Life of Pablo
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” So says rap’s Donald Drumpf, Kanye West on his new album and self-proclaimed “greatest ever album” The Life of Pablo. Kanye’s last month of public behavior have certainly put into serious question his current mental health, Kanye is at least self-conscious enough to realize he isn’t the first artist to have some mental instability. Pablo Picasso has been an often made comparison in terms of creativity and behavior, and while on the surface it seems completely crazy to compare Picasso and Kanye, to his credit, Kanye has influenced the last ten years in popular music more than any other artist and has tried his hand in several styles.
But beyond Kanye’s crazy behavior and my hope that he gets help soon, how’s the actual music? A bit to my surprise, it’s actually really great (with a few caveats). First and foremost, The Life of Pablo is one of the best-sounding records I’ve heard. While there are several major hip hop producers on this album (Rick Rubin, Swiss Beatz, Hudson Mohawke, Madlib), Kanye is clearly the man steering the ship and what is largely a very bipolar album (that really falls into four different parts) sound really cohesive. His ability to chop up and mix samples, make songs sound huge, pick the right contributors in every spot, and know how to make a classic music moment, is pretty unparalleled today.
Kanye’s proclamation that The Life of Pablo would be “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it” seems like might actually be the case for the first quarter of the album. “Ultralight Beam” opens the album with a gospel production only Kanye would be bold enough to make. It feels like both a big, uplifting gospel song as well as a signature Kanye track: filled with a huge gospel choir, incredible verses from soul singer Kelli Price and new-kid-on-the-block Chance the Rapper with a dramatic closing prayer from gospel giant Kirk Franklin. It’s vivid and full of life the way the best kind of music is, and thus is the best moment on The Life of Pablo.
Kanye continues his gospel vibes on “Father Stretch my Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt 2” as well as “Lowlights” and “Highlights” before going into unhinged Kanye mode. As I said before, Pablo really splits up into four quarters: the gospel Kanye, ego-maniac Kanye, vulnerable Kanye, and then classic Kanye. The ego-maniac Kanye is not surprisingly the worst portion of the album. Beside an incredible mash-up of samples from Sister Nancy and Nina Simone on “Famous”, the stretch of “Famous”, “Feedback”, parts of “Highlights”, and “Freestyle 4” showcase Kanye’s clumsy and sometimes straight-up bad rap lyrics. Much like parts of his last album Yeezus, Kanye’s rap lyrics haven’t been quite the same over the past couple albums, and even though the music has been maybe as exciting as ever, his lyrics have suffered. The ego-maniac portion of Pablo ends with “I Love Kanye”, an actually fairly clever and surprisingly self-aware freestyle that is Kanye admitting to his self-obsession.
Vulnerable Kanye has always been the best Kanye as few artists are as emotionally bare in their music as Mr. West (in fact, Kanye practically invented Drake, but that’s for another time). “Waves” takes a glimmering wall-of-sound production with a surprisingly great hook from Chris Brown for a tender love song and a sure-fire radio hit. “FML” is Kanye the diary, realizing he can’t fool around if he wants to keep his family together, over a spare synth that echoes the layers of Kanye’s soul. There are several lyrics on this portion of the album that are so crazy truthful you honestly can’t believe you are hearing it. On “FML”, Kanye says “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than this n**** when he off his Lexapro, Remember that last time in Mexico” recounting a past mental breakdown. On “Real Friends” he talks about one of his cousins blackmailing him by stealing one of his computers for $250K that had pictures of other women he had been with. On “30 Hours”, he even admits to how his idea of having an open relationship with presumably his wife Kim Kardashian West has gone horribly wrong. At times it’s really crazy to hear these stories, but its refreshing to hear art that’s so emotionally bare, for better or worse.
The final quarter of Kanye is the return to the fun-loving, hit-making Kanye of old that so many people miss. In many ways, it feels like the encores he does live, which are pretty much medleys of his early hits. “30 Hours” is a throwback to 90’s bass-heavy hip hop like Outkast’s Aquemini, which is fitting since Outkast’s Andre 3000 contributes backup vocals on the track. “No More Parties in LA” combines the best rap producer (Kanye West) with the best rapper on the planet (Kendrick Lamar) to make perfect dynamite that feels like an extension of old-school West Coast rap. It’s the fun-loving Kanye West that was desperately missing on the dark, industrial Yeezus.
While The Life of Pablo certainly has its shortcomings lyrically and at 18 tracks that probably should have been 14, musically it’s absolutely thrilling. Let’s hope Kanye gets back on track mentally and delivers us another ten years of wildly creative, catchy, and honest music.
Can’t Miss: “Ultralight Beam”, “FML”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”, “Wolves”
Can’t Hit: “Freestyle 4”, “Facts”, “Silver Surfer Intermission”