are a few of them), dire DIRE autotune and some odiously cringeworthy lyrics, even by Kanye’s hilariously poor standards. ‘Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/And I get bleach on my t-shirt/I might just feel like an asshole.’ Kanye West has previously compared himself to Shakespeare, which makes sense, for as the above demonstrates, Mr West clearly shares the Bard’s uncanny knack for articulating inner turmoil.
It’s almost not even worth expanding on the rabid misogyny of ‘Famous’, a track which has already caused a stir for its line about making Taylor Swift, you guessed it, famous. Worse than offensive, the writing on this track is just lazy. Swizz Beats provided an excellent, heavy beat but it’s totally wasted on a rapper who spends the track riffing on Puerto Rican floats and his penis, an appendage that has come up (no pun intended) in West’s music so often I wonder if its liable to release its own solo album.
Five tracks in and there is still no sign as to what this album is about. Is it about fame? Is it about the creative process? Is it about Kanye’s penis? Needless to say, the aesthetic is similarly confused and jarring. For example, ‘Feedback’ could well be an offcut from Yeezus with its minimalist, harsh production and raw energy but this is immediately followed up by ‘Low Lights’, a beatless track that features an (as far as I know) unnamed speaker with ‘Praise the Lord’-style sermonising about her life and the struggles she has faced. It’s sudden changes like this that make it seem as though you aren’t listening to one album but have instead selected shuffle on a playlist of mediocre 2016 hip-hop which, by and large, this album is made up of.
There are positives to be taken from the album, however. The adlib ‘I Love Kanye’ shows that the rapper and producer is not beyond self-scrutiny, much like the smartly introspective ‘Real Friends’ that finds Kanye West pondering about his own celebrity in a way that isn’t simply self-aggrandizing but mature and human. ‘FML’ is also a worthy listen, with some tense, stop-start pacing and a well-chosen hook from The Weeknd, who is a reliably apt addition to a track about self-loathing and destructive behaviour.
Then there’s ‘No More Parties in L.A.’ This deserves special mention because it’s not just good, it’s exceptional. Perhaps he didn’t want to be outshined by Kendrick Lamar (who always attempts and usually succeeds at besting other rappers on their own material), but Kanye is brilliant here. The delivery, the confidence, the hunger – it’s all there. It’s difficult not to get excited by lines like ‘I know some fans who thought that I wouldn’t rap like this again/but the writer’s block is over MCs cancel your plans’. Unfortunately, given the lacklustre work that features on the rest of this record I doubt Kanye’s contemporaries will be cancelling anything soon.
The rest of the album doesn’t really bear much serious analysis. From its dodgy MS-Paint artwork, its disjointed track selection, and its vaguely Biblical title (which, in the course of the album’s 58-minute runtime is never expounded upon), The Life of Pablo is both restless and undisciplined. In a way, it’s the perfect reflection of the creative mind that birthed it. Kanye West still has plenty to say, but right now he seems incapable of marshalling his ideas coherently and effectively.
As has been speculated upon, Kanye West could just be trolling everyone. In an age as cynical and narcissistic as this one, there is a distinct possibility that this is all some carefully curated publicity stunt, but I honestly doubt it. There are some great tracks here but nothing to prevent non-diehards from continuing to mockingly regard Kanye West for what he seems intent on becoming – a punchline to a joke he’s neither privy to, nor could possibly comprehend.