Kanye’s ‘The Life of Pablo’: beautiful, stupid

Advertisement

 

‘The Life of Pablo,’ Kanye West
Hip-Hop/Rap
Feb. 14 2016
★★★☆☆

Listen, I didn’t want to like this album.

Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the metaphysical idea that the artist exists independently from his art, we can all agree on one thing: Kanye West can be pretty annoying.

From his award-interrupting speeches to his narcissistic Twitter rants, West seems to thrive on pettiness. He basks in arrogance and immature attention, he loves to make a scene; these are his inescapable character traits, and they nose their way onto his new project, “The Life of Pablo,” in leaps and bounds.

The lyrical quality of this album is a sharp drop from his last full release, “Yeezus.” The two best verses on the 17-count tracklist come from featured artists (namely, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar) who make West’s lazy, slurred lyrics look like those of a mildly angsty middle-schooler. When West isn’t writing clickbait lyrics about having sex with Taylor Swift or his wife’s famous controversy, his bars just feel half-hearted. His punchlines are, for the most part, obvious; his rhyme scheme is weak at best and nonexistent at laziest, and on the rare occasions he does stumble across an interesting line he feels the need to repeat it five seconds later like an insistent child who wants you to be proud of his crayon drawing. Yes Kanye, that’s a very nice bit of wordplay you got there, can we move on now?

He dedicates an entire track to whining about his shoe brand; “Father Stretch My Hands pt. 1” contains the most absurdly terrible intro verse I’ve ever heard, and a line about a stolen sandwich on “Wolves” represents an intellectual low point. He does convey emotion in some of his delivery, particularly in the standout dark, reflective tracks of “FML” and “Real Friends.” But his claims of sincere love feel somewhat invalidated when they’re shortly followed by an extended section about his desire to attach a camera to his gentleman-sausage during sex.

However.

Kanye West was a producer long before he was a rapper. And this album represents some of the boldest, most sonically investing instrumentals of his career. From the soulful gospel-influence intro track, to the thumping re-work of “Bam bam” in “Famous,” to the Yeezus-like daggers of “Feedback,” to the chillingly manic background of “Freestyle 4” to the brooding, atmospheric “FML” to the perfectly-balanced “Real Friends” — the list goes on and on. Every song brings a fresh dose of brilliant music. It’s not to say that West is doing everything alone like the untouchable genius he pretends to be — the guest list of producers is too long to count — but he’s certainly leading the efforts. His ambitious aim of producing a rap album with no rap beats isn’t really met here, but it’s as close as such a goal can realistically be, sampling the most diverse and tasteful set of genre-sweeping songs since Madlib on Madvillainy.

The features on “Pablo” are also well-chosen and artfully subtle, with big-name artists like Kid Cudi only appearing briefly to contribute a line or hum a bit. West is known for getting the best results from his guest artists, and he doesn’t disappoint here: the Weeknd is a particular highlight, providing the chorus for “FML.”

The song “Waves” is an interesting representation of the album as a whole: some of the lyrics are pitiful, some are decent; the central background noise is unusual and strangely beautiful; the features are wonderful; and the song actually comes together pretty well.

“The Life of Pablo” feels like a drunken confession of love — lazy, slurred, but full of heartfelt passion. Thoughtful reflections on family and faith share minutes with references to his wife’s pointless emoji app; sometimes it feels like a trainwreck, and sometimes it feels like his magnum opus.
It comes down to this: what are you looking for in a rap album? Historically, and in my opinion, the defining characteristic has always been lyrical prowess and meaning, and for the most part, that’s not to be found here.

But the rollercoaster quality of this album’s text is backed up by some of the best supporting noise in the genre. And so, despite my misgivings, he can rap about sandwiches, shoes and sex tapes all he wants.