Kanye West ‘The Life of Pablo’ – Review

15 Feb

Man I wish I loved the new Kanye West record. Failing that, I wish I hated it. I wish it perplexed me as much as ‘Yeezus’ did. I wish it moved me as much as ‘808s and Heartbreak’ did. And how ever unlikely, I wish it rocked my world as much as ‘College dropout’ did. Those distant days of 2004, when I downloaded the mp3 files of that album on to the school computer and played them on a very old version of real player, feel like a lifetime ago. Kanye’s been able to turn on that very same tap time after time after time, with each subsequent album being a beacon of inspiration. Each one has awoken a sense of discovery and rediscovery in the way only a handful of artists have ever been able to do. The Beatles of course and then Bowie, Neil Young, Dylan, Radiohead, Prince and MJ. Artists defined by reinvention. All those artists powers gradually diminished, although never disappeared. These runs don’t last forever. After ‘John Wesley Harding’ Dylan released ‘Nashville Skyline’, a good record but hardly a classic in the same breath as its predecessor. After ‘Lovesexy’ Prince put out the Batman soundtrack (ok, maybe the dropping off slope was pretty steep for him). After twelve years of restless creativity ‘The Life of Pablo’ signals that Kanye is at this point in his career.

Which is not to say that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a bad album, far from it, it’s just the first one that doesn’t wear the label ‘classic’. I actually like it a lot more than ‘Yeezus’, it just wont ignite the sameextreme reactions. It isn’t groundbreaking or innovative. It isn’t flawless. It isn’t a work of genius. Initially, It’s hard to see what the album’s unique selling point actually is. It’s the first record in Kanye’s discography that doesn’t immediately convey a new personality. Instead it can be viewed as a compilation of past flavours. Some songs veer towards the minimalist nihilism of ‘Yeezy’ whilst others are minimalist in the more emotionally vulnerable vein of ‘808s and Heartbreaks.’ The album’s length and sonic ambition recalls the opulent grandeur of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ but in tone it feels much closer to ‘Late Registration’. Then there are the interludes that recall ‘College Dropout’s’ tiresome skits.

It surely would have been better for Kanye to make good on ‘Ultralight Beam’s gospel promise that is curtailed after track two. Otherwise only the feel good ‘Waves’ adds gravitas to Kanye’s argument that ‘The Life of Pablo’ is a gospel album. These songs are without doubt the most interesting new developments on here. But he is an artist prone to greatness, even when he’s as inconsistent and scatterbrained as he is here. ‘The Life of Pablo’ is constantly engaging, even when it provokes negative reactions, and almost always enjoyable at the very least.

As ever Kanye West is the master ringmaster and he’s worked with a stellar army of collaborators. From the heralded (Chance the Rapper, Rick Rubin, Madlib, Andre 3000, Pharrell, Rihanna, The Weeknd) to the more obscure (Donnie Trumpet, Cashmere Cat, Mike Dean, Karriem Riggins). ‘No More Parties in LA’ features Kendrick Lamar, who is undeniably the best rapper in the world right now. Indeed, last year’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is, along with ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, a candidate for the best hip hop album of all time. As soon as Kendrick arrives with his verse he blows everyone else out of the water and Kanye is briefly made to look like an average joe at his own party. When Kanye takes over the mic a couple of minutes in to the song he is reserved, as he is for much of the album. But then he builds up steam and unleashes perhaps the best two minutes of pure rap he’s delivered in many years. It’s like 2004 all over again – he’s funny, dramatic, technically superb and a hurricane of ego, personality and controversy. Everything that’s amazing about Kanye flowers from the crack in the pavement. And then the song ends abruptly. And then ‘Facts’ begins. And then we’re back in 2016.

‘Facts’ is surely the worst thing Kanye has ever put on an album (though not as poor as last year’s shocking ‘All Day’), something that seems to be universally accepted by fans and critics alike. It’s not hard to put your finger on why the song goes so drastically wrong. To start with the beat is bland and the bassline is uncharacteristically cold, un-melodic and un-kanye like. Then there’s the rapping. He’s ripping Drake off and it’s embarrassing. This is Kanye West, he doesn’t need to be Drake. Surely he knows that better than anyone? Then there’s the fact he’s spends four minutes dissing Nike whilst defending Bill Crosby. Something tells me the audience’s empathy will be in short supply. After ‘Facts’ comes ‘Fade’ which features some classic house samples and virtually no Kanye. The song has absolutely nothing to say (about Nike or Bill Cosby or anything). I guess it’s fine. Ok,  It’s a pale version of ‘Yeezus’ closer ‘Bound 2’ but it sounds cool. Then that’s it. The album is over. This three song stretch just about sums up this messy album. Mostly enjoyable, sporadically excellent and, every now and then, utter garbage.

This being a Kanye album, there are moments of controversy. Yesterday I saw a tweet that asked ‘mysogony is not ok, why do we forget our feminism as soon as it comes to Kanye West?’ And it’s a pertinent question. He can defend his use of the word ‘bitch’ all he wants but I don’t buy it. He uses the word as a crutch because he can’t be bothered to think of more syllables. It isn’t ok. Even harder to defend is the way he talks about women generally, like how he casually dismisses Taylor Swift (again!) on ‘Famous’, not to mention how he speaks about his own wife and the women he’s slept with. Everyone must worship at the alter of Kanye. ‘Yeezus’ was the first time his misogyny made me deeply uncomfortable, mainly because his delivery lacked the self awareness and context he had provided on previous albums. His language throughout ‘The Life of Pablo’ is equally jarring and increasingly harder to look past.

One of the great things about ‘808s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was that Kanye wrestled with and dissected the wild personality that he had crafted on his first, great trilogy of albums. He sounded self-aware, increasingly confident, mature and willing to unpack that madness and the genius that made him tick. I don’t hear that same conflict on ‘The Life of Pablo’. I hear a man who is quite literally deluded; who brags, who ridicules, who demeans and who often sounds unhinged. ‘Name one genius that ain’t crazy’ he says at one point. I get his message but I’m not sure that’s a get out of jail free card. As on ‘Yeezus’, it’s actually a barrier preventing me from loving this album.

There are other barriers. It feels disappointingly apolitical, which considering what’s going on in America right now, and in the light of recent albums by Kendrick and Run the Jewels Is disappointing. A vague ‘pray for Paris’ is as close as we get to a political message. More crucially, it feels unfinished. Of course Kanye was working on his music right up until the deadline, chopping and changing the track listing as If he was never quite sure of what he was trying to say. This time last year he premiered ‘Wolves’ and called it the opener to the album ‘So Help Me God’. This time last week it was the mellow closer to a suave ten track record called ‘Waves’. Finally it’s been slotted somewhere in the middle of ‘The Life of Pablo’. The tone, sound and content has radically altered so many times but in the end he’s thrown it all at the wall to see what would stick.

It’s perhaps instructive to approach ‘The Life of Pablo’ as Kanye’s White Album – an extended assortment of every style he’s toyed with before, amalgamated in a seemingly random order, and tackled with an unprecedented looseness and freedom of spirt. There are minimalist ballads (‘FML’), jams (freestyles are basically jams right?) pop crowd pleasers (‘Famous’) bizarre interludes (‘Silver Surfer Intermission’) throwaways (‘FACTS’) an avant grade sample (’30 Hours’) and an ambitious multi-part suite (Father Stretch My Hands). It may not pack quite the same punch as that aforementioned classic but then what does?

Kanye once claimed that ‘Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was perfection, well ‘The Life of Pablo, like The White Album before it, is anti-perfection. The very public and and protracted roll out may perhaps have been a ploy to make this anti-perfection strategy super-dooper clear. He is a father now after all, as well as a fashion designer, video game maker (if you do anything today make sure you check out ‘Only One’) and a general ideas man. Who has the time to make a masterpiece anyway? ‘The Life of Pablo’ might not be one but it’s still more interesting, provocative, infuriating and enjoyable than just about anything released since his last album. I may not love it, or hate it, but when it comes to Kanye the middle ground is a pretty fascinating place.

8.5/10

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