By Jack Frayne-Reid
I am writing this review after my deadline in order to channel the spur-of-the-moment spirit of Kanye West's new album, The Life of Pablo. Don't be surprised if, no sooner has this issue of Le Nurb materialised, than it has rapidly been pulled from shelves whilst I do some last-minute tinkering around the edges.
I'm actually not even sure the version I'm reviewing is the final Life of Pablo at all. The edges could still be tinkered with yet further. Certainly, it's the same album you can stream snippets of on West's website, or the entirety of on Tidal, or download illegally like a normal person (it's not available as a commercial release). But that version was not the same one he unveiled at Madison Square Garden three days prior. Nor was it the same album that he gave the beef-sparking title of Waves, before dropping the song Waves from the tracklisting, then delaying the album's release to bring it back at the insistence of Chance the Rapper. ...Pablo probably bears precious little resemblance to SWISH or So Help Me God, the two iterations of the album West appeared to be working on throughout 2014 and '15.
His last studio album, 2013's Yeezus, was harsh and abrasive. Music critics fell over themselves to compare it to various punk rock records, as their only hip-hop reference point seemed to be "this sounds a bit like Death Grips," by which they meant "harsh and abrasive," because it didn't actually sound much like Death Grips. Yeezus' brilliance lay in the way that it was still recognisably pop music, but chopped up, stripped down, flying in the face of his previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's maximalist arrangements, any beauty that threatened to break through sullied by starkly confrontational lyrics.
With only ten tracks and hardly a traditional rap banger among them, Yeezus could be a difficult listen, but it has held up as a cohesive and hard-hitting album, bereft of filler and prescient for the way it pointed to a heavier, more electronic, less sample-based future for hip-hop production. Sure, some people got there before Yeezus, but one of the great services Kanye West provides to pop culture is that of a curator or a gatekeeper; he finds cool sounds where nobody else would and makes them mainstream.
Having said he would release an album as early as Summer 2014, tracks that have surfaced from the initial sessions for his Yeezus follow-up (God Level, Piss on Your Grave) indicate a similar level of spleen-venting and synthesized vituperation. It seems, however, that West struggled to find as consistent an approach as the "nothing is sacred" Yeezus mentality. At one point, So Help Me God contained Only One (a delicate ballad about familial love where the only instrumentation is Paul McCartney playing organ), the soul-flavoured Tell Your Friends (released as a single by The Weeknd) and the psychedelic trap of 3200 (released by Travi$ Scott, who also bagged Piss on Your Grave for his Rodeo album, the lucky fella.) West even put out a collaborative single with McCartney and Rihanna (FourFiveSeconds) that was mostly notable for being thematically identical to Rebecca Black's viral sensation Friday, but blander and with less rapping.
The only Life of Pablo cut visible on a partially obscured picture of an early tracklisting is Famous or, as it was then known, Nina Chop. The song audaciously samples its erstwhile namesake Nina Simone (specifically her version of Jimmy Webb's Do What You Gotta Do); the audacity largely coming from the way West only actually uses Simone's voice for a few bars at the end, replacing her throughout the song with Rihanna singing the same parts. This is OK, however, because Rihanna is great. Abetted by a positively slamming beat that interpolates Sister Nancy's dancehall classic Bam Bam to stirring effect, West utilises the three women's voices in an extraordinarily beautiful way. Shame, then, that this song will probably best be remembered for the lines "I feel like me and Taylor (Swift) might still have sex / I made that bitch famous."
There is little rhyme or reason behind the inclusion of such shoddy lyrics (often quite literally "little rhyme," unless you count rhyming "asshole" with "asshole" as such.) West's misogyny is basically indefensible, given he has all the resources in the world to learn better, and he positions himself as the most important artist alive, at the epicentre of the culture. Ethics aside, the most important artist in 2016 cannot be misogynistic, because by being so they place themselves outside of any relevant discourse currently taking place, "othering" women who might want to engage with their art. There's being a flawed, complicated character, and then there's being a 38 year-old man with a loving wife and two kids, who still feels compelled to fire constant shots at the "bitches" he feels have crossed him. Whilst West has defended "bitch" as a term of endearment a la "nigga," it seldom feels like one in the context of his verses.
This needs to be pointed out because Kanye West is a brilliant musician and has a lot going for him, and it's criminal that he keeps tarnishing the beautiful music he makes with lazy, haphazard lyricism. On Yeezus, that a whole chunk of the lyrics were basically morally repugnant was an essential component of the album's sonic architecture; if you're going to have a beat as warped and hellish as I'm In It, you might as well have Ye saying he'll put his "fist in you like a civil rights sign" and Jamaican dancehall singer Assassin bellowing semi-intelligibly about spraying you with bullets "like an aerosol can". But on The Life of Pablo, where he seems to be in slightly more of a here-to-please mode, delivering bits of everyone's favourite Kanye - the old Kanye, the new Kanye, and everything in between - there can sometimes be a dissonance between the joy-bringing human jukebox behind the decks and the lyricist who keeps returning to the same bitterness and spite; generally turned outwards, generally in the direction of women.
On some of the tracks that are musically more coarse or acerbic, the Yeezus effect works wonders and his lyrics seem less sexist than simply about sex; notably on the absolutely nuts Freestyle 4 (god knows what 1, 2 and 3 were like) in which, amidst screaming about fucking on a dinner table, he exclaims "oh shit! My dick out!" as if he's been caught unawares by a shock wardrobe malfunction, all over a sample of twee folktronica types Goldfrapp. The braggadocious Feedback holds similar trashy thrills, coming across as an answer to Kendrick Lamar's jive-talking masterclass Backseat Freestyle as Ye hits out at gossiping bloggers and admonishes his doubters to "name one genius that ain't crazy!" It's a false equivalence, but it's a good line, and so Kanye.
Whilst these tracks hold up because they don't have any pretentions of profundity (beyond Feedback's Mike Brown-referencing "hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us / hands up, hands up, then the cop shot us") the best ones - lyrically, at least - are where West drops the bravado and suggests that maybe, just maybe, everything might not actually be ok. The first track on the album, Ultra Light Beam, is maybe the most powerful, finding West working more as a conductor than a rapper, singing a bit over the sparse, gospel choir-aided instrumental, but mostly giving the floor to The-Dream and Kelly Price to sing soulfully, Kirk Franklin to sermonise, and Chance the Rapper to deliver the verse of a lifetime; one that rhymes "Pangaea" and "Zambia" with "anteater," in reference to the TV show Arthur. That he let Chance unfurl such an incredible tempest of bars on his first track shows that, for all the ego, if West thinks somebody can do better work than he can, he steps aside and lets them do so.
If there's anything important about The Life of Pablo (beyond the way its release strategy pours scorn on the very concept of the album as a complete, cohesive entity) it's that West has begun to openly and frankly rap about his mental health, and I don't just mean that line where he also calls himself a genius. When superstars like West admit to issues concerning mental health, it can help destigmatise it for "normal" people, and people can tend to sneer at someone like West without wondering how they'd cope in his shoes. The start of FML finds him introspective; singing over sparse synthesizer chords of how he worries that his flaws and temptations will drive him to "lose half of what I own." After a gorgeous falsetto hook by the Weeknd, the drums kick in and 'Ye starts rapping, confessing with a shocking honesty that "you ain't never seen nothing crazier than this nigga when he off his lexapro" (an antidepressant) and alluding to a manic episode. In its bizarre art-rock coda, eerie pitch-shifted vocals invite you to "see through the veil and forget all of your cares," whilst Ye screams in tortured, strangled autotune; "don't stop your loving! They don't wanna see me love you!" It is a very particular type of genius.
On the monstrously funky Madlib-produced No More Parties in LA, West's rapid-fire three-minute verse is possibly his most autobiographical on the album; a breathless description of where he's currently at in his life, warts and all. He confides that he has also been using the anti-anxiety drug Xanax (although he plays this for comic effect, in keeping with the song's theme of exasperated party fatigue; "if I knew y'all made plans I wouldn't've popped the Xans") and that he has been seeing a psychiatrist, although he takes comfort in the fact he's inspired their children to make music. Kendrick Lamar's verse rollicks along on a typically immaculate flow, but all there really is to it is a series of sly, supremely quotable quips about hooking up in LA. It's pretty great, but run of the mill by the standards of the greatest MC currently working. West's verse is starkly personal in comparison and, what's more, his flow is excellent; he knows that to follow Kendrick Lamar he'd either have to cede the stage completely, get the autotune out, and not even try to outdo the purveyor of such lyrical fire, or, alternately, simply rap his ass off.
He opts for the latter, acknowledging that "some fans thought I wouldn't rap like this again, but the writer's block is over, MCs, cancel your plans!" Given the sheer number of signatures on the various handwritten tracklistings he posted on Twitter, it seems half the MCs in the Western World (as in, the world in which Kanye lives) did cancel their plans for him, but it would have been nice if he had kept up this calibre of rapping on the rest of the record. The verse does, however, adhere to the unwritten rule that if you let Kanye rap for a certain amount of time, he will inevitably circle back to the subject of his penis. Somewhere towards the end of the colossal three-minute spit-fest, the intimate divulgences have dissolved into the (possibly more intimate) "she push me back when the dick go too deep / this good dick can put your ass to sleep!" Which, to the impartial observer, doesn't sound like very good dick at all.
I don't mind that he doesn't rap until the fourth track on the album. It's 2016; autotune's been kicking around for a while. It's just that when he's bleating away about a model's bleached asshole, seconds after a deeply spiritual track with some solid bars on it (thanks, Chance) it can kill one's buzz a bit. Father Stretch My Hand Pt 2 is a major step up from its bleach-stained predecessor because Kanye's verse has my favourite autotune tone; panicked and desperate, as he first regrets that, like his father before him, his compulsive workaholism is keeping him from his family, then takes the listener through a concise set of bullet-points of his life thus far, not necessarily in order; crashing markets hitting his dad hard, his parents' divorce, finding wealth, his mother's death ("lost my soul"), the famous car crash that broke his jaw. "I'm coming back", he assures us, before 18 year-old Brooklyn trap rapper Desiigner inexplicably appears to declare that he's got "broads in Atlanta." I don't know about his "broads," but if anything of Desiigner's is in Atlanta it appears to be his whole musical style, which is basically that of Future.
West seems to be using Desiigner's part (sampled from another song) as just another musical texture; the fact that his lyrics are wildly unrelated to West's seems unimportant, the same way that, on Yeezus, Assassin's verses never had anything to do with the songs he appeared on. This patchwork approach of warring musical components that suddenly displace one another has been retained from that album, and must surely be alienating to those who favour the Kanye who made more conventionally songy stuff; the old Kanye, the chop up the soul Kanye. On the extremely self-aware a capella track I Love Kanye, he recognises that some fans prefer that to the "new Kanye, the always rude Kanye, the bad mood Kanye," but doesn't indicate that the new Kanye's going anywhere. Of course, there is a version of the song floating about online with an extremely "Old Kanye," soul-sampling beat. It is a joy to behold.
Given West himself is lyrically all over the place, you might find yourself gravitating to tracks on the album based on who else appears on them. Personally, I like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and The Weeknd, so I'm big into No More Parties in LA, Ultralight Beam and FML. Someone else might find themselves gravitating towards Waves if they're able to actually listen to Chris Brown without picturing the bloodied face of a somewhat more beloved pop star (who also appears on The Life of Pablo.) Waves is not a bad track, with shimmering ripples of synthesizer that sound like those watery things surfers ride on, but even with a last-minute verse penned for West by Chance the Rapper ("sun don't shine in the shade / bird can't fly in a cage") the song feels weightless and a little incomplete.
Real Friends into Wolves is a great segue, as the former's beat dissolves into ethereality, high-pitched ooh-ing continuing as Wolves' cold stabs of bass cut through. I said I don't mind autotune; it would be better if Wolves didn't contain any rapping at all, and that's not even getting into the whole business of the Kim Kardashian/Virgin Mary metaphor. Beyond a palpable bit of fatherly paranoia in its final bars, it's full of corny lines that completely derail the song's spectral bleakness, a haunting tone established as West sets the scene ("lost out / beat up") over a minimal beat. It is a great shame that he cut the sublime vocals by Sia and Vic Mensa that appear in the song's demo, but at least Frank Ocean sings prettily at the end (speaking of taking too long to make your album...) Real Friends, by contrast, features some of West's best spitting in years; a choppy, locked-in, soul-bearing flow. It is a perfect track.
Facts was one of the last minute additions of the album, presented here in the "Charlie Heat Version," which has rather more pizzazz (read; in-your-face synths) than single version he released on New Year's Eve. The song is a series of braggadocious statements about things nobody who isn't an ultra-rich celebrity could possibly care about, spat over a carbon copy of Drake and Future's Jumpman beat (the two rappers get writing credits). It's hard to pick which socialite brag on the track is the most trivial; possibly his triumphant declaration that "Kimoji just shut down the app store," which sounds like some sinister corporate takeover by a Japanese tech giant.
He also asks "do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby? Did he forget the names just like Steve Harvey?" It didn't appear sincere at the time, but what seemed like an awkward ripped-from-the-headlines couplet in the haze of the New Year now come off like some of the most repugnant bars of 2016 in light of that "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!" Tweet. Given the female characters in West's lyrics tend to go by the name "bitch"; it is entirely possible that he thinks it plausible that Cosby would forget the names of all fifty-seven of his alleged victims. Otherwise, I'm sure the veteran comedian would be happy to explain how it was all just a big series of strangely similar misunderstandings!
I'm comforted by how, on the adlibbed outro of 30 Hours (which lasts for more than two minutes and could've fit a verse by Andre 3000, who Kanye explains he recruited to sing backing vocals as he "had to get the flyest nigga on this shit") Kanye says it's a bonus track, which implies that Facts is too, as well as the terribly boring album closer Fade. But that would also mean No More Parties in LA wouldn't be on the record proper, nor 30 Hours itself, which is a pretty fantastic track despite the lack of a properly written second half. So much great music was recorded for this album. Why do I have so many complaints with it? Why were so many baffling decisions made concerning its contents? How can something that was worked on for so long feel so incomplete and last-minute? A demo of Highlights has surfaced, and components from both it and the released version, if combined, could make for a mildly less confusing, aimless listen. But opportunities were missed, and the dumb line about Ray J somehow made the cut.
I suppose if you work on something for a long time, and keep going off to do other things, then returning to it, you might find it hard to find a clear through-line of inspiration for the whole project. Kanye West has unquestionably been recording a lot of music over the last few years, but he has a lot on his plate besides music. He recently reported that he's 53 million dollars in personal debt. (Who keeps lending him all this money? It's socialism for the rich, I tell you.) He is constantly trying to see his ideas fully realised in any number of areas, although fashion seems to be the one he has chosen to pursue with the same vigour as he once did music. Perhaps it should have been a warning sign that he released the album concurrently with his new fashion line, and seemed to prioritise both equally. There is every possibility he is currently under a great amount of strain due to what is expected of him and, perhaps even more potently, what he expects of himself. Plenty of music on The Life of Pablo proves West is still capable of brilliance in this particular area, but perhaps he no longer has the focus or drive to make the best records of all time. But I'm not sure I want to underestimate Kanye, and I hope time proves me terribly, terribly wrong.