Pion-Ear: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo
February 20, 2016
Wake up Mr. West. You may be a musical genius, but The Life of Pablo sounds like a cross between a barking dog and my baby sister crying. I’m halfway through the first track and you have yet to lay a verse. Wait? What’s that you say? There are 17 more songs, one of which features the greatest rapper alive, Kendrick Lamar? Just take my money.
I feel a similar sentiment with the release of each new Kanye West album. Days, weeks, months of hype send my spirits soaring, as I expect the next College Dropout to arrive, gift-wrapped in a perfect little package. So, when the album drops, and Yeezy inevitably takes a new route with his music, I’m consistently paralyzed with the change of pace. Shock turns to outrage, as I contemplate Kanye’s career and where it all went wrong. Then, after a while, something changes. I realize that if I want to listen to College Dropout again, I can listen to College Dropout. What makes Kanye special is his depth, and, while The Life of Pablo may feature an artist past his prime, it still does what Kanye does best: something different.
“Ultralight Beam” sets the stage of the album, as Kanye explores his faith in God and the confidence it brings. “This is a God dream,” he asserts repeatedly, relating his recent success directly to religion. Despite a tried-and-true theme, however, Kanye mixes the bag with wonderful sampling of this Instagram post. Somehow, a young girl’s sermon-esque shouts provide the perfect backdrop for the smooth crooning of Kanye and company, before Chance the Rapper alternates the hymns to raps just past the halfway point. The young rapper maintains the theme as he rhymes, “I made Sunday Candy I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail.” Overall, the track takes listeners on a beautiful, perfectly-crafted and insightful journey through Kanye’s mind.
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” provides a brief look into Kanye’s relationships, past and present, while “Pt. 2” takes a tumultuous turn to the artist’s family struggles over time. The pounding beat and blaring beeps of the latter track create a fitting sense of confusion, since part one utilized a more harmonious choir for its backdrop. However, the inclusion of little-known rapper, Desiigner, on “Pt. 2” detracted from Kanye’s storytelling, since all the guest could muster was “I got broads in Atlanta / Twisting dope, lean, and sipping Fanta.” Very original.
Now, in the song everyone will talk about, Kanye explains the feelings that come with being “Famous.” The controversial name drop comes right off the bat; “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b**** famous,” Kanye jeers. And, that sums up the song, as the brag-a-thon continues until Kanye uses his usual sampling tricks to close the track with Nina Simone’s gentle vocals.
It’s back to the beeps and oscillating bass in “Feedback,” as Kanye aggressively addresses the haters and unforgivingly flaunts his wealth (quite ironically, given his recent claims). The true genius lies in the song’s conclusion, as Kanye claims, “I’m the ghetto Oprah,” before screaming, “You get a fur! You get a fur! / You get a jet! You get a jet!” His hilarious ferocity proves that rapping about money will never grow old, and, when it comes down to it, none have perfected the boasting quite like Kanye.
“Low Lights,” a simple sampling job of an unknown woman’s testimony, precedes “Highlights,” a track in which Kanye promotes his sex life. It’s an interesting transition, to be sure, but for some reason the latter song still manages to shine. A relaxed melody and surprisingly-smooth use of autotune make the music easy on the ears, even as Kanye moans, “I need every bad b**** up in Equinox / I need to know right now if you a freak or not.”
“Freestyle 4” features a highly-disoriented Kanye, whose distorted voice fills the void of the eerie instrumental with disturbing, drug-driven rhymes. “Close eyes, see things / Fire up, tweaking,” the rapper mumbles before launching into a tirade of profane and sexual statements that invoke a slightly scary listening experience. Still, the message shines through, as Kanye clearly warns of the lack of control suffered during drug abuse.
The intermission “I Love Kanye” sees the rapper roasting critics, as he refutes the gripes they have via referring to himself in the third person (one of the very complaints against him). The end product is funny, but after hearing the skit once, there rests no reason to return.
“Waves” features Chris Brown, an instant turn-off, but the R&B track features an irresistible rhythm (the singing, admittedly, sounds rather good, too) and easy-learned lyrics for any lover to woo their special someone.
In the melodramatic “FML,” Kanye describes his relationship with Kim Kardashian and his fear of a falling-out. The Weeknd bolsters the rapper’s sense of doubt with their crooning chorus: “They wish I would go ahead and f*** my life up / Can’t let them get to me.” In his rhymes, Kanye comes off not as angry but anguished, and the raw emotion behind the song, with its brooding beat, brings listeners into Kanye’s sense of hopelessness.
Ty Dolla $ign complements Kanye so well in “Real Friends” that I actually wish they worked together more often. I am by no means a fan of Ty, though, and it’s a testament to Kanye’s decision-making that he finds the most appropriate guests for almost any song. The track itself revolves around bandwagon fans who seek Kanye’s friendship for the money and fame but lack true loyalty. We’ve all heard the concept, but the song’s slow whistling and the sting of Kanye’s words make for a cold and unforgiving atmosphere.
More whistling sets the scene in “Wolves,” as Kanye harkens back to 808s & Heartbreaks for a heavily-autotuned display of his emotions regarding his family life. Eventually, Kanye resorts to flat-out talking, and the track becomes a vessel for him to contemplate his role as a father. “What if Mary was in the club / ‘Fore she met Joseph with no love? / Cover Saint in lambs’ wool / we surrounded by the f***in’ wolves,” Kanye explains, alluding the birth of his second daughter to the Bible in a thoughtful manner.
The “Silver Surfer Intermission” is literally a phone conversation between two rappers, Max B and French Montana, about Kanye’s album title (WAVES at that point). So, if that sounds interesting, be my guest, but otherwise let’s get to the real next track.
Kanye cleverly arranges “30 Hours,” a track referring to a past relationship, as he describes all the events that led him to travel from his new job in LA back to Chicago, where his lover remained. The repetition of the phrase “30 hours” creates a rhythmic effect that lulls listeners into relaxation despite the suffering conveyed through Kanye’s words. Plus, the inclusion of André 3000 for the outro serves as a nice shout out to hip-hop royalty, as the song is a bonus track after all.
“No More Parties in LA” is a masterpiece, simply put, as the instrumental, sampling and (of course) rapping come together for a fast and fun-filled track about Kanye and guest star Kendrick Lamar’s first-world problems. The lyrics convey a frustration, but in the end both rappers show contentment with their life circumstances; Kanye notes, “I feel like Pablo when I’m workin’ on my shoes / I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news.” Both rappers clearly brought their A-game, and their meaty verses make this the must-have track of the entire album.
“FACTS (Charlie Heat Version)” reveals a playful Kanye bent on embarrassing his foes. And in this case, the foe happens to be Nike, as Kanye’s “Yeezy Boost” shoe line release gave him cause to profess Adidas’s superiority over the competition.
TLOP reluctantly comes to a close with “Fade,” in which the artist samples Rare Earth for a repetitious chorus of “fadin’” that haunts the track. Meanwhile, Kanye expresses the numbed emotions of love he feels while under the influence. As an outro to the album, “Fade” seems an odd choice, but this is a bonus track, and once listeners escape the song’s subdued feel, they can always restart the album for another stroll through the life of Kanye.
TLOP’s biggest drawback: no iTunes release. In an effort to support fellow rapper Jay Z’s streaming service, TIDAL, West says his newest work will not be for sale amidst Apple’s trademark music library. In fact, subscribing to TIDAL remains the only legal means of obtaining the album whatsoever, and, unless the artist changes his mind, this poses serious problems for would-be-listeners and Kanye’s wallet alike.
Taken altogether, though, TLOP represents more than a simple cash-grab or bad mix of singles. Rather, Kanye made his seventh LP an autobiography, and the story is best received as the sum of its parts. The twists and turns loaded into each track weave together seamlessly; when it comes to variety, Kanye’s latest is among the best in the genre, whether due to the scope of the story or its actual sound. As an all-star album, more or less, TLOP finds Kanye less experimental than in previous works, but the familiarity proves advantageous, as listeners can easily connect with his narration of past and present. The beautiful yet blaring beats and perfectly placed samples are testament to Kanye’s talent as a producer. Still, the lyrics remain lackadaisical at times (fame, money, the usual gist), and some could argue an over-reliance on features is at hand. Despite such minor flaws, nobody can knock Kanye’s honesty; both new listeners and returning fans will find 58 minutes of fascination in his latest wonder.