If it wouldn’t have spoiled my movie reference, I would have phrased the title of this week’s column as a question. Do we need to talk about Kanye?
Because it seems like that’s all we do anymore. For the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to go online without seeing a new headline about something Kanye West said or did. Between proclaiming Bill Cosby innocent, starting and ending fights with other rappers, blowing his top backstage at Saturday Night Live, and for some reason deciding to upset Taylor Swift again, West’s well-documented boorish public persona is dominating the entertainment news. Some have suggested we’re watching his sanity erode before our eyes.
I don’t know about that. I don’t know West, so it would be difficult for me to say what his actual mental state is. I do know that if you took his Twitter account away from him, he’d probably be a lot less interesting to a lot of people. It certainly would have made the process of completing and releasing his seventh album, The Life of Pablo, a less fascinating one. Had West simply finished this record and put it out, it would probably not have been labeled a confounding mess before anyone had even heard it.
Instead, West gave us an inside look at the last-minute changes and seeming confusion that surrounded Pablo’s birth. Multiple track lists surfaced, and the title changed three times, from So Help Me God to SWISH to Waves to its current moniker. (For the record, though the original title was my favorite, I like the one West settled on, with its references to both Picasso and Escobar.) The album’s release was delayed for days while West added one more track, at the behest of Chance the Rapper. When the record appeared on Tidal, Jay-Z’s fledgling online music service, you could download it for $20. Within hours, that option was removed – you can only stream The Life of Pablo, and only from Tidal.
And now comes word that the album may not even be finished. West has promised to “fix” one of the songs, and though he’s pledged never to offer it for sale, rumors of a wider release continue to rumble. No one has any idea quite what to think at the moment, which I imagine suits West just fine. There’s a calculated edge to a lot of these moves, one that may serve as a counter-argument to the accusations of insanity. The Life of Pablo did dominate news cycles for weeks as West messed about with it, and it certainly brought more attention to Tidal than anything else released on the platform.
There’s a canniness to his egotistical boasting, too. One of my favorite moments of the pre-release madness was when West walked back his zealous pronouncements about the album, downgrading it to “one of” the best albums of all time. West walks an interesting line. Had he released this album with no fanfare, some people might have liked it more, but West is also aware of the backlash to his own hype, which lowers expectations. And when The Life of Pablo turned out to be a messy yet surprisingly heartfelt affair, I think those expecting a vile trainwreck were pleasantly surprised.
I know I was. The Life of Pablo is a tonally jarring piece of work that examines West’s own struggles with his ego and his public persona, but taken as a whole, it makes the case for his sanity. Yes, there are certainly moments when West slips into Yeezus mode and says something outrageous and sickening just for the shock value, and those moments mar the record like adolescent scribbles all over a Picasso, to pick a Pablo. But there’s a lot here about West trying his hardest to grow up, and a lot about the solace he finds in his family. So much of this is so arresting, so unlike anything we’ve heard from West, that I find myself wishing he would shut down the old Kanye completely.
The album opens with a terrific case in point. “Ultra Light Beam” is a gospel song, sparse and almost sacred. It’s so threadbare it almost doesn’t exist, West’s auto-tuned voice leading a choir over virtually no instrumentation, the song a prayer for salvation. “This is a God dream, this is everything, I’m trying to keep my faith, but I’m looking for more,” West sings, leading into a mini-sermon from Kirk Franklin: “This prayer’s for everyone who feels too messed up… you can never go too far where you can’t go back home again.” This is a recurring theme of the album – how one gets back over the lines one crosses.
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” begins similarly, a slow beat introducing a lovely chorus from Kid Cudi, and then the old Kanye shows up and ruins it: “If I fuck this model and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my t-shirt, I’m’a feel like an asshole.” I hope he does. With one verse he rips “Father Stretch My Hands,” a minor-key, melancholy suite, to shreds. It’s still a surprising piece of music, but it never comes back from those four misjudged lines. So the album is already in the position of the singer on “Ultra Light Beam,” needing forgiveness.
And on it goes like that. “Famous” contains that creepy Taylor Swift verse (“I think me and Taylor might still have sex”) roughly juxtaposed with Rhianna singing Nina Simone’s gorgeous “Do What You Gotta Do.” The all-over-the-place production is amazing as always, jumping from sample to sample with supple organ backup. All of these songs are short, and they sound half-finished on first listen – as soon as West finds a groove to ride, as he does on “Feedback” (with its shout-out to Black Lives Matter), he cuts it short.
The whole record is like driving over potholes. West jumps from “Low Lights,” a sampled prayer about the endless acceptance of God, to “High Lights,” a song on which he wishes his dick had Go-Pro and suggests that his wife is only with him because he’s rich. “Freestyle 4” is the worst of the lot, a full return of the Yeezus personality. It’s just wretched, an open door to West’s adolescent id. And yet, one song later, he’s presenting us with the most self-aware 44 seconds of his career: “I Love Kanye” is an a cappella verse about the old and new Kanyes, stabbing his own ego: “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye,’ that would be so Kanye, we still love Kanye and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye…”
This is what makes me think that all the scribbled vulgarities and moments of outrageous stupidity are calculated. West knows what we think of him, and with the more mature moments of The Life of Pablo, he’s telling us that he’s not like this, or at least not all the time. The final third of Pablo (not counting the five bonus tracks) bears this out, containing as it does the most straightforward and sentimental material I’ve ever heard from West. “Waves” is remarkably pretty (Chance was right to fight for it), while “FML” is the closest to a confessional piece West has penned. It finds West reminding himself not to jeopardize his family for anything, knowing that people are waiting for him to stumble. It’s as sparse as “Ultra Light Beam,” with a strong chorus from The Weeknd.
Pablo ends with “Real Friends,” a low-key piece about getting what one deserves (with a self-indulgent verse about a stolen laptop), and “Wolves,” one of the most effective songs here. The airy melancholy that has pervaded the album is in full force, West returning to his 808s and Heartbreak mode for the vocals, and ending things with a strange verse about Joseph meeting Mary in the club, segueing into a final thought about protecting his family: “Cover Saint in lamb’s wool, we’re surrounded by the fucking wolves.” Frank Ocean drives it home with an atmospheric coda: “Life is precious, we found out, we found out…” It’s one of West’s most thought-provoking tracks, so naturally it’s the one he’s promised to “fix.”
As you may have surmised, I’m of the opinion that the album proper ends here, with an intermission and four bonus tunes tacked onto the end. These are the ones old-school fans are most likely to enjoy, and if you’re looking for pure hip-hop, “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in L.A.” will be like an oasis for you. (Kendrick Lamar is, as usual, excellent on the latter track.) For me, these are less interesting and less successful – they’re pretty typical, and the yin and yang of the old and new Kanyes is completely absent. “Facts” is a song about his shoes. “Fade” has virtually no lyrics. On this album these are bonus tracks, and I would think so even if West didn’t say so in “30 Hours.”
But The Life of Pablo itself is a thoroughly self-indulgent, often frustrating, yet always compelling document of a man at a crossroads. As usual, it’s not as brilliant as West thinks it is, but it’s still strong and fascinating enough that he can’t be dismissed. I’ve been pulling for him for years, hoping that his words would catch up to his musical skill. He has an ear like few others, and an artistic fearlessness that I have always admired.
The Life of Pablo will remind you at times of other albums he’s made, but it isn’t quite like any of them. It’s an impressive work, musically speaking, so I’m inclined to keep pulling for him, to celebrate the moments of growth and maturity here, and urge him away from his worst impulses. I can feel him wanting to be a better person throughout this record, and I hope he gets there, the words of Kirk Franklin reverberating in his ears: “You can never go too far where you can’t go back home again.”
Next week, some surprises. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.