I should start this off with a quick disclaimer. Much has been said/discussed/tweeted in regards to Kanye West’s recent antics, for lack of a better word: the Twitter beef, the BILL COSBY INNOCENT debacle, the talk of multi-(like, multi-) million dollar debt. Shoutout Mark Zuckerberg. Point being, there are smarter, more in-the-loop writers than myself who have taken on the latest of Kanye’s non-musical exploits. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on The Life Of Pablo, West’s latest release, in terms of its musical impact. And besides, it would take weeks for me to organize all of my thoughts on “Kanye the Public Figure” into a coherent piece of writing.
Herein lies the paradox of Kanye West. He’s a larger than life figure, one who is often seen as controversial, abrasive, offensive, or out of touch with non-Kardashian reality. For many, this type of public perception would spell career death. Hell, even Kanye became a pariah following everyone’s favourite instance of stage-storming. So why do we care about him so much?
The answer, simply, is because Kanye isn’t known to make merely “good” (or, G. O. O. D.) music; he makes great, groundbreaking, huge, ambitious, creative albums – whole pieces of art that pull from countless influences, sampling songs other musicians wouldn’t dare touch (“Blood on the Leaves” or “Gold Digger,” for example), or simply would never even think to use. Seriously, how many rappers can say they turned a damn King Crimson sample into a song as fierce as “Power”?
Which is exactly why, despite all the often-negative chatter about West recently, the release of The Life Of Pablo has rightly been treated as a monumental event in the music world. Each of Kanye’s previous solo releases have added elements to his mystique, leaving fans wondering what new ground Pablo would break. To briefly summarize:
The College Dropout (2004) – “This pink polo and backpack-wearing producer is pretty good at rapping!” Right from the start, West’s ambition to be considered among the greats was clear – “Jesus Walks” isn’t the work of someone who’s just happy to be here.
Late Registration (2005) – This “pretty good rapper” dropped “Gold Digger,” “Touch the Sky,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” “Hey Mama,” and two versions of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” on us. That speaks for itself.
Graduation (2007) – Heftily outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis, which was released on the same day, despite 50 being the face of rap for much of the 2000s. Featured some of West’s most commercially-accessible work in “Stronger” and “Good Life”, and cemented his status as a rap icon.
808s & Heartbreak (2008) – The one that threw us all for a loop: openly-emotional lyrics and Auto-Tuned crooning over cold, barren beats. Underappreciated, if you forget that all it did was make Drake and 90% of today’s popular rappers possible (just take my word for it). “Say You Will” is the perfect album opener for 808s, which signaled a paradigm shift in the direction of the genre.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) – A masterpiece from start to finish, and one of the great albums of our time. Every beat, guest verse, and public moment of self-reflection is precisely presented. Sonically, Kanye’s most cohesive and satisfying work.
Yeezus (2013) – An unpredictable, often self-indulgent ride that gets better with each listen. Takes the ear-pleasing aspects of MBDTF and gives them two middle fingers, presumably while making some sort of obscene sexual comment.
This brings us to The Life Of Pablo. Upon listening to each of Kanye’s previous solo releases, there has always been an immediate sense that you were witnessing something important. As detailed above, each preceding album has felt like a step forward in terms of West’s style, braggadocio, vulnerability, etc. More importantly, each preceding album has felt fresh, necessary. TLOP, however, has failed to leave that same first impression.
Now don’t get me wrong – this is a very good album. There are more “very good” songs than not, and a few true standouts as well. “Ultralight Beam” is beautiful, with lush production and gospel influences providing the foundation for Chance the Rapper to lay down perhaps the album’s best verse. “Real Friends” would have fit in seamlessly on either 808s or MBDTF. “No More Parties In LA” is a gloriously catchy showcase for a) Kendrick Lamar to remind the world how he makes greatness sound easy, and b) for Kanye to go off in ways reminiscent of Late Registration.
Aside from this “very good” content, though, what we get is an album that takes a step sideways: not a negative thing, but not the same trend-setting release we’ve come to expect from Kanye as an artist. Instead, what we get is a nod to both Kanye’s past work, and to the work of this era’s prominent artists. There are the aforementioned throwback sounds of “Real Friends” and “No More Parties In LA”; glimpses of Yeezus in “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”; “I Love Kanye” would have fit in as skit on The College Dropout; and so on.
In addition to revisiting past sounds, there is plenty to be found on TLOP that makes sense in the context of today’s rap scene. Contributions to the album come from a seemingly endless list of big names:
- Drake shares co-writing credits on two songs, and “Facts” is essentially Kanye’s take on “Jumpman”
- It would have been a glaring omission not to feature King Kendrick Lamar
- The Weeknd shows up to continue his world domination
- Chance the Rapper was important enough to apparently delay the album’s release, and it wouldn’t be crazy to predict that his presence on TLOP launches his career to new heights
- Without Future actually appearing on the album, his patented sound (i.e., Auto-Tuned mumbling) is well-represented by Kid Cudi and Desiigner on various occasions
- Post Malone (the “White Iverson” guy) is here, so good for him, I guess
- Plus: Rihanna, Ty Dolla $ign, Chris Brown, Young Thug, and the teased expectation of an André 3000 verse (instead we got André’s “backing vocals” on “30 Hours,” which was like expecting a Tesla and receiving a rusty tricycle instead)
The lyrics to “Famous” even have something for the social media buffs of the world:
So what does this mash-up of talents and styles leave us with? Well, it’s pretty much what you would expect given the circumstances. TLOP is all over the map in terms of themes, cohesiveness, and sound. In many ways, it’s both a tribute to where Kanye has come from, and to those he has inspired along the way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but again, it doesn’t add up to the “instant classic” sound that was so apparent from the start on West’s previous albums.
Years from now, context and hindsight may give us a better appreciation of TLOP – and honestly, it sounds better now than it did a week ago. But for those hoping for the next MBDTF, the album may leave something to be desired. The beauty of Kanye West, though, is that we can usually count on his music to fulfill these desires in one way or another.
Just, you know, leave Taylor Swift out of it from now on.