It’s almost masterful how inseparable Kanye West made his public persona and his music over the month leading up to the release of his seventh full length LP, The Life of Pablo. How would anyone be able to separate the details of his life and the music he creates, a line that’s already been blurry for the better part of the last decade? When you consider just how public the creation of the record (seemingly) was, opinions on both Kanye and The Life of Pablo were being formed in up-to-the-minute detail prior to the actual release. Waves/SWISH/The Life of Pablo has taken on hundreds of different forms and would continue to take on forms even after its release leading up to (hopefully) now. In that way, The Life of Pablo is a fantastically imperfect album that doubled down on its big stakes setting.
I want to be clear and upfront: There is a masterpiece lying somewhere within The Life of Pablo. If the rappers constant tweaking of the record in the months after its Valentine’s Day release were any indication, he clearly thought that too. In the hangover after the album dropped, the general immediate consensus was that this album WAS a masterpiece even in spite of its flaws, and as problematic as the word “masterpiece” has become in our modern culture, I’m left months after the release still thinking Kanye didn’t quite achieve what he wanted.
But I’m not sure that’s a BAD thing. I have lots of reservations about the album, but then again, I have my own reservations about Late Registration and that is, in my opinion, the best Kanye West album. When describing The Life Of Pablo to people, my first line of comparison for them is that this essentially IS in the same vein of College Dropout or Late Registration, even if it sonically pushes the radicalness of Yeezus in gospel-y new directions. The early Kanye West albums are loose, filled with interludes and skits and moments of revealing humanness in the cracks of Kanye’s immaculate production. Looking at his last three studio albums, from 808s & Heartbreak to Yeezus, there was an ergonomic sense of purpose. He went from an album like Graduation, that even at only 13 tracks is still 51 minutes, to 808s at only 11 tracks and 46 minutes, and to Yeezus, an album so incredibly tight (10 tracks, 40 minutes) that you have to consider it as potentially the BEST Kanye West record. At 20 (!) tracks and over an hour in length, West went from teasing a shorter, tighter album on Twitter to instead, in the midnight hour, releasing something that throws some shit at a wall and sees what sticks. Hell, even in his constant tweaking the record became more bloated (moving from the initially released 18 tracks to the current 20. Who knows, in a year it might be up to 24, only time or Kim Kardashian will tell.) Given the multitude of various track listings he posted on Twitter (most of which sat somewhere at 10 to 12 tracks), I’ll reiterate: There is a masterpiece SOMEWHERE in here.
But then again maybe that’s the brilliance of the album. Even with misses like completely lacking Nike diss track “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”, or the meandering Max B phone call on “Silver Surfer Intermission”, or the ad-libbing beat running tagged onto the end of “30 Hours”, it almost highlights the brilliance of everything else on the album. I’ve always hated positives through negatives, but certainly we can take all the odd nuances to the album and make a reasonable thesis that The Life Of Pablo very acutely captures the maddening genius of Kanye West – more so than any of his other releases. Remember that “Waves”, one the albums weakest songs, was the reason the release was delayed even further in those final hours, Valentine’s Day 2016. I can’t explain what made ‘Ye think this was the song that was going to quote-unquote “complete” his album, but it is assuredly a fascinating window into the group-think by-committee album making process he’s come to live by. I don’t think the insight into that process makes it an amazing album, but at least for those of us living in the year 2016, and those of us who will forever remember the LP’s strange and twisted rollout, it will go down as the most vulnerable and fascinating insights into his psyche.
Even with its lowest of lows (I mean seriously, “Facts” is inexcusable), The Life of Pablo also finds Kanye at his highest of highs. “Ultralight Beam” goes down as ‘Ye’s second best album opener behind “Dark Fantasy”. “Real Friends” is one of the best songs of the year, and even in spite of his unfortunate tinkering with “Wolves”, that combined with “Franks Track” remains the work of a genius that over thought reverting the track back to its orgins with Sia and Vic Mensa (I mean serious, don’t disrespect Frank Ocean like that.)
The surprise add of “Saint Pablo” as the closing track deserves a particular highlight. In fact, if the two biggest changes on the album were splitting “Wolves” into two tracks and adding “Saint Pablo” as a closer (there are lots of changes but these are the most blatant), the tinkering ends up being net positive. “Fade”, the records previous closer, was one of the largest issues with the first “draft” (?) of the LP. But “Saint Pablo”? I mean good lord. The beat is absolutely everything the album needs to close on – it’s vicious, direct, and offers moments of head clearing clarity, all while being a legitimately satisfying closure. Given it’s inclusion months after the initial album, “Saint Pablo” was more than likely a track he didn’t have prepared in time for the first release and, with that, allowed Kanye a chance to create something that was reactive of his critics in real time. That’s what makes “Saint Pablo” so great both as an album closer and a part of The Life of Pablo: It’s has focus. For a record that feels stressful, both on Kanye’s rapping, and on the varying degrees of production and how they interlock together, “Saint Pablo” feels meditative. It’s the best beat-for-beat rapping we’ve seen from Kanye in a long time – no jokes, no unnecessary beefs, just all the things we wanted from Kanye for The Life of Pablo. He even throws it back to “We Don’t Care” off College Dropout when he yet again claims he wasn’t supposed to make it past 25… odd to think he was only 27 when he uttered it the first time and here we are in 2016, with him staring 40 down the barrel of a gun.
The Life of Pablo is a mess. It may be a glorious mess, but it’s a mess nonetheless. It’s messiness, fortunately, reflects the state of not just Kanye West these days, but also the rapidly changing world. Perfectly imperfect, filled with unique future-casting beats, and both highs and lows of his career, Kanye West proves once again that, love him or hate him, he’s impossible not to come across as fascinating. If “Saint Pablo” is any indicator, I hope he’s able to take a moment of pause and really focus. I hope that for our world right now. Grade: B+