Just six weeks after insisting his latest album would only ever be available on the streaming service Tidal, Kanye West has released The Life of Pablo to the masses. Even by Kanye’s standards that’s a pretty big turnaround, and only serves to make him more of a laughing stock than he already was.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when Kanye was a lot more accessible and, well, normal than he is today. While he might not have always been the happy-go-lucky pop star we like to remember him as when we think of songs like All Falls Down or Touch The Sky (it was Jesus Walks that marked him out as more than just another rapper, after all), he has certainly changed.
Sure, he may have been Straight Outta The Middle Class and not just rapping about b*tches and blunts like some others (*cough* 50 Cent), but he’s always been quasi-political. With each album that passed he experimented further and gradually became angrier. His magnum opus is probably My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but as a fan it felt like all his prior works were building towards his 2013 album Yeezus.
Yes, Yeezus was pretty odd. He takes on his place in the fashion industry at great lengths, whilst rapping over anti-apartheid hooks. It’s a blotchy, alienating, weird offering from someone who, probably, needs help.
It also happens to be amazing.
At times, Yeezus felt like a modern art piece, trying to challenge you on your preconceived notions of what an “album” really is, or who “Kanye West” is. At one point he screams breathlessly in to the microphone as if he’s having a complete mental breakdown (or being chased by a bear, but I imagine he was going for the former). It’s quite difficult, but it’s also stimulating as hell.
Even much-mocked lyrics like “hurry up with my damn croissant” felt like they meant something, no matter how inane they might seem on the surface. If that isn’t an analogy for Kanye West, I don’t know what is.
Yeezus really, really shouldn’t work. And yet it does.
The reason for this is that it’s so incredibly tight, coming in at just 40 minutes. It races through the album at such a speed, constantly changing direction, challenging you to keep up, then ends. After my first listen I had no idea of what I’d just heard, but I couldn’t wait to listen to it again.
The Life of Pablo feels like a continuation of Yeezus, in that it seems like the ramblings of an out of control, self-absorbed maniac who somehow feels like he has something important to say. The difference, however, is that at 19 songs (!) and being 50% longer than Yeezus, it can be a real drag.
In fact, my first listen was a downright slog. It took me hours to get through to the end because I kept losing interest and doing other things. It’s not that it’s bad as such, it just felt like the album Kanye was always at risk of making. I love the guy, but “All Kanye, All The Time” sounds exhausting, and Pablo is about the closest thing we’re going to get to that.
So after the first listen I really had no intention to return. And yet I did, and it was like a whole other album.
On first listen, album opener Ultralight Beam led me to question, and I quote, “what the f*ck am I listening to?”. I felt like what I imagine everyone else does when I make them listen to Yeezus. You always sense West has a terrible album in him; one where he totally loses any notion of grounding or the real world (or whatever is left in that regard) and just disappears into Peak Kanye-ness, floating off in to space wearing leather jogging bottoms next to his old teddy bear mascot, never to be seen again. On first listen, I thought we’d found that place.
On second listen, however, Ultralight Beam blew me away. It’s not Gold Digger, if that’s what you want it to be. Hell, it’s not even No More Parties in L.A. It’s something else. It’s… extraordinary. It’s as if he is narrating his own dream of a conversation with God in a stream-of-consciousness format or something. That’s quite an opener.
I had been too quick to judge. Just like everyone else, who only sees him as…
Oh, no, wait. In the second track on the album (Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1) he worries that a model’s, ahem, bleached a*shole will stain his shirt. Ugh. As you were.
But he follows THIS up with Pt. 2, where he worries that he’s putting too much focus on work and not enough on his family. It’s brilliant. He’s actually a lot deeper than you think…
Aaaaand now he’s saying he thinks he’s going to have sex with Taylor Swift because he “made that b*tch famous”.
BUT the rest of Famous is actually really catchy, and the second half of the song is particularly fantastic.
BUT then… *sighs* I don’t even know.
This is where the problem comes with this album. I may have been too quick in hating it first time around, but I understand why I felt like that. It’s just so messy, swerving wildly from brilliant and earnest to shallow and idiotic.
As he continues he becomes more and more self obsessed his work becomes scrappier and more inconsistent. It’s frustrating to listen to, but intentionally so. Making you react is exactly what he wants. It’s bold, and it can be exciting, but it needs an editor. Yeezus gets away with it because it’s 10 songs and 40 minutes, resulting in a challenging and stimulating masterpiece. Pablo, at 19 songs and 60 minutes, is exhausting and occasionally boring. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like pretty much the worst combination an album can be.
But who is going to tell Kanye West what to do? He’s reached a point where he is likely surrounded by Yes Men, so convinced is he by his own genius that anyone who disagrees is simply wrong and not to be included in the process. Kanye himself called this the “best album of all time”. To him, if you can’t see that, that’s your fault, not his.
So how do you summarise an album like this? It’s shallow yet enlightening, important yet pathetic, idiotic yet intelligent, deluded yet self-aware, exciting yet boring, self-important yet self-conscious, brilliant yet horribly, horribly flawed.
Simply put, it’s Kanye West.
The Life of Pablo Rating: 3 bleach-stained t-shirts out of 5.
EDIT: Since writing this I returned to Spotify and created a new playlist for this album, including only the bits that work and taking out those that don’t. It’s only 10 songs long, but it makes for a pretty outstanding album I have to say.
Track list for my playlist is as follows, for those interested:
- Ultralight Beam
- Pt. 2
- I Love Kanye
- Real Friends
- No More Parties In LA
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