Where to begin with this album? It’s consumed my free time for the past week and change, but I’m already tired of thinking about it. I definitely don’t feel like writing a lot, but I probably have no choice. Kanye has been a complex character lately. One who seemed bored with rap but never completely let it go in favor of terrible singing and
over high-priced fashion. Given that ambiguity, The Life of Pablo is impressive in its cohesion, but disappointing in how little it feels like Hip-Hop to me. I won’t get into his twitter antics during the lead-up to the album, but Google them if you need to. It’s worth the laugh and the possible insight into this guy’s psyche.
As you may discern from the cover, The Life of Pablo is about choices, God, marriage, and Kim Khardashian’s monstrous ass. Well maybe her altogether, not just her ass. But there it is (actually, it’s a clone), all big and fake on the cover, so who knows what he meant? Anyway…this is Kanye looking for God, peace and happiness, by transitioning from partying to maturity and family life. Ultralight Beam leads the album and cements this search as the theme of the album. The whole song is gospel as hell, and fucking beautiful. From the child fervently praying to open the song, to Kirk Franklin’s prayer for redemption and his choir singing like only a Black choir can, to Kelly Price addressing haters and knowing that God has her back, to Kanye and The Dream singing prayers for God’s help, and even to Chance the Rapper spitting about his come-up and future greatness, it’s a monumental and moving song. The beat is slow but the kick drum bangs, and the choir becomes another instrument that turns the mood around from the hopelessness that dominates the first half. Ultralight Beam is fucking incredible, and I wish the rest of the album stood up to it.
The Life of Pablo is full of features and styles that shouldn’t mesh but Kanye makes them, at least for this artistic work when taken as a whole. Right after Ultralight Beam, there’s three songs about debauchery, two featuring his new artist
Baby Future Desiigner, and one with Rihanna and Swizz Beats. I love these songs, but they definitely felt weird coming after such a gospel song, until I realized that they are the beginning of Kanye’s journey. The first half to two thirds of the album is Kanye before completely realizing that peace can’t be found in partying and sex. So it’s vulgar as fuck because that’s the life he led then.
FML sets up the next section, with Kanye realizing that Kim is his future, and that he has to change his life to keep her and his success secure. Even when he and Kim have fights, he’s cognizant that his aggression can only go so far because what he has with her is too important to throw away. He examines failed relationships and foul family members on Real Friends, decides to curb the party life on No More Parties in L.A., and accepts Kim despite her past on Wolves, while appreciating that she does the same for him.
This may all sound great, and these are all excellent songs in their themes, but few of them do anything for me beyond continuing the plot. I’m not a fan of singing Kanye, and he dominates this album, along with R&B features and stylistic choices that rarely feel like hip-hop. Kanye’s singing is, as a rule, terrible, and not many of these songs have the drums, tempo, and flows that a hardcore hip-hop fan like me might want. I know not to expect that from Kanye anymore, but the lack of rap is disappointing none the less. The Life Of Pablo isn’t as bad as Yeezus, but it’s still very experimental and much of it sonically left me behind. And no song is as masterfully constructed, as orchestral in its many elements being used together perfectly, as Ultralight Beam. Accordingly, the album peaks on track one, and without the plot would have ended up a mishmash of disparate styles haphazardly thrown together. With the plot, it’s still not something I often want to listen to front to back. I expect the individual songs in concept albums to be entertaining on their own, but not much of The Life of Pablo meets that standard.
The writing is great but it’s not enough for me. Kanye did drop at least one stellar verse, on the already mentioned No More Parties in L.A. Maybe the verse that Kendrick Lamar dropped put him on alert, or the beat that I’m sure mostly came from Madlib, or the excellent Ghostface sample from Mighty Healthy, but I’m happy that Kanye decided to rap his ass off on at least one song. His verse might even best Kendrick’s!
Other than that and a few other songs, The Life of Pablo is a LOT other stuff plus a bit of hip-hop. A lot of bad singing that autotune couldn’t possibly save, sung features, and other genres that I’m not nearly as interested in. And the misogyny, one time directed at Taylor Swift, and digs at ex girlfriends, especially Amber Rose, are elements that are disgusting and unnecessary. For all the growth implied by talk of loving his family and choosing a more fulfilling life, this is still the Kanye who recently attacked Wiz Khalifa for 17+ tweets, all over a misunderstood tweet. Wearing his flaws on his sleeve was impressive on College Dropout, but in 2016, seven albums later, I can’t help but wonder at which point should we stop applauding talk and demand actual growth? The Life of Pablo is as flawed and inconsistent as its creator, and for those reasons, just as compelling.
- Ultralight Beam ft Kelly Price, The Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper
- Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1 and 2 featuring Desiigner
- Famous featuring Rihanna and Swizz Beats
- No More Parties in L.A. featuring Kendrick Lamar