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.