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First things first: Kanye West’s release strategy for his new album was a catastrophe. The voguish way for mega-artistes to drop an album right now is to record it all in secret and release it suddenly, out of the blue, on an unsuspecting public; with The Life of Pablo, out since February (or maybe April) (or maybe some unspecified future date), West turned all that on its head, building anticipation for months before the ostensible February release with leaks, promotional giveaways, constant online updates about how he’d changed the title or shuffled the track order or whatever. Then the release date came and voila, no album. Then it was announced that the album would be released exclusively on Tidal, that expensive streaming service run by Jay-Z that you may have read about once or twice. Then West edited the album a bunch once it was already released (through Tidal, if you heard the album by legal means; through some shady downloading site if you didn’t). Then the album was released on other streaming services too. It still hasn’t seen a physical release, and West has promised several more revisions in the future. He calls the album a “living breathing changing creative expression.” To everybody else it looks like he released The Life of Pablo too soon, before he was finished with it, through a venue more likely to alienate longtime fans than make them actually sign up for Tidal, and he’s been trying to cover his tracks ever since.
Give West some credit. As reluctant as I am to validate his social media-fueled release strategy, it does suit the album in question. The Life of Pablo is easily the messiest project he’s ever put his name on; it’s long, sprawling, full of hair-trigger swerves. Only the most pretentious Kanye West connoisseur would hail the constant public revision as, oh I don’t know, a Triumphant Reinvention of the Album as Form, but coming from an artist known both for self-reinvention and a commitment to the album as form, not making a cryogenically frozen masterpiece is a good way to self-reinvent. At first I wondered if this also meant West had finally lost his mind, if his delight in engaging/enraging the public had finally subsumed his music, but bloggers make this claim every time there’s a new Kanye West album and the album usually turns out pretty good anyway. The Life of Pablo is no exception. It coheres as a united whole, with its own unique sonic identity, and musically it’s tighter than initially evident. Vast reserves of calculation went into that illusion of relaxed, casual cheer.
Here’s my track-by-track rundown — a genre of review I usually stay away from, but the album’s scattershot format invites it:
1) “Ultralight Beam”
Before The Life of Pablo came out, West called it his gospel album, and while the whole record didn’t turn out that way, several songs did, most notably the opener. An assembled choir chimes in and harmonizes behind West at first before taking over entirely, adding sweetness and soul to West’s slow, buzzing dronebeat as uneasy drums fade in and out. Chance the Rapper contributes a long, goofy, felt, contemplative verse, after which the choir comes back louder and grander than ever, bringing everything to a suitably sweeping, epic finale. The effect is intensely emotional and not uplifting in the slightest; there’s a stark, terrible beauty to the song that sounds more scared than righteous. Part of me wishes he’d made a whole album of pseudogospel. Part of me loves the way “Ultralight Beam” fits in with this one as is.
2) “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1”
“Now if I fuck this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get bleach on my T-shirt/Imma feel like an asshole” — get it? Did you catch the double entendre? He’ll feel like an asshole for cheating on his wife, but he’ll also feel like a literal asshole because there’s bleach on him and there’s bleach in her asshole. Get it? He’ll feel like an asshole. Boy, Kanye, that’s so witty and clever, you really outdid yourself with this one. On the plus side, the beat’s nice and smooth, and it suits his Auto-Tuned chirp.
3) “Pt 2”
West’s Auto-Tune turns ominous in this short, unfinished fragment of an electroblip. It speeds by quickly, but lingers in the mind’s ear.
For the first half, West raps over a tight, shiny, triumphant, simultaneously relaxed and aggressive keyboard blast. Then Rihanna’s chorus/interlude morphs into an ebullient sample from dancehall DJ/singer Sister Nancy. Then West loops the sample, syncopating Nancy’s voice, bouncing it against the keyboard’s pitter-patter, ending the song on a sweet, cheerful note. Apparently the lyrics got him in trouble for dropping Taylor Swift’s name, but who cares when you could just play that lilting dancehall hook again?
Here, West constructs a hard, driving beat from squealing, high-pitched shards of electronic static, even dividing it into harmonically linked verse/chorus sections. It would have sounded at home on Yeezus, but it also shares a straightforward celebratory quality with the rest of The Life of Pablo, and it’s catchier than anything on Yeezus. I’ve been humming it for at least a week.
6) “Low Lights”
This long, teary, inspirational interlude/speech picks up the gospel theme again, but some gospel singing would have done the trick. However sincerely West stands behind the sentiments expressed here, I doubt the church ladies he prays with on Sundays much appreciate being parodied in this way.
The warm, mellow electrobeat fits the pre-established if mercurial sonic template, but West’s pillow talk turns grosser than need be, and sometimes that dinky, covertly alienated Auto-Tune cheer can really curdle. And yet it all flows by effortlessly anyway, cast like every song before it into the album’s liquid stream.
8) “Freestyle 4”
I really hope this was a spur-of-the-moment freestyle, because otherwise West’s failure to find a proper rhyme for “fuck right now” would be truly embarrassing. “What the fuck right now/what the fuck right now/what the, uh, what the fuck right now/what if we fucked right now?” Indeed. I enjoy the high, sweeping synthesizers, though, and the industrial honks at the end.
9) “I Love Kanye”
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye called “I Love Kanye” in which he wondered, “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye’? Man that would be so Kanye!”? Man that would be so Kanye! Seriously, though, especially given how often he gets accused of losing his humor or his self-awareness, I’m glad he hasn’t. He’s still the same lovable Kanye deep down.
This shimmering, gliding, garbled electrodream is easily the happiest and the prettiest song on the record. It comes from a place of peace I’m delighted he had in him.
At first this song really irritated me — solemn mood, creaky drums, yet another sententious guest feature from the Weeknd, whose honeyed croon has started to make me cringe involuntarily thanks to several hours of radio overplay. But the lyrics address the contradictions of celebrity and family life with more insight than megastars usually bring to that topic, which renders the beat’s slow burn more palatable. “They don’t wanna see me love you,” wails West at the end, and the message is clear. Complain all you want about megastars, obscene wealth, social media overload, reality television, cult of celebrity, the Kardashians, what have you. But that’s also his family you’re talking about, and this man loves his wife and kids just like everybody else. He considers this a given, and finds it depressing that he’d have to say so explicitly.
12) “Real Friends”
Behold, another lyric complaining about the perils of celebrity; behold, another initially irritating slow, introspective beat complete with signature high keyboard wail that turns moving once you hear how much emotion West put into the performance.
Of all the dark, brooding, emotional songs in The Life of Pablo’s slow third quarter, this one is my favorite. That careful, deliberate, haunting synth-whistle that keeps fading in and out lends the song a fragile, vulnerable, doomed beauty, and the lower, crunchier flavors of keyboard that underpin it harmonically keep the beat going when the whistle drops out entirely, leaving only West’s moans and mumbles and animal cries. West’s music has aimed for a grand, tragic mood since 808s & Heartbreak; rarely if ever has it gotten this stark, this extreme. Even the otiose Auto-Tune, which he drops at the end, sounds fabulous, all sad and gloopy and mechanical and alone and alive. His unembellished voice sounds like that except more so.
14) “Frank’s Track”
Frank Ocean sings an outro to “Wolves.” No clue as to why this needed a separate track, but it sure is pretty.
15) “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”
This is a voicemail from Harlem rapper Max B, who allegedly coined the slang term “wavy” (for “cool”), giving West the idea of initially calling this album Waves. Maybe West included it to prove he had every right to call his album that after Wiz Khalifa criticized him for it on Twitter. He subsequently changed the album title. The track’s still here.
16) “30 Hours”
West regains his good cheer, jumping up and down and around and through a set of kinetic drumbeats and a deep, warm, friendly Arthur Russell sample looped into a groove so addictive it could unfold into eternity — and pretty much does, exemplifying the album’s open, casual generosity. Toward the end West’s phone rings, yanking you out of the music. Even after you’ve played the song a few times and know to expect it, that ringtone sets off instant “my phone is ringing” waves in your brain; suddenly the spine stiffens, you reach for your phone even though you know nobody’s calling; the trance is lost. He knew this would happen, and included the ringtone precisely for this effect. He’s devious like that.
17) “No More Parties in LA”
West and Kendrick Lamar trade battle rhymes over a hard, acidic beat prominently featuring an electronic sitar, with sampled voices chiming in every which way exhorting us to party. West’s verse is even more intense than Lamar’s, which is saying something. The sitar sizzles, crackles, and explodes.
18) “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”
When this first came out as a promotional track a month before Pablo, arbiters of taste all across the Internet made harrumphing noises about how dire the state of rap must be if Kanye West is releasing Nike diss tracks, which violates prescribed rules about How to Rap Correctly not just because Nike is a corporation and not a rapper but also because rappers have always loved Nike and the chances of “Facts” actually convincing people to buy Adidas instead are pretty close to zero. I think the song is brilliant, a hilarious idea delivered with absurd confidence. The bold, obnoxious trap hook is pretty gleeful, too.
West says his goodbyes over a steady funk bassline as a Rare Earth sample repeatedly informs us “I feel it fade.” It’s the last song, and it does fade. Who could resist the metareference?
Lyrically, West’s never before obsessed so intently over sacred vs. profane, or sided so decisively with the sacred, either. Musically, most of these songs are fragmented or incomplete in some way, yet they’re sequenced into a seamless flow that moves faster and more lightly than anything he’s tried before, almost like one of Brian Eno’s pseudoambient records — one fragment after another, strung effortlessly together. The Life of Pablo is certainly a mess and certainly lacks the total mastery of previous works, but it also succeeds as an entity of parts, with a consistent sonic template that once again reinvents the Kanye West style, which means maybe it’s not such a departure after all. This template consists mainly of smooth electronic keyboards layered one way or another, but also includes warped soul voices and a plethora of cameos providing crucial vocal variety. Above all, the album is warm, sincere, and relaxed in a way that’s new for West, who three years ago went so overboard with anger that he transformed himself into a caricature. Here, by contrast, his many crude sexual comments notwithstanding, West chuckles and jokes his way through it all in a nicer mood than he’s displayed in a long time, all as the music overflows with tunelets, minihooks, little pockets of sunlight popping up everywhere. Conflicted and melancholy though it may be, The Life of Pablo brings good cheer. It’s an album about positive energy winning in the end.