Kanye West – The Life of Pablo [2016]

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There’s not much to say about Kanye West – the person – that isn’t already very, very public knowledge. The lead up to his most recent album started nearly two years ago at this point, and included several album name changes, early and then later abandoned singles, and quite a few public meltdowns. And at every step along the way, it’s all been reblogged, reposted, and had gallons of digital ink spilled on think pieces analyzing single 140 character tweets. Whether it’s of his own creation, or if the media has a hand in egging him on and blowing things out of proportion, it’s been a tumultuous time to be both a fan of the man and the man himself. And nowhere does all of that become more clear than it does on the finally finished (?) project, now christened The Life of Pablo.

Kanye has made his name in hip hop for always having a clear vision and thematic core to each of his albums, from the humble-yet-ambitious soul sound of College Dropout, the alienation and loss at the center of 808s and Heartbreak, or the maximalist yet self-deprecating grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yet, for the first time, The Life of Pablo presents a man that somehow sounds confused, troubled, and triumphant all at the same time. It’s clear why, when you consider that the man is now married into the most famous family on the planet (for better or worse), has two young children, and a new fashion line all piled up on top of his usual responsibilities as a producer and a musician. Even for the best of us, never mind a notoriously ego-driven and opinionated person such as Kanye, it would be extraordinarily straining.

And when the man is being pulled into a hundred different directions at once, of course his music is as well. The Life of Pablo is a tumultuous listen, in the sense that one moment you can be listening to something as uplifting and life-affirming as the gospel-infused “Ultralight Beam”, and on the very next track you can hear Kanye rap about getting someone’s asshole bleach on his t-shirt. It’s why a song as gorgeous and transcendent as “Waves” can be followed up by bleak, faded, and emotionally draining tracks like “FML” and “Real Friends”. And it’s why, even within tracks that barely crack two minutes, beats can suddenly change and guests can cycle in and out like sounds carried on the breeze. Just like the album’s very public production, Kanye is using the music itself almost as if it were a real-time document of the turmoil within his own head, and it lends the album a strange sort of kinetic energy even in its weaker moments. And from the sound of things, he’s certainly not lacking in turmoil. “Real Friends” talks about the struggle that comes from trying to have real, honest relationships with friends and family after becoming massively successful, and with it, massively busy. “Wolves” lashes out at the media’s treatment of his and Kim’s marriage and their kids, and the unfair shadow Kim’s past casts on her present. “No More Parties In L.A.” laments the shallow and tiring atmosphere of the party life, and how inescapable his own public persona has become.

But The Life of Pablo isn’t all doom and gloom, either. Tracks like “Feedback” and “Famous” are Kanye at his most confrontational and outlandish, taking shots at celebrities and assuaging his own ego in classic fashion. “30 Hours” is a nostalgic, comedic look at an old open relationship he had that still left him jealous and mad at himself for. “Facts” is an unrepentant banger that throws shade at unlikely targets such as Nike, Steve Harvey, and Bill Cosby with such piss and vinegar you’d think he was taking on the world, not shoe companies and game show hosts. And “I Love Kanye”, while barely being more than a skit, shows Kanye at his most self-aware and self-deprecating ever: he knows people miss the old Kanye, the humble, less self-absorbed, “chop up the soul” Kanye, but he doesn’t really care. And “Fade” is a surprisingly groovy and upbeat ending to an album full of darkness and shade, even though it’s let down a little by it’s sparse bars and repetitive samples.

While the scatter shot and unrestrained nature of the album is one of its core strengths, it can also be its biggest weakness. “Freestyle 4” is a half-baked trap-styled hype track about fucking on the tables at a Vogue party, that feels painfully out of place both on the album and in the context of Kanye’s discography. “30 Hours” boasts an incredibly dreamy beat complete with an assist from the notoriously reclusive Andre 3000, but squanders it in the final two minutes by becoming an impromptu thank you-slash-outro track that comes three songs too early. And while only clocking in at four minutes total, “Father Stretch My Hands” is inexplicably split into two halves, despite the fact that even the individual halves barely comprise a cohesive song, never mind across both of them. But despite all that, the music still manages to succeed because of its inherent messiness and conflict far more often than it’s failed by it.

After sitting down and reflecting on this album, I may have been wrong about it not having a central theme like the rest of Kanye’s work. If you look at The Life of Pablo as a living document on Kanye’s last three years, instead of a grand conceptual work about fame or ambition or success, then it delivers in spades. Much like the man himself, this is an album full of conflict and contradictions, light and dark, humor and pain. And by allowing these emotions to spread themselves equally over the entire album, instead of relegating each one to their own songs, he’s created what feels like his most flawed and human work yet. He’s created something that lives and breathes in the moment, instead of trying to force itself into being a grand statement. He’s created the truest reflection of the multitudes Kanye West: the rapper, the designer, the father, the shit-stirrer. And in an age where public personas are carefully crafted and curated, and coming from a man who is so famously a perfectionist and a narcissist, it’s a breath of fresh air to see everything laid so bare.

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Beck releases new song, “Dreams”

Even though it’s only a little over a year since he released the Grammy winning Morning Phase, Beck has just released a new song. From the as of yet untitled record, “Dreams” features an upbeat, poppy sound he hasn’t explored much since 2005’s The Information. Flirting with touches of Oracular Spectacular-era MGMT and some garage-y guitars, the song is a welcome switch up from the claustrophobic feeling of Modern Guilt and the melancholy of Morning Phase. The song does go on about a minute longer than necessary, though, simply repeating it’s chorus after a late-stage breakdown of sorts. But that small complaint aside, this is the most exciting and excited Beck has sounded in quite a while, and it’s refreshing to have him back in the world of pop.

Kanye West and Paul McCartney Collaborate on New Track

There’s no words for this one. A new Kanye West track has surfaced for the New Year, and of all the people in the world…Paul McCartney is part of it. The Real Beatle and the Black Beatle have teamed up to create a track that’s…actually pretty good. It’s got an 808s & Heartbreak vibe, with Kanye’s voice autotuned much more tastefully used than its been since that album. It’s built around a simple Rhodes piano line to start, gradually adding in more layers in a way that’s reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (right down to some of the effects), but it stays pretty simple and bright. I had no idea what to expect when I had heard the two were collaborating, but this is definitely more than I expected.

Top 20 of 2013

2013 was a great year for new music, at least personally, and since I like to review my favorite albums I slowly put together a top 20 through the year. Past my top 5 or so, the rankings don’t mean a lot since it’s hard to put different kinds of music above or below one another, but whatever. Call me a nerd or tell me I have too much time on my hands, here’s my top 20.

1. The Dillinger Escape Plan – One of Us is the Killer

I knew this was probably going to be my album of the year after the 2nd listen. I may have listened to other albums more, or for longer, but One of Us is the Killer was special for me. If you’ve ever heard Dillinger before, you know what to expect from one of their albums (that being tightly-wound, frenetic mathcore with an experimental slant). That being said, this album actually distills a lot of the ground they’ve covered into a more coherent, straight forward attack compared to previous efforts. But the reason this album was special was that it came at a time when I needed something angry and aggressive to kick me out of a funk, and it did the trick marvelously.

Top Tracks: Prancer, One of Us is the Killer, Paranoia Shields

2. Cloudkicker – Subsume

On the other side of heavy things, this year Cloudkicker delivered what’s possibly Ben Sharp’s best work to date. Inspired by the novel 1Q84 (which is a great read in and of itself), Subsume is an ambitious record that jumps back and forth between the djent-influenced riffing of his past and the more introspective, quieter side of his present without ever sounding disjointed. From start to finish Subsume feels like a journey, starting off gently and then rocketing through layers of sound until reaching it’s fuzz-drenched climax during ‘You could laugh forever but never end up happy’.

Top Tracks: A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time, You could laugh forever but never end up happy.

3. Protest the Hero – Volition

For all the music I listened to this year, my top three wound up being all metal albums.

Protest made waves when they decided to forego a label’s backing and crowd fund their new album, and their fans responded in kind by giving them more than twice the amount they needed. The result is their best album since 2008’s Fortress.

I have to admit, their last album before Volition lost me a little. The lyrics were pretty cringe-worthy for a band that used to write thought-provoking concept albums, and some of the songs just didn’t feel very inspired. That’s all changed with Volition, though – Rody’s stepped up his game lyrically, and with Chris Adler filling in on drums, they sound heavier and faster than they have in a while. Stylistically, things haven’t changed much, but the one thing I have to commend most is the themes tackled in the lyrics. It takes guts to write songs about bigotry and rape culture on a metal album (with metal not being the most open-minded fanbase out there), and it’s even better when it doesn’t feel like they’re pandering or talking down. All in all, Volition shows Protest at the top of their game.

Top Tracks: Skies, Clarity, Animal Bones, Plato’s Tripartite

4. NK – Nothing to Be Gained Here

I’ve been following NK since they were called North Korea, and this year they finally released their debut album. They’ve softened a bit since their first two EPs, but their sound still features a unique blend of grungey riffs, Radiohead-esque soundscapes, and a rhythm section that knows what the fuck they’re doing.

Top Tracks: Set A Fire, Shoulder Gorilla, Vacation Days

5. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Descension

The second half of their double album, The Afterman, lives up to it’s predecessor and continues to deliver Coheed’s trademark sound. While front-loaded with some of the bands heaviest and most progressive songs in years (Gravity’s Union being the first Coheed song recorded on an 8 string guitar), it starts to tail off towards the end into more sentimental, poppy sounds. Away We Go sounds like the eighties’ idea of a pop-punk love song, and 2’s My Favorite 1 is straight up cheese, in the best way. This works best when paired with it’s other half, Ascension, as it serves as a sort of come-down to the 18 track whole. Overall, while it could’ve been tracklisted a bit better, Descension is still a great album.

Top Tracks: Gravity’s Union, Sentry the Defiant, Dark Side of Me,  2’s My Favorite 1

6. Death Grips – Government Plates

Government Plates is experimental even for Death Grips, eschewing most song structure and even vocals in favor of a more free-form, electronic approach. For a band that managed to somehow cram hooks into music that rightfully shouldn’t on their first three albums, Government Plates is a disorienting listen, but one that’s all the better for it once it finally clicks.

Top Tracks: You might think he loves you…, Birds, Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)

7. Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus

I checked out Fuck Buttons solely because I needed to know what a band with a name like that even sounded like. The answer? An electronic band whose music is structured like a post rock band playing noise music. They’re aggressive and trance-inducing at the same time.

Top Tracks: Brainfreeze, Hidden Xs, Stalker

8. Danny Brown – Old

Half street music and half club music, Old is a concept album about the struggles of growing up the ghetto and not letting it define his entire life at the same . Combine that with Danny Brown’s wicked sense of humor, and you get one of my favorite rap albums of 2013.

Top Tracks: Side A (Old), 25 Bucks, Way Up Here

9. Kanye West – Yeezus

For all the things that could be said about Kanye, the one thing you can’t take away from him is his music. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a grandiose ‘I’m sorry for being Kanye West’, then Yeezus is the exact opposite, shoving his arrogance in the face of the world. Nothing in his discography could’ve predicted the sound of Yeezus, its being laced with dark, almost industrial synth lines and minimalist beats, and as a result it has more bite than much of his work could ever hope to have. For an artist as mainstream as Kanye to release an album like this takes courage, and it mostly proves itself. However, some of the lyrics are certainly pretty cringe-worthy, and it takes a bit of a dip in the second half, so I can’t call it one of my absolute favorites. Either way, Kanye has proved himself as an artist by taking this chance.

Top Tracks: New Slaves, Black Skinhead, Blood on the Leaves

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather

Sunbather took me a bit by surprise. I usually don’t like black metal, or anything that sounds like it, but I had to make an exception for this record. Deafheaven takes the vocal approach of black metal (the shrieking, screamed vocals) and pairs it with a sound that’s more akin to My Bloody Valentine moving to Scandinavia and playing metal. With most of its songs going well over the ten minute mark, the music takes on a nearly hypnotic effect as it swells and crescendos, only stopping for the three interludes after each main track. While admittedly, their vocalist doesn’t have a lot of range (he has two speeds – AHHH and AHHHHHH) and threatens to bring the band’s unique sound down at times, I still think it’s a great album.

11. Nice Hooves – Nice Hooves

Featuring members of my other favorite hardcore band, The Armed, Nice Hooves deliver a more punk take on thrashy, noisy metal. Their album is free to download at http://nicehooves.bandcamp.com/ and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in any of that.

12. Palms – Palms

Palms is a supergroup made of of members of Isis and fronted by Chino Moreno of Deftones. While some of the songwriting could certainly be stronger, the atmosphere the album delivers alone makes of for it, delving into dreamy, shoegaze influenced post-rock that neither Isis or Deftones truly explored.

Top Tracks: Mission Sunset, Future Warrior, Antarctic Handshake

13. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

…Like Clockwork is QOTSA’s first album in 6 years, and as you’d expect from that big of a gap, it sounds pretty different than any other album of theirs. Stripping away most of their ‘stoner rock’ sound, Like Clockwork finds the band focusing more on straightforward rock numbers, and surprisingly, piano ballads. While this could have been disastrous for a band like Queens, by drawing on Josh Homme’s near-death experience, they infuse the songs with real meaning and atmosphere that give it a unique character from start to finish.

Top Tracks: I Appear Missing, Keep Your Eyes Peeled, I Sat By The Ocean, My God Is The Sun

14. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I’ll be honest, I’m totally biased when it comes to Eminem. I grew up on his music so I’m a lot more lenient on his newer stuff. But even though the guy basically gets a free pass from me, MMLP2 is actually really goddamn good, even if it can never touch the original MMLP. Em revisits Stan on Bad Guy, shows an insane level of technical skill on Rap God, apologizes to his mother on Headlights, and kills it on a hilarious track with Kendrick Lamar. It’s not a start to finish masterpiece, and it’d be great if he’d stop shouting so damn much, but MMLP2 proves that Eminem is still the same old Shady.

Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Love Game, Rap God, Headlights, The Monster

Other Favorites:

15. Lorde – Pure Heroine
16. O’Brother – Disillusion
17. Clutch – Earth Rocker
18. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
19. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
20. J. Cole – Born Sinner