To hell with the narrative.
In the days, the months, and even the years leading up to the eventual release of The Life of Pablo, Kanye West gave plenty of opportunities to grab low-hanging fruit. Would the album’s story be like West’s recent Twitter episodes: notable for questionable opinions, lack of self-editing, car-crash watchability, and possibly the result of a declining mental state? Or would the record be yet another installment in West’s history of defying expectations, silencing critics, and delivering all-time great album after all-time great album in spite of the off-putting nature of his persona.
Most potentially symbolic was the piece of notebook paper that displayed the album’s track list and title as it switched from Swish to Waves and was eventually wiped clean for The Life of Pablo. As the paper evolved, collaborators, friends, and family members would scrawl their names and messages, turning a vessel with a purpose into a board of self-promotion for everyone tied to West, the artist’s chicken-scratch track changes as notable as the “Kylie was here” diversions. Sure, it was entertaining to watch, to decipher, but it was also a mess that brought a foreboding cloud of skepticism over the entirety of West’s seventh full-length.
It’s these narratives that allowed critics to write reviews before even hearing the album. In a move that redefines “first,” Rolling Stone’s own resident volatile genius, Christopher R. Weingarten, speculated on the quality of what would become The Life of Pablo a whole 12 days before the album was even released, imagining a narrative for the record ahead of even hearing the thing. And Weingarten was simply putting into thinkpiece form the general chatter around Pablo, and is not nearly as glaring as places like The Guardian that were publishing reviews just hours after the album became available to the public.
The fact remains, or at least the hope remains, that the content of The Life of Pablo is what is built to last, not the surrounding spectacle. But with judgement being made before the album actually exists in the real world, this possibility becomes murky. Can Kanye West even create without a narrative being attached, without people’s opinion of him as a person or their esteem of his back catalog obscuring their opinion of his art?
With this in mind, album opener “Ultralight Beam” goes for the throat, leading off with West’s best hitter in a move uncommon with regards to his recent albums. From its angel-winged choir to its seraphic appearance from Kelly Price to an equally holy Chance the Rapper putting in his bid for “all-time great Kanye West feature” (ahem: Nicki Minaj), the song stands out for how complete it is, both the production and the vocal performances meticulously crafted and jigsaw precise. Where much of Pablo was finished in the days leading up to its release (and/or is still being tinkered with at this moment), “Ultralight Beam” is the opposite, the pristine result of planning and vision and, well, creative genius. It’s more polished than anything on the record, and on its own, is a narrative-changing song, moving away from anything that was expected from the record and proving that West’s best attribute is his ability to surprise.
That isn’t to say the rest of Pablo is without its successes. “Famous” fights against odds, following a pedestrian Rihanna hook (re-creating Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do”) and a Taylor Swift joke that manages to be simultaneously unfunny, unkind, and untrue. Remarkably, the song rebounds with a duel-sample coda straight out of an M.I.A. song, overshadowing one of West’s most inexcusable bits of misogyny.
The tornado of immediate beauty present on “Ultralight Beam” and the latter half of “Famous” gets a longer play for the run of “Waves”, “FML”, “Real Friends”, and “Wolves”, complicated by the same foreboding darkness that has been present in West’s best work since 808s. Whether it is the fear of losing half of what he owns and going off his meds on “FML” (backed by a fantastic Weeknd hook), the difficulty in finding honest connections on “Real Friends”, or the realization near the end of “Wolves” that borders on paranoia (“we’re surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves”), West finds control on an album whose first half is uncharacteristically wild. The focus present on these tracks are what is expected of West, what his musical career has been built on, and it still is refreshing to hear. They are proof that when Kanye West is on his game, the results are every bit as magnificent as they were in his career’s beginning.
But the strength in these moments also highlight how rudderless the rest of Pablo often feels. “Feedback” benefits from one of the record’s most excitingly hard beats (and a great West exercise in truthiness: “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”), but is ultimately slight, its humor flat with the concluding riff on Oprah. In fact, its alarming how often joke lyrics are stale on Pablo, whether its talking nonsensically about Ray J on “Highlights” or a pointless quip about bleached assholes on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, though the brief detour “I Love Kanye” sticks its landing as an exercise of winking self-awareness.
Even more troublesome, though, is how frequently the lyrics sound on-the-spot, lacking refinement or editing. Sure, Yeezus ushered in the era of West’s “Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter” side, but Pablo‘s attempted cram session pulls back the curtain on the rapper’s limits more than his strengths. “30 Hours” is clearly recorded right before the album’s release and even refers to itself as a bonus track, and is inexplicable for its own inclusion. “Facts” and “Freestyle 4” also come across like B-side material, the kind of tracks West would usually weed out during pre-release sharing, the result of brief moments of inspiration that are not given the time they needed to be fleshed out. And while not flawed lyrically, “No Parties in L.A.” and “Fade” are A-sides on the wrong album, shoved onto the end of the collection that would have been stronger if it ended with “Wolves” like it did at the MSG fashion show/listening party held a few days before the album was readily available to the public.
Funny enough, it is MSG that really casts a shadow over the whole experience of The Life of Pablo. One of West’s talked-about tweets from Pablo’s lead-up wound up being one of his most misunderstood, when West declared the album, still at the time known as Swish, as “the album of a life.” Of course, the impression was that West was once again boasting of the record’s quality, but in hindsight, TLoP is meant to encapsulate the many angles that comprise his own life, signified in the album’s title by his comparison to the apostle Paul.
This was better accomplished at the MSG listening party than on the version of Pablo eventually released, where West was able to eclipse the TIDAL detractors and technical difficulties to successfully present a unifying event. It wasn’t an amalgamation just for fans, who were allowed to share in a rare musical communion both in person and online, but for West himself to lasso in the disparate elements of his own life. On stage was his clothing, a whole line of rustic earth tones ready to be unveiled at the same time of his album, while behind him stood his friends: Pusha T, 2 Chainz, ASAP Rocky, Vic Mensa, and Young Thug. Another pie slice, his family, made their own royal entrance and exit, fit for the level of celebrity that they were: stars of television, of sports, and of business. It was the complexity of West’s current existence converging on a single moment, The Life of Pablo presented trimmed down and lean, eventually giving way to a listening party reminiscent of a Friday night Uber ride. The album will never be as immediate and important as it was once presented in this context, West condensing a human’s existence into a ticketed event, where you couldn’t help but believe in his vision, and the power it can possess.
But where MSG succeeded, The Life of Pablo can’t as well. Removed from the moment, weighed down with additional tracks, West’s multiplicities are not as vibrant. Its messiness is illuminated for the mess it is. “The layers to my soul,” as West sings on “FML”, are rarely underscored, and when his collaborators are brought in as foils, they exist in lieu of West, never in addition to him. Where MSG could capture West and his friends in a single frame, raising each other up with a look or a head nod, the album never does the same. Pablo’s failures are not the result of a single narrative, but in the attempted combination of all the narratives of his life. It’s the result of attention spread too many places, of perfectionism turned to over-tinkering, of an artist pushing himself to hit a self-imposed deadline, of working in the limelight rather than in the shadows. It’s West both for better and worse, funneled in an imperfect method, as flawed and intriguing as an actual human life.
Essential Tracks: “Ultralight Beam”, “FML”, and “Real Friends”