Only once in a generation do we bear witness to an artist with the ability to reshape the zeitgeist with every successive work. In 2016 we lost one such visionary when David Bowie suddenly and tragically departed, leaving us - as only he could - with a death-by-art masterstroke in the form of his final album Black Star. Fittingly for a year that has seen such an artist depart, 2016 also sees the long-awaited and breathlessly anticipated musical return of Kanye West, a man who in many respects continues in the legacy of Bowie, Jackson, Sinatra, and all the esteemed company of the most revered and revolutionary artists across music’s history.
During the barren stretch after 2013’s firebrand fresh start Yeezus, we wrote about West and the fascinating corner he painted himself into with that release. Sonically unique, utterly compelling, and completely original, it was an album destined to be imitated but never equaled or attempted again in quite the same way. At the time, we remarked that ”the controversial artist seems poised to make one of his boldest and most divisive records yet” and pondered “how well West will be able to channel [his passion and ambition] into consistently cohesive, relevant and meaningful music” with his next release. Both sentiments seem apt as we listen to West’s long awaited seventh solo album, the 18 track behemoth The Life of Pablo.
It’s interesting to read that piece now, written as it was at a time when Only One, FourFiveSeconds, All Day, and Wolves were the only new songs we had to indicate which direction West would take on his next record. Such different songs would indeed have been strange to hear set alongside one another on any record. As it turns out, Wolves is the only such track that made the cut, though the other songs have since been replaced by an even more bizarre mix of genre archetypes and head-spinning stylistic innovations. After innumerable delays, Pablo may be even stranger than anyone could have predicted; certainly bold, undeniably divisive, and with a circus-like release and promotional strategy that is by now as famous as the music itself.
The purpose of this review is not to go over the many particulars of Pablo’s messy and bizarre rollout; for that, we defer to the many publications who have already attempted to quantify proceedings. No, we are here to discuss the eye of the storm, the thing for which all West’s madness works in service. For ultimately, West will fundamentally be remembered as a musician; one who is above all else inventive, incendiary, and brilliant. We are here to review the latest record in West’s oeuvre, one that is quite possibly his most unconventional release to date. Perhaps never before has an album of this commercial caliber required instructions on how to listen to and consume it.
So let’s try something different. Let’s review this album not as a cultural event or a polarising publicity tour, but as a collection of songs like any other. After all, in 50 years time, these songs must stand alone and out of their original context, used as reference points for new fans and revisited as sentimental favourites for devoted listeners of the millennial generation. The compositions themselves must be strong, the messages worthwhile; at the end of the day, Kanye West has been accused of much in his life, but seldom of lacking substance. Can an album with a creative process as dizzyingly chaotic and (at times) rushed as The Life of Pablo ever sound as complete as millimetre-perfect works like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Graduation?
Ultimately, Pablo is an endearing study of how to do things your own way. For the first time in his career, West finds himself eschewing perfectionism in service of the moment, often leaving eccentricities or slip-ups in finished tracks because the energy of the recording carried him elsewhere, on to the next idea. In the ensuing madness, we see the carefully orchestrated punk mayhem of Yeezus collide with College Dropout-era soul trademarks, while 808s & Heartbreak-style pop inclinations flirt with West’s barely-concealed reinterpretations of modern artists like Future and Drake. Often these various styles face off in one track over the span of a few short minutes, before shifting abruptly to something altogether new, like gospel vocalising, anthemic post-R&B songwriting, or European techno-influenced dance-hop.
Indeed, the blend of these elements is frequently so unique that Pablo mostly sounds like a genre unto itself. If Yeezus could have been accused of taking Death Grips’ punk-rap to new and higher levels, Pablo has no such predecessor. There is an inherent mood to these songs that is unlike anything we’ve heard, and unlike anything West has approached before. It’s not careful, and yet it’s not careless; it’s mad, it’s freeform, and above all else it’s unafraid. Indeed, much of the album sounds at odds with itself, as though West changed his mind halfway through penning a piece. Musically, this translates to frequently contradicting and sharply juxtaposing ideas of melody, rhythm, and structure. Lyrically too, the old West themes of fame, sex, and debauchery play off against artistry, ambition, and fatherhood. As with most things West, it can be a little overwhelming.
One word can be used to describe Pablo that would never have been applied to West’s previous work: messy. From the schizoid release schedule to the chopping-and-changing of disparate genres, to the abrupt and not-entirely-cohesive structural shifts in both parts of Father Stretch My Hands and in kindred-spirit street bangers Feedback and Freestyle 4, West seems newly unafraid of placing dissonant elements side by side, as though by hurried carelessness. It would be shortsighted, however, to think that anything about Pablo is done without intent or consideration. Though the general structure and approach of Pablo is undeniably chaotic and hard to digest, as with Yeezus there is a certain number of full-album listens required before West’s master plan reveals itself. After all, he sat with many of these songs (such as the old school throwback jam No More Parties in L.A.) for years in relatively finished states. It is clear that over this time, a master plan of sorts gradually revealed itself to West, ever the curator, ever the architect of his own unique vision.
Where the Strage Fruit-meets-trap sampling of Yeezus highlight Blood on the Leaves felt deliberately provocative and carefully done, much of Pablo feels effortlessly thrown together and contradictory. On first listen, it almost seems half-baked, like West waited all this time to perfect his album and then got tired of the process and just released it one cold February night. In this sense, it is the most unlikely entry in the West canon, a more telling shift than either 808s or Yeezus. After all, could a Kanye West album with the title The Life of Pablo ever have been anticipated before it was announced? And can any of West’s recent Twitter comments and tirades be rationally explained? More importantly, does any of that really matter when an album of this much creativity is the end result? After all, whatever West is doing with his strange career is beside the point, as it most certainly appears to be working. When an album like Pablo captures mainstream attention as much as we’ve seen in the past two weeks, nothing else matters. West has found a way to make his performance art life and his boundary pushing music seem mainstream, and that feat alone deserves much praise.
Ultimately, Pablo has only been made available to stream on Tidal, and even this decision feels as though it is a part of West’s overarching vision for what this album means. Surely, he must have been aware that sales would suffer and piracy would boom as a result of his unusual choice. Such considerations seem to matter less and less to West these days. He opens the most obvious single on the album, the beautiful Waves featuring Chris Brown, with a flurry of swearwords and sentiments which - even when heavily bleeped and edited out - would still all-but-guarantee reduced airplay. Indeed, Pablo was delayed at the eleventh hour purely because Chance pushed hard for the poppy Waves to even be included on the record. Such proceedings show quite clearly how little West cares about traditional commercial appeal and political correctness in 2016. For all his Twitter rants about personal debt and ill-advised appeals to Mark Zuckerberg for charitable cash injections, West is still actively avoiding making music for monetary gain, even as his endeavours into the fashion industry and the circles that his wife Kim Kardashian operates within push in the opposite direction. West seems to hold his music to a different standard than those other facets of his life; he is singularly preoccupied with fashioning a backcatalogue of continually inventive and artistically valid releases. To that end, he has succeeded yet again.
West’s recent guest production for other artists has tended toward a stripped-back approach of taking old soul and gospel samples and minimally reworking them, simply looping and applying subtle cuts. Though there are additional producers on every track here, there are frequent breaks to choice samples which presumably came from West’s archive in this way. Facts, which debuted in its original form on New Year’s Day to an extremely lackluster reception, opens with a brilliant sample from Dirt and Grime by Father’s Children before launching into a reworked beat by Charlie Heat and immediately transformimg into a club banger the likes of which West hasn’t made since the brilliant Cruel Summer posse cut Mercy. Other songs variously recall Yeezus industralism, early-Cudi emo rap, and Devil in a New Dress classicism. If there’s a major new introduction to West’s sonic palette, it’s the gentle R&B majesty of both Waves and Wolves, clean and melodic, familiar without being derivitave of anything we’ve heard before. In some senses, Ultralight Beam sits alongside those songs, though it is also tied up with the free-floating gospel worship of Low Lights.
That’s how this album plays out: 18 songs made up of little groups, some closely aligned, some singular and isolated, others connected by similar ideas. Considering how many times the tracklist and title of this album were revised before final release, it’s not surprising to find so many disparate threads cast throughout the runtime, seemingly at random. But West is never as random as he seems to be, and though Pablo lacks the overt cohesion of his past works, there is a dominant philosophy behind every creative decision here, from the - frankly unattractive - artwork, to the mistake-laden, mumbled adlibs of the second half of 30 Hours, which continue until West’s phone rings while he sits in the vocal booth. These vastly contrasting songs are connected somewhere in West’s mind, and perhaps that is enough to lend them a sense of continuity; certainly, after multiple close listens the album reveals its logic in unexpected ways. This is not a record that can be adequately reviewed within a few days; after all, people are still debating the creative statements of West circa 2009, and he’s only gotten more abstract since then.
Still, if there’s one thing that limits Pablo’s scope, it’s West’s increasingly obvious reliance on the same old lyrical themes, the same old shock tactics. Though strong religious messages tie much of this album together - Pablo was described by West himself as a “gospel record” - the moments of worship are undercut by a tide of bad puns, non-sequiturs, and juvenile imagery. It seems West doesn’t have much to talk about aside from sex and fame, and he reverts to these themes all too frequently, often saying something of worth before lazily defaulting to yet another lusty rhyme. Maybe lines like "Sometimes I'm wishin' that my dick had GoPro/
So I could play that shit back in slo-mo” are really as stupid as they seem. Or maybe the rap clichés of West’s lyrics play into another dose of self-parody, meta-humour, or yet another clever scheme, of which we are only glimpsing a tiny part before the full effect is revealed to us. It’s hard to say, and it is testament to the bizarre and dizzying creative blur West creates that we can’t say for sure.
For Pablo, West’s rotating cast of collaborators is in full effect, and in many respects the album looks on paper much as Yeezus did; a mind-boggling array of musicians from varying corners of the American musical landscape. The guests remain uncredited in the tracklist but are as high-profile as ever: Rihanna, Sia, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Chris Brown, Young Thug, André 3000, Kid Cudi, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar all turn up to chime in a few words here or a chorus there. There are only two bonafide rap guest verses on the album, and little in the way of pop hooks or radio-ready singles. Recent West credit lists always read like a who’s who of today’s best urban songwriters, producers, and vocalists. Pablo is no different, though the results are remarkably so. For instance, when André 3000 appears towards the end of album highlight 30 Hours, he simply repeats the title of the song along with a persistent sample that runs throughout the beat, declining the obvious opportunity to drop one of his brilliant storytelling verses over the brilliant vintage beat. Conversely, Chance takes over the opening track Ultralight Beam entirely, singing, rapping, and generally appearing on the track ostensibly more than West himself.
But none of the guest appearances feel like anything more a logical extension of West’s personal artistry and creativity, as though he speaks through those he has assembled to work on his record. When Rihanna pops up on Famous, the song does not suddenly become a Rihanna tune during her chorus, as so often happens with big name guest appearances. Instead, her vocals almost seem more like a sample chosen by West, taken, and manipulated toward his preferred end; he even employs this very technique when Desiigner (recently signed to West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint) appears on Father Stretch My Hands, and West utlises an extended sample of the singer’s hit Panda instead of enlisting an original feature. It’s as though West is a chef, using the various ingredients and flavours at his disposal without actually veering into any cuisine but his own distinct blend. In fact, the only moment this approach falters is when Swizz Beats - the hip-hop Jar Jar Binks - appears midway through Famous and proceeds to take over the track with his tiring hype man guffaw.
Some of the songs at the tail end of Pablo’s lengthy tracklist have been identified by West as bonus tracks, though as they have never been officially labelled as such, and as the album has been out for a week in an official 18 track form, it seems foolish to bother with such dated ideas as bonus tracks when discussing an album of this sort. In actuality, Pablo picks up a firmer sense of momentum around the halfway mark, after the hilarious 45 second acapella intermission I Love Kanye, in which the rapper reflects on the myriad perspectives his fans and the general public hold about Ye the man and Ye the artist; perhaps the mid-album shift around this song is another meta-humour strategy employed by West - who knows? Whatever the cause, it is clear that most of Pablo’s major highlights occur after this point, in the more accessible second half: Waves, Real Friends, 30 Hours, No More Parties in L.A., Facts (Charlie Heat Version), and Fade. Indeed, the final four tracks (which are presumably the originally-intended bonus tracks West has referred to) are the most consistent and cohesive set of the album.
The best moments of Pablo rank alongside any of West’s finest achievements, and there are very few missteps to be found. Not to mention that with an album this polarising, every listener will disagree on most every facet of the work; ten people will have ten different opinions about whether Highlights is filler or which version of Wolves is best. Indeed, almost as though in recognition of this fact, West has promised to continue working on Pablo, and it has been called a ”partial album” in its current form. A leaked version of a more complete-sounding Wolves has already surfaced, though it remains to be seen if West will really go so far as to continue refining his already-slaved-over album. It seems unnecessary at this point to alter what has already been rapturously received, but who's to say how deep West's perfectionism runs? Ultimately, this is the man who remixed Stronger 75 times because one kick drum wasn't quite right.
Whether or not Pablo becomes the world's first indefinitely-refined-and-never-quite-released album, and whether or not it ever sees a physical or iTunes release, this collection of songs, this vision, this statement is brilliant. Innocuist thought long and hard about what to expect from Kanye West when he released his seventh solo album, and he still found ways to surprise us. It says something about an artist when they can sidestep expectations like that. No matter what he gets up to on Twitter or in the press, what West has achieved in the last decade of his career is unheard of. He has led and marshalled the world's finest popular musicians at every turn, creating movements and dictating trends. He has surprised, confused, and astounded every listener. And he will go down in history as a visionary, a carrier of the flame for people like Bowie, who know no other way than different. The Life of Pablo is the masterpiece no one expected, the blockbuster no one else would dare or dream to make. It is a testament to all that is brash, bold, and more than a little bit odd, and it is the very album Kanye West should have made. After all, no one else can.
Three years between albums can feel like an eternity, but when listeners are left playing this much catch up, it's barely the blink of an eye. The rest of the music world will take a long time to catch up to Pablo... but of course they'll have to finish working out Yeezus first.
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