I, a long-time Kanye West fan—a man who once owned and wore “Shutter Shades” in a non-Bar/Bat Mitzvah context, a person who counts Late Registration’s “Heard ‘Em Say” among his earliest truly emotionally salient music-listening experiences – waited with baited breath for the release of The Life of Pablo, the Chicago rapper-producer-designer’s seventh studio album. In fact, I was so eager to hear it that I came frighteningly close to spending 309 Kc (the equivalent of about $14) to stand in the dank basement of a music hall in Prague’s city center at 2 a.m. where West’s YEEZY Season 3 clothing line premiere/album listening party would be projected on a wall.
In the end, I managed to wait until the album was made available for streaming on TIDAL. For the past week, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to listening to and mulling over Pablo, and, as I feel it is my duty to say, it wasn’t really what I expected nor wanted. *DISCLAIMER*: This won’t be one of those reviews where the saddened critic expresses grief at the creative trajectory their once beloved artist has taken and explains why the artist’s most recent contribution is emblematic of all the things that have gone wrong with said artist. This won’t be that at all. There are a lot things I like about Pablo, and though West’s sonic tastes have shifted somewhat since Late Registration (I’d venture to say, fewer people would still be listening to him if they hadn’t), it is every bit as much a “Kanye” album as the previous six were. In fact, Pablo might be the most “Kanye” album of all time—paranoid, self-obsessed, full of braggadocio, and rife with contradiction.
In the lead-up to Pablo, one of the myriad of obtuse, perplexing, and flat-out strange things West tweeted was that “Waves”—what he, at the time, had intended to title the album—was “a gospel album.” Strangely, though, it has somewhat lived up to the billing. “This is a God dream,” West proclaims on the album’s opener, “Ultralight Beam.” Within the 58 minute album, there’s a sample of what sounds like a child preacher sermonizing; a lively 40-second cut of seven-time Grammy Award-winning gospel artist, Kirk Franklin, praising the power of faith; and a song called “Lowlights,” in which a female voice can be heard thanking the Lord for being “the joy of her life.” Much of it is weirdly, if earnestly, very spiritual. Where West complicates this (and oh, we knew there would be complications) is when, in the midst of these pious proclamations, he says things like, “What if we just fucked at the Vogue Party?” This, after all, is the West we had been expecting, right? Crude in his sexual proclivities, unabashedly nouveau-riche in his excessive employment of wealth and status signifiers, and kind of funny. It would be reasonable to assume that the album’s two “Kanye’s”—altar boy and playboy—would clash uncomfortably when placed in such close proximity, but on Pablo, that tug-of-war is just the name of the game.
The album essentially functions as one large pastiche of trap, electronic, backpack rap, gospel, and a Max B-prison-phone-call. In a way, it mirrors a lot of contemporary visual art—highly referential, with a diverse set of influences that combine to make something challenging and unorthodox. On “Pt. 2,” a song that will likely be in heavy rotation at rap clubs in the months to come, Brooklyn-rapper and recent GOOD Music signee Desiigner’s head-banging verse evaporates into thin air, as Caroline Shaw’s (MUS’07) ghostly, robotic vocal—“How can I find you? / Who do you turn to? / How do I bind you?”—floats in. “Feedback” includes allusions to Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar (“Pablo bought Roley and a Rottweiler”); commentary on police brutality (“Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us”); and a reference to West’s apparent financial woes (“Even if the money low, can’t pay me”)—all uttered within the same breath. Pablo is all over the place, and, upon repeat listen after repeat listen, still hard to make sense of. He’s warning himself against jeopardizing his marriage “for one of these hoes” (“FML”), while inquiring about the “freak” status of “all the bad bitches up in Equinox” (“Highlight”).
Still, the album’s stark tonal shifts and occasional lyrical dissidence manage not to overshadow what is an exciting, surprising, and singular listening experience. Pre-released jams like “No More Parties in LA” and “Real Friends” make their return. With Kid Cudi in tow, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” is a triumphant standout that features what will probably be the most memorable anal bleaching reference ever put on wax. The Chris Brown-assisted “Waves” is ripe for a drunk sing-along. A new version of “Wolves,” the song West premiered at his YEEZY Season 1 New York Fashion Week show last year, is underscored by another haunting, Caroline Shaw vocal performance and capped off by Frank Ocean’s cryptic closing verse (which sounds like it was recorded in an attic).
Pablo is as much a strange reflection of where Kanye West is as an artist, husband, and man, as it is a rap album. It’s the fitting musical byproduct of taking a stubborn, confident, fringing-on-sociopathic creative tour de force and granting him over a decade’s worth of critical acclaim, tabloid notoriety, and French fashion house cultural currency — “I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my shoes / I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news.” West is the world’s most famous “38-year-old eight-year-old with rich nigga problems,” who believes he can “shift the paradigm.” As to where he’s shifting it, I’m not sure (and I’m not entirely sure he is either). But with Pablo, West has somehow gifted us both an opportunity to stop and consider if and why we like Kanye and a pretty good reason to do so.