Genre: Hip Hop
Producer: Kanye West, Rick Rubin, Noah Goldstein
Released: February 14, 2016
Despite over 30 million sold records and universal critical acclaim Kanye West’s music seems to largely be overshadowed by his larger-than-life persona. The infamous rapper-producer has become a modern day equivalent of the archetypal mad artist; his work groundbreaking, but his touch with reality slipping at best.
His long-awaited, repeatedly delayed seventh studio album spent a long time in a production limbo, going through series of of rewrites, four names and twentysomething producers. By the time The Life of Pablo was released all bets were off: none of the initial promotional singles, Paul McCartney collaborations “All Day”, “Only One” or “FourFiveSeconds”, made the final cut. Just two days before the album’s release, West revised the tracklist, adding seven additional songs on the album. The album is available only on Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, which urged over half a million people to pirate it on its day of release, causing losses of over 10 million dollars; so far the album has charted only in Denmark. None of this sounds exactly well thought out, but all of it does sound very Kanye West.
Album starts out small with “Ultralight Beam” that slowly grows from minimal percussion and a single vocal track to a mighty gospel choir. In its simplicity it’s one of the more coherent tracks on the album. “Famous” is the complete opposite of that: the verses endlessly repeat two minor keys that unnervingly clash with each other; the fluffy choruses sung by Rihanna are like warm honey poured straight on your eardrums. The two work well alone, but go together roughly as well as a barrel of liquid nitrogen and apple bobbing. This is a recurring theme on the album: it is full of interesting ideas that could’ve used some serious editing from someone with a hint of common sense. Now the listener is constantly thrown from one idea to another, being challenged to the point of confusion. “FML” deserves a special mention just for staying on focus for its almost four-minute runtime without suddenly turning into a beatboxed version of “Ride of the Valkyries”. Many of the individual concepts can be great on paper, but only a few of these ideas are harnessed in a way that results in a coherent, finished piece of music. Not that all the ideas included are that great, either: the start of “Freestyle 4” features weird, guttural “rah” noises that sounds like someone pitch-shifted a recording of a cat throwing up a hairball. Same kind of imbalance plagues West’s lyrical input. He goes from uncertainty of who his true friends are, to fucking models with bleached assholes and worrying about getting bleach on his shirt; from heartfelt and poignant to arrogant, tasteless, and far removed from reality.
However, when the album shines, it shines brighter than the bloated ego of its creator. “Real Friends” is haunting and honest look into how the fame has alienated West from his old friends and family. “Waves” is probably the only existing piece of recorded music featuring Chris Brown I can confidently call great. “No More Parties in LA” features delightfully concrete production from the jazz-rap producer Madlib and equally great delivery from Kendrick Lamar. In the end, all these are just small diamonds in a big, confused rough.
On his seventh album Kanye West has managed to create something that works more as a twisted collage of his psyche than a legitimate music album. The Life of Pablo is part a fantastic masterpiece in vein of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, part a terrible mess; as a result, it is completely Kanye West, in both good and bad.