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Let’s begin with the obvious: Kanye West is the best album artist in hip-hop history, and The Life of Pablo stretches his run to seven straight without a dud. (Disclosure: I am not a fan of 808s & Heartbreak. I understand that’s an unpopular opinion.) The Life of Pablo is not a bold left turn like its predecessor, Yeezus. It doesn’t boast Graduation’s stadium anthems. Unlike 808s, it will not inspire any New Kanyes. It will not top Best of the Decade lists like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
It’s all there, however: The glory of “Ultralight Beam”; the gnawing mo money mo problems self-loathing of “Real Friends” (“I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions”); the sardonic wit of “I Love Kanye” with its message for West’s trapped-in-the-2000s fans; and the anarchy of “Feedback,” where he declares, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” Never has West appeared as unhinged as on the latter. For the first time in his career—even counting the abrasive Yeezus—this middle class doyen sounds dangerous.
For the first time in his career—even counting the abrasive Yeezus—this middle class doyen sounds dangerous.
But he’s still the same ole Kanye: clever, insecure, ambitious, and brimming with contradictions. He is both sympathetic (“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2”) and a heel (take your pick but most notably on “Famous” and “30 Hours”). He is a paranoid father-protector on the haunting “Wolves.” He is also someone who raps about fucking models with bleached assholes (“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”)—in short, a douchebag.
The production, naturally, is gorgeous, though tough to pin down with adjectives and onomatopoeias, so let’s leave it at “a more soulful Yeezus.” TLOP features elements of gospel, trap, and, yes, soul; Nina, Drake’s uncle, Whodini, and “Bam Bam” are sampled. And like each Kanye West solo album before it, TLOP is a collaborative effort, this time featuring a battalion of producers, André 3000, Young Thug, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, a call from Max B, a call from Gabe, and a star-making turn from Chance the Rapper.
With that said, it must be asked: Does the music even matter anymore when it comes to Kanye West? Because I can’t remember the last conversation I had about West’s music with someone who doesn’t write about music for a living. The Life of Pablo will not change that. No album short of a Thriller or 1989-like blockbuster could. At this point in his career, fair or not, West is defined by the tirades and the petty feuds. He is famous for being infamous: the abomination of Obama’s nation.
Five, 10, 15, 20 years from now when The Life of Pablo is feted with anniversary pieces the focus will not be on the beauty of “Waves” or the nifty “No More Parties in L.A.,” which features West’s most impressive bars in years. Aside from the Madison Square Garden premiere of Yeezy Season 3—a landmark event no matter your opinion on the clothes—and a joyous Saturday Night Live performance, what will be remembered is the nonsense: the clumsy rollout, the fitting cameo from pharma Gollum Martin Shkreli, Tidal’s latest gaffe, and the Taylor Swift diss. For the benefit of anyone luckily not paying attention, West said, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/I made that bitch famous.”
Of course, there are also the repulsive tweets where West roped his ex’s child into a pointless scrum and then dismissed the many, many women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault; begging Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollars seemed sensible by comparison. Then it was all retweeted, liked or faved, and recycled into “content.” The Life of Pablo is the first album made for Twitter Moments, a plot point on a grotesque reality show.
A serious turn developed on Friday, when West’s longtime collaborator Rhymefest (“Jesus Walks”) announced the recent end of their working relationship. “My brother needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual & mental. He should step away from the public & yesmen & heal,” Rhymefest wrote in a series of tweets. “I love my brother. I pray for his health not our entertainment.”
Obviously, this is where we cite West’s reference to the anti-depressant Lexapro on TLOP and his cries of “I’ve been out of my mind a long time.” But Rhymefest’s admission also called to mind “Forever,” a victory lap of a song from 2009 featuring Drake, Lil Wayne, and Eminem. Whereas Drake, a rookie at the time, filled his verse with postures and boasts, the veterans go dark, none more so than Mr. West. He laments the loss of his grandmother and the lurking presence of Real Friends (“Like they was down with the old me, no you fucking wasn’t”), before closing the verse with a confession:
“Chasing the stardom will turn you to a maniac
All the way in Hollywood and I can’t even act
They pull the cameras out and goddamn, he snap
I used to want this thing forever, y’all can have it back”