(The review is an homage to Nathan Wisnicki’s review of Joanna Newsom’s Divers, published by Pretty Much Amazings.)
Reading reviews of a new Kanye West album is like watching freight trains fall over. No critical darling in popular music over the last 10 years – except maybe Joanna Newsom – invites more exhaustingly polar shades of adoration (overwrought purpleness on the one side) and contempt (clueless hissy fits on the other). Lotsa people love him, lotsa people can’t stand him, but what ties both the love and the hate together is bewilderment.
Fine by me, at least in theory! Visceral bewilderment is interesting. If an artist inspires lots of staunchly determined reactions on opposite sides, well, I’ve always figured those kinds of artists are probably doing something important! Distaste for West seems to stem from pretty obvious places: they hate his public persona, which they think informs his music (his lyrics, certainly; his sound, certainly not). Alas, sometimes even the smart people don’t want to do the work of acknowledging the talent it takes to organize the sounds that turn them off. To put it bluntly, people who truly hate Kanye West’s music hate it because they know, even if they don’t wanna admit it, that they can’t brush it off as easily as they’d like.
My one-sentence opinion of Kanye West is that I’ve liked him since I first heard him, he’s never made a bad album, and nothing he’s done since the first one has been nearly that good (although few have come close). The College Dropout — God I fucking love that record. In the nightmarish year of 2004, that debut was a quirky, casually sophisticated little miracle. Lyrically, he’s always been the type for easy humour, but on Dropout he’s also genuinely thoughtful and even profound about Real Issues, the downright breathtaking melodies kind and sweet and curious in turn without tempering quirkiness. And West’s singing – which, for the record, has never bothered me – inflected words in a way that could snap your heart in two with the tiniest flicker or fade in his voice (on that record because he couldn’t sing and on subsequent records because of vocal effects). The cover of the album looked like a benched bear, and the music felt the same way. While West’s palette has grown, his lyrics have only regressed, and with it, the subtlety of his music. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy still had glimpses of the vulnerability of “Family Business” and “Hey Mama”, but always off-set by what I think is his need to protect his ego, which some people mistake as “being full of himself”: “Runaway”’s “I don’t know how I’mma manage, if one day you just up and leave” preceded by “I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”; “Blame Game”’s entire premise off-set by the infamous Chris Rock skit. By 2013, there wasn’t any humanity left.
Whether you loved or hated Yeezus, you were probably an idiot, and the same goes for this one; music that is out there doesn’t make it bad or good by default…it just makes it out there.
West certainly knows how to calculate his product to sustain interest. The talk of how he ‘subverts expectations’ is just noise, as his albums actually follow a fairly logical and (indeed) savvy trajectory with the exception of Graduation, Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer (the latter two are excluded in the following list for simplicity’s sake): (1) humble debut; (2) sophisticated sophomore; (3) the just-mentioned unambitious side-step; (4) a warm-up for something no one would see coming; (5) a magnum so opus; and (6) a complete shift into the grotesque. People: niche artists like Kanye West don’t inspire ‘expectations’ to subvert, almost by definition. What expectations can you ‘subvert’ when you’re Kanye West with early access to Jay-Z and Talib Kweli and pretty soon had Bon Iver and Andre 3000 on call? (I’m still wondering what exactly inspired the choice of Andre 3000, by the way, for anything beyond name recognition. All that unique hooks he’s so renowned for?) When you start your career singing in that voice, your only option is to either go big or go home, y’know? Not that that’s fair, of course; it’s not Kanye’s fault we pop music consumers are fickle scum. But let’s not lose our heads here. Y’know who actually subverts expectations? Taylor Swift.
Anyway, with all that baggage out in the open, The Life of Pablo takes another logical step, by merging the gospel-hop of his early career with the focused grotesqueness of Yeezus. This is easily West’s most hazardously arranged album (and I’m not merely talking about the track-sequencing, ie. how the useless “Low Lights” knocks the momentum that the first five songs worked so hard for), with a constant revolving door of sounds through samples, features, instruments and beat switches; consider Donnie Trumpet’s subtle textures during the climax of Chance’s rap; witness The-Dream taking over the hook duty at the end of “Highlights”. And yet it never feels gimmicky; you can bask in the sheer collection of sounds and colors even if the words or structures leave you wanting. At its best, this makes The Life of Pablo sound very ‘out of time’ in a way that evokes genuine atmosphere and sometimes reaches uncanny levels, like the way the most beautiful moment on the album (Rihanna’s delivery of “I just wanted you to know, I loved you better than your own kin dearrrrrrrr) is eventually revealed to be a Nina Simone soundbyte after the friendly way Kanye West minced the vocals from Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam.” (On that note, here’s a PSA: when Kanye West samples Nina Simone, you listen.) Certain songs should be heard at least once just for the hues to wash over you: the Satanic string line of “Freestyle 4”, or the highway-momentum of the otherwise useless “Fade” (the album’s worst proper song, and even the momentum doesn’t compare to Robyn & Royksopp’s “Sayit”). Here’s an idea: someone take the beat of “Fade” and throw it under “I Love Kanye”, keeping that meta-tastic song at 40 seconds and deleting “Fade” whole.
What results is an album that can compete with his best works in terms of sound but not by song: the flight-landing way he sings the hook on “Ultralight Beam” (“We on an ultralight beam, we on an ultralight beam / This is a God dream, this is a God dream / This is everything), a song which would fully invalidate the meme floating around showing Kanye’s tweet claiming The Life of Pablo is a gospel record and attempting to invalidate it with the asshole line on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” if only the people who keep sharing it bothered to listen to the actual music. On that same song, Chance the Rapper drops (as expected) one of the best verses on the album, managing to reference Kanye West’s “Otis” (“I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to tell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”) sandwiched between references to his own repertoire (“I been this way since Arthur was anteater”; “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance three”), not to mention the sweeter way he delivers “This is my part, nobody else speak” the second time, or the way he brings the verse (and thus, the song) into climax (“UGH!”). But as mentions, highlights by sound, not song: “Ultralight Beam” hits its climax the moment the choir steps in and tries to continue its plateau for another 4 minutes. That being said, it’s as richly textured and irrepressibly melodic as anything in his catalog.
Other highlights: the loop of “Feedback,” which roars louder than any recent rock song, coupled with the album’s most direct hook and some of Kanye’s better rapping on the album (though the way he leans on repetition of lines seems less of an attempt to spin a hook into a mantra and more born out of sheer laziness; see also the triple repetition of “I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow / I know it’s corny niggas you wish you could unswallow” from “Wolves,” paling in comparison to the double repetition of “New Slaves”’ “There’s leaders and there’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”), not to mention that the song is both sonically and structurally a second-rate “On Sight.” Elsewhere, there’s the extreme praise in that Chance the Rapper manages to make Chris Brown likeable on “Waves”; the underwater hook of “30 Hours” (whose outro reminded me of “Last Call,” in its casual autobiographical way); Frank Ocean’s fey outro on “Wolves” which would have made for the perfect closer, even though I feel like Vic Mensa would have only helped the song. And the Madlib collaboration of “No More Parties in LA” is a marvel: everything you would think it would be given the two best hip-hop producers of all time working together and given the of the best hip-hop artists of all time rapping on it; Kendrick inspires Kanye in the same way Kanye often inspires lesser artists.
Which brings us to the rather vexing issue of West’s “poetry”. Some songs fare poorly in the lyrics department, with banal wordplay (“Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleacher her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’mma feel like an asshole”; “Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby? / Did he forget the names just like Steve Cosby”, gag me) or teases that don’t add anything (I want to hear something more specific with “Silver Surfer Transmission” especially with that title!). The weirdly-structured “Highlights” under-uses the charming Young Thug to service a line where West raps “Sometimes I’m wishing that my dick had GoPro / So I could play that shit back in slo-mo / I just shot an amateur video, I think I should go pro.” I think we’ve all been there, amirite? I remember wishing that my dick had GoPro. It was like last Tuesday, I remember — around 4:30?
That being said, even in the second-tier songs here, there are noble attempts in the music to keep your ears entertained, even if the lyrics turn you off: the attempt at re-creating “New Slaves” in “FML”, a song that’s been worth the attempts at re-creation (and I’m not just talking about Kanye); the wintry detachment of “Real Friends”; Kanye unleashing himself in a way that he attempted on “Black Skinhead” on “Facts” (“I was out here spazzing, all y’all get the MESSAGE?!!?”), a song that jumps over Drake & Future’s “Jumpman” (which it references, flow-wise).
It’s always been dumb as shit to brush Kanye West off as some sort of navel-gazing, in-over-his-head amateur. Hell, the combination of the people involved here is probably as good a team of musicians as you can get in the same room. Even if the execution weren’t up to par, in theory, I’m down with the principles of West’s last few albums, and you should be too: anyone who tries to break down the barriers of popular music’s depth-of-currency should be saluted.
In an interview in 2015, Kanye said this:
“I believe awesome is possible.”
I believe him — hit me, Kanye! ‘Tis the season!