The Life of Pablo
GOOD Music/Def Jam
[Stream the album below]
“My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become [Pablo] Picasso or greater,” Kanye West confided during his March 2015 lecture to Oxford University’s Guild Society. So when Kanye released his much-hyped eighth album late Saturday night with the title The Life of Pablo, after considering and subsequently dismissing SWISH and Waves as options, many were quick to presume that the iconic artist informed the LP’s title.
Kanye has since offered clarification through a string of tweets last night, in which he identified Saint Paul the Apostle, or San Pablo in Spanish, as the “The most powerful messenger of the first century,” and true inspiration behind the title. He subsequently proclaimed that “[Paul] was saved from persecution due to his Roman citizenship. I have the right to speak my voice.”
And such are the delusions of grandeur and victimized martyr complex that we’ve come to expect from the self-proclaimed "greatest living artist and greatest artist of all time." Throughout his career, Kanye has famously (and incredulously) compared himself to such elite company as Leonardo Da Vinci, Walt Disney, Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Socrates, and just yesterday, Michael Jordan and Steph Curry. Oh, and lest we forget his well documented associations with God and Jesus Christ for good measure.
But Kanye’s penchant for narcissistic self-indulgence is nothing new and should surprise no one when it resurfaces in plain public view from time to time. In fact, it is precisely his unbridled ego coupled with his undeniable musical gifts that continues to intrigue both the fans who revere him and the detractors who revile him. “[Kanye] has made the calculation that you can dislike him and you will still listen to his music," Erik Nielson, a hip-hop culture expert and University of Richmond professor, recently explained to USA Today. "That's kind of a rarified space for a mainstream musician: someone who can almost willfully turn his fan base off at some moments and still know that in all likelihood, they will be there for his next release.”
However, while Kanye’s unique ability to attract and repel still keeps hordes of listeners interested in what he has to say, his game has grown predictable and tired, as evidenced throughout the course of Pablo’s eighteen songs. Admittedly, and as expected, Pablo’s production is top-flight, with Kanye and his various collaborators (including Rick Rubin, Hudson Mohawke and Madlib, among several others) employing more of a back-to-basics sonic approach that’s noticeably less experimental and avant-garde than his recent efforts. And thankfully, praise Yeezus, the album doesn’t suffer from an over-reliance on auto-tune, which has plagued much of Kanye’s material since 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak.
So sonically, at least, Pablo delivers and impresses throughout. Lyrically and thematically, the album is a wayward, rambling, and all-around incoherent mess, with only a handful of revelatory moments. Considering his global platform and remarkably captive audience, Kanye could very easily use his high-profile soapbox to rhyme about more meaningful and broadly relevant issues beyond those that concern him and him alone. Oh, and considering that Kanye is a husband and father to two children now, it may be time for him to reassess his content just a bit, or at least think twice before completely removing the filter from his inner monologue.
Sadly though, Kanye remains the deluded, self-absorbed star of his own superficial TMZ flavored hype machine here, opting to force-feed his preoccupation with the shallow and juvenile: fame, money, designer threads, and superfluous mentions of bitches. The latter a designation that even his paramour Kim and fellow superstar Taylor Swift aren’t exempt from. Add to this the ubiquitous references to his “Pedro” (if you catch our drift) throughout several of Pablo’s tracks, and the listener can’t help but deem too many of Kanye’s verses as amateurish, lazy and hollow.
Entitled “Low Lights,” the album’s sixth track coincidentally describes several of the songs featured on Pablo. Ironically enough, “Highlights” is arguably the album’s lowest moment of all, as Kanye’s voice is drowned in auto-tune as he delivers rubbish lines such as “Sometimes I'm wishin' that my dick had GoPro / So I could play that shit back in slo-mo / I just shot an amateur video / I think I should go pro.” Later in the song, he calls out his wife’s ex in trifling fashion, declaring that “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain't love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first / Only problem is I'm rich.” Surely, Kim cast a blind eye and “approved” the song before Kanye committed it to tape, but her tacit support makes it no less epic of an exercise in shallowness, one that offers little value beyond potential tabloid fodder.
Other unforgiveable tracks include the throwaway “Freestyle 4,” which finds Kanye adrift in his own freaky fantasy land, extolling the virtues of—you guessed it—his dick, yet again (sample lyrics: “Whip out, bitch out / Tits out, oh shit / My dick out, can she suck it right now? / Fuck, can she fuck right now?”). The album’s most straight-ahead pop track, the Chris Brown collaboration “Waves,” unfortunately doesn’t score any higher on the eloquence scale, with lines like “Yeah I'm the one your bitch like / And I be talkin' shit like / I ain't scared to lose a fistfight / And she grabbin' on my dick like / She wanna see if it'll fit right.” Come on now, Kanye. Really, dude? Really?
A few songs have the fundamental makings of greatness, but Kanye sabotages them with dubious lyrics. The slinky groove of The Weeknd assisted “FML” is predicated upon Kanye’s self-portrait of his tortured soul, which calls to mind 2Pac’s infamous “Me Against the World.” But Kanye squanders the opportunity to offer more profound revelations, instead boasting that “I’ma have the last laugh in the end / Cause I’m from a tribe called check a hoe.” With the sincerest apologies to Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, that is.
The haunting “Famous” scores major points for lifting Sister Nancy’s classic reggae anthem “Bam Bam” to glorious effect. But early in the proceedings, Kanye takes it a misogynistic step too far, when he rhymes:
For all my Southside niggas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous (God damn)
I made that bitch famous
For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West
If you see 'em in the streets give 'em Kanye's best
Why? They mad they ain't famous (God damn)
They mad they're still nameless
Pretty sure Taylor has no interest, Kanye. But if it makes you feel better to presume there’s still a chance, then so be it. And sorry, but what’s with the dick references, for the umpteenth time?
“Facts” (Charlie Heat Version) thankfully contains no mentions of Kanye’s dick, for a change, but it essentially amounts to a glorified promo for Adidas, for whom he has developed a shoe line, the Yeezy Boost 350. Early in the track, Kanye throws daggers at Nike, for whom he designed two lines of the Air Yeezy, and claims that the swoosh now “can’t give shit away.” Mind you, Nike is still the dominant player in the shoe trade, even if Adidas is inevitably destined to steal a smidgen of market share from them sooner than later. Go figure.
Despite all of its flaws, however, Pablo contains just enough high-quality fare to ultimately redeem the album. The songs that succeed are the more introspective ones, in which Kanye directly confronts his contradictory nature and psychosis, as well as the conflicts between his family life and the life of sin, visually captured in the album’s artwork.
On the ferocious “Feedback,” Kanye acknowledges his mental instability, as he demands “Name one genius that ain't crazy” and confesses that “I've been outta my mind a long time.” The admission lends credibility to his songwriting colleague Rhymefest’s recent allegations of psychological fragility, whereby the Chicago-bred emcee suggested that “my brother needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual & mental. He should step away from the public & yesmen & heal.” Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step toward a solution, so there’s still hope for Kanye.
Notwithstanding mediocre rhymes from new GOOD Music signee Desiigner, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” represents the more sentimental counterpoint to “Pt. 1,” as Kanye laments the fact that he’s following in his father’s footsteps in that he doesn’t have more time for his family due to his professional demands. It’s one of the album’s more universally relatable moments, for sure.
One of the album’s bona fide standout tracks, the solemn, gorgeously produced “Real Friends” is a contemporary extension of Whodini’s “Friends,” in its exploration of the conflict between the semblance of friendship versus the realization of genuine connection. It’s the album’s most gratifying moment lyrically & sonically, with Kanye at his most genuinely contemplative and humble, as he addresses his regrets with respect to the fractured relationships he has with friends and family.
Other highlights include the addictive, Madlib co-produced “No More Parties in LA,” which features the golden emcee, Kendrick Lamar, partnering with Kanye in simultaneously lamenting and glorifying the Hollywood lifestyle they’re both immersed in. Despite the curious absence of Vic Mensa and Sia, who both contributed to the original version, in exchange for the Frank Ocean blessed outro, the hauntingly downbeat “Wolves” finds Kanye seeking solace from the predatory critics and haters alike who aim to condemn him and his family (the lambs). Though clocking in at less than a minute, the acapella “I Love Kanye” is one of the album’s cleverest moments, as the self-deprecating Kanye offers tongue-in-cheek humor about the myriad perceptions people have of him.
The Life of Pablo is an imperfect record, to be sure, one that ultimately can’t be salvaged by its creator's slipshod ambition, nor by its A-list contributions from André 3000, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, and Rihanna. It’s a record that will surely have some heads dusting off their copies of The College Dropout and Late Registration to rediscover the Kanye West they once knew and loved. Nevertheless, here and there, Pablo contains songs that rightfully belong among the best of Kanye’s twelve-year career in front of the microphone and hold the promise of the more sophisticated and soul-affirming songs we pray define his music in the years to come.
Notable Tracks: “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” | “Feedback” | “I Love Kanye” | “No More Parties in LA” | “Real Friends” | “Wolves”