Album Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

By Tom Loughney ’16

It’s finally here. The Life of Pablo, Kanye West’s new album, released on TIDAL last week, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Artists everywhere have laid down their brushes, their pencils, and their instruments, unanimously deciding that no more art needs to be made. All war has ended, Tupac came back from the dead, and the police threw Donald Trump in a gulag.

Actually, the world’s been pretty much exactly the same – there have just been a lot more thinkpieces about Kanye West. Such is life in the digital era. So sit back, relax, and get ready to disagree with my opinion – it’s review time.

“Ultralight Beam” is the bestsongKanyeWesthaseverproduced. Every single piece of this song – every scrap of sound, every structural movement, every lyrical delivery – overflows with everything that is good about Kanye. I think we have genre to thank for that – “Ultralight” is, by no small amount, a gospel song, and it’s clearly focused Ye in the best possible way. His lyrical direction–shared by the fantastic features: The-Dream,[2] Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper–commands a balance of humility and empowerment, which, historically, has resulted in Kanye’s most engaging thematic content. Strength From Faith In The Face of Adversity is the name of the game in “Ultralight Beam,” but–unlike similarly themed songs, such as “Jesus Walks”–struggle remains firmly outside the focus of this song. Confidence-via-faith manifests in the thematic center-stage as a captivating, passionate, and inspiring elocution of Kanye’s ‘I am a God’ approach to self-image. Unlike much of the content on Yeezus, however, “Ultralight Beam” is more self-acceptance than braggadocio, and while I don’t share Ye’s religious beliefs, I can’t help but throw myself into the lyrics every time this song comes on.

Structurally, and sonically, Kanye has crafted a song that mirrors the ideas and energy in his lyrics. This man was born to write gospel. The choral/hymnal structure and tone of gospel works with Kanye’s mastery of studio-altered sound in perfect concert. Ye deftly avoids overproducing gospel under a sonic idea, but still exerts meaningful control over the song’s architecture. The song’s build is my favorite expression of “Ultralight Beam’s” stylistic harmony, where Kanye sways in and out of varied dynamics – playing with the pace and intensity of the song. It builds, and builds, and BUILDS, AND THEN WHEN

AWESOME[1] GOSPEL CHOIRS AND FURIOUS DRUMS RIDE IN ON

GOD RAYS MADE OUT OF CRESCENDOED SYNTHS AND THE

HYPNOTIC PULL OF THE SONG IS AKIN TO AN

UNSTOPPABLE
BIBLICAL
FORCE –

 

It yanks everything right out from under you. Got. DAMN. The song completely empties out except for a few belted lines, punctuated by an astounding silence – just in case this song didn’t already have enough impact. “Ultralight Beam” is power and beauty, and it’s the best Kanye West song that exists today.

Kanye carries this heat into two other tracks, “Real Friends,” and “Waves.” I’ve already written about “Real Friends,” and my opinion hasn’t changed since then. It’s one of Kanye’s prettiest songs, and it gives “Ultralight Beam” a run for its money when it comes to being the best track on SWISH. “Waves” is arresting – with punchy synths, a lovely chord progression, and a positive message about love and respecting people’s choices. “Ultralight Beam,” “Real Friends,” and “Waves” are a tour de force of Kanye doing Kanye right, and are unquestionably some of my favorite songs of his.

Unfortunately, my appreciation of the rest of So Help Me God isn’t quite as unconditional. I still don’t know how I feel about some of these songs.[3] Take “FML,” for instance. Believe you me, I am on board with around ¾ of this song. It has some of my favorite production on this record, with the boldest atmospheric progression I’ve heard in years. Kanye drastically changes “FML’s” form by constantly increasing the rate at which the song evolves. The climax differs wildly from the simple, structured opening, with modulated sample vocals that slide up and down. It sounds like a despondent wail, and it destroys me every time. The backing production moves in a similar fashion, and the production’s bizarre kinetics respond perfectly to the sample. The concept sounds like it would make for a chaotic, busy song, but Kanye’s lined up these moving parts to have a tight, defined arrangement.

“FML’s” finale is stupidly brilliant, utilizing an interesting production concept in a really emotionally effective way, and near unrecognizable when compared side-by-side with the moody, barebones beginning. This track is just another example, like “Ultralight Beam” before it, of Kanye’s mastery of ‘the build.’ Even “FML’s” lyrics start strong, with a first verse full of A+ Kanye. This song is for Kim: “FML” also meaning “For My Lady,” and you can hear the love in his opening. “I been waiting for a minute / For my Lady / So I can’t jeopardize that for one of these hoes.” I can’t believe I’m typing this, but, apart from the “hoes” bit, Kanye’s showing actual humility here. The trust he has in Kim must be pretty solid if he’s willing to come to her with these flaws. It’s an intimate, self-reflective lyrical theme–a Kanye rarity that somewhat heightens my enjoyment of the track.

Too bad about that other ¼, though.

After rapping about how he’s going to set aside his flaws – putting family first – Kanye falls from his pedestal, and keeps on digging when he hits the ground. “See, before I let you go / One last thing I need to let you know” culminates in “But you ain’t finna be raising your voice at me / Especially when we in the Giuseppe store / But I’mma have the last laugh in the end / Cause I’m from a tribe called check a hoe.” Scene. This right here is the source of essentially all my conflicting feelings about the album. I’m aware that, historically, Kanye doesn’t critically engage the sexism in his lyrics, but that doesn’t mean this garbage doesn’t deeply bother me. Look at the progression here – I love you so much I’d do anything for you. But don’t you dare ever challenge me, or I’ll hit you. Look at how personal that is. He’s literally talking about spousal abuse.

Additionally, the infamous Taylor Swift lyric on “Famous”: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” The lyrics that immediately follow: “For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West / If you see them in the streets give ‘em Kanye’s best / Why? They mad they ain’t famous,” and one line on “No More Parties in L.A.”: “She brace herself and hold my stomach, good dick’ll do that / She keep pushin’ me back, good dick’ll do that / She push me back when the dick go too deep / This good dick’ll put your ass to sleep.” All of these lyrics exemplify the intimately malicious tone that pops up time and time again. They’re all uniquely terrible in their own self-evident ways, so I’m not going to break down why this affects my ability to enjoy these songs. I’m not willing to separate Kanye’s lyrical presence from the music, so bear that in mind when you consider my final score. Even I don’t quite know how all this might affect my final opinion yet–SPOILER ALERT: it’s probably not going to improve anything.

As a result of the aforementioned lyrical tumors Ye has decided to sprinkle into the DNA of this record, there are several songs floating in the ether of my mind– songs like “No More Parties,” “Wolves,” and “Famous” that simply exist in a state where I hate them and love them at the same time. I’ve written about “No More Parties’” strengths and weaknesses–partially in this review, and partially in my track review–so I’ll stick to the broad strokes: man, this is the first time I’ve ever heard a Kendrick Lamar feature and thought, god, this song would be vastly improved if you weren’t on it. Production’s great. Lamar’s feature is whack. Nearly every line includes an example of my recent complaints–vis-à-vis sexism.[4]

“Wolves,” unfortunately, doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to offer. It’s spooky, for sure–I’ll get to samples in a hot minute, and yooooooo that female vocal sample–but this track has nothing else going for it. Some more unappealing lyrics hyping up how much better Kanye is at ‘doing all that good good sex stuff’ than everyone else. Another similarly forgettable track, “Highlights,” is a thematic carbon copy of “Wolves,” with even less worthwhile production. Kanye raps about how his genitals are the best genitals that have ever done genital stuff. Good for you Kanye. You’re a special, special boy.

Kanye’s penis actually has a lot in common with nearly every skit on WAVES, in that they all fail to hold my attention. “Silver Surfer Intermission” serves as a glaring example of Kanye’s neurotic investment in pointless beefs. Additionally, “Low Lights’” expression of faith doesn’t do it for me quite like “Ultralight Beam” did. Those with greater spiritual proclivities than I may enjoy this track, though. I’m also going to lump “Freestyle 4” in with this group, primarily because it’s as redundant as the aforementioned skits. Weak production, weak rhymes, weak everything. Minimal effort. I suppose you could also throw “FACTS” in with this crew as well. While Kanye has somewhat improved the production since this track’s original release as a single, something remains to be lacking.

All this being said, I love Kanye, and I love “I Love Kanye.” I don’t have much to say about it, but man this skit is cracks me up. Self-aware. Tongue-in-cheek. This is Kanye’s funniest skit since College Dropout.

Fortunately, Kanye’s sampling ends up far more consistent than his skits. In fact, I’d be willing to say that this album contains the best sampling Kanye’s ever put to his songs. Listen to the last minute (or so) of “Famous.” My God. He takes these sounds, and manipulates their rhythm, pitch, and texture in a way that successfully alters their direction without erasing their origin. You can hear this happening on other fantastic tracks, such as “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” “30 Hours,” and “Fade.” If you decide to listen to this album, I would encourage you to watch this video breaking down the samples.

When it comes right down to it, this album has a lot of good parts to it. There’s a couple more tracks on this record – “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” and “Feedback”–whose qualities pale in comparison to their peers, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they’re still fun listens. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: right now, Kanye’s at peak ‘Kanye.’ Unfortunately, this means that his bad is as intense as his good. Earlier, I mentioned that my critical opinion of much of this album exists in a state where I love it and hate it at the same time, a real Schrödinger’s Cat of criticism, I suppose. As such, I’m not going to rate this album. Assuming you’ve read this whole review, you have the information necessary to decide if you want to listen–or not listen–to The Life of Pablo. I enjoyed it, and I’d recommend it – and, really, that’s all I’m here to tell you.  It’s one of Kanye’s best works, but it’s also very difficult to like at points. Hopefully you can manage to enjoy it.

/10

Favorite Tracks: “Ultralight Beam,” “FML,” “Famous,” “Real Friends,” “Waves”

Least Favorite Tracks: “FML,” “Famous,” “FACTS,” “Freestyle 4”

——

[1] IN THE OLD TESTAMENT KINDA WAY

[2] Whose feature game is nothing short of excellent, by the way.

[3] Which is exactly what you want to read in an album review.

 [4] Dude you made To Pimp A Butterfly what are you dooooooing.

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