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The Life of Pablo review: Kanye West's radical act of creative transparency

The Life of Pablo review: Kanye West's radical act of creative transparency


Yeezus bares his soul on his messiest, most complicated album yet

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Is it gauche to acknowledge the futility of this review before it begins in earnest? The Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s seventh solo LP, and despite its widespread public availability, it remains a work in progress; put another way, the life of The Life of Pablo isn’t over yet. You can argue that every album is a living document, a work of art whose interpretation is dependent on context and mood timing; Yeezus sounds different to you now than it did when you first heard it in 2013.

But The Life of Pablo is changing at a deeper level: listen to it a week from now, and you might be hearing new guests or adjusted mixes. The tracklist might change. It may be inaccessible on your platform of choice when it was available there before, a consequence of its creator’s volatile whims. It’s made a traditional release — picking a dozen tracks that fit well together and releasing them in one clump for purchase and evaluation — seem almost antiquated. You have to hand it to West: even when it feels like he’s running around like a chicken with his head cut off, he finds a way to stumble into innovating.

As it stands, The Life of Pablo is a spectacular mess. It’s a complete and utter shitshow, an album that forces you to contemplate both the undeniability of genius and the banality of rude, senseless provocation on a minute-to-minute basis. It takes ingredients from every part of West’s impressive discography and uses them to make an unholy stew. He revisits the patient, gentle sampling of his early work throughout the album’s back half, making use of Arthur Russell on "30 Hours" and Drake’s uncle on "No More Parties in L.A."

"Waves" might be the most beautiful song he's ever made

He builds on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s cluttered art-pop sunbeams with the "Father Stretch My Hands" suite and the stuttering, beatific "Waves," which might be the most beautiful song he’s ever made. "Feedback" and "FML" tap into the caustic sound and industrial concision of Yeezus. Intense meditations on faith, family, and loyalty rub up against adventures in haphazard anal bleaching and amateur pornography. West will tap into the righteous fury of the Black Lives Matter movement on one song and giggle at the shock value of misogyny on the next.

Incoherence isn’t new to him. Graduation ping-ponged between jazz-fusion, French electro-house, and orchestral pomp with abandon, held together by gloss alone; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s gestation was just as complicated, and its roster of guests and collaborators was just as packed. But those albums had a clarity of purpose The Life of Pablo lacks. Graduation now feels like West’s undergraduate thesis, an attempt to push the boundaries of pop-rap to their limits through sheer omnivorousness and will. MBDTF was a treatise on what it means to be black, rich, famous, and heartbroken, concepts West would explore in greater depth with Jay Z a year later on Watch the Throne.

The Life of Pablo is his first album that sounds thrown together for the sake of satisfying the eager public. For all of his allusions to gospel music and religious history on songs like "Ultralight Beam" and "Low Lights," there’s no larger point being made here; if you’re feeling charitable, you can say he’s summing up his discography to date. Its pace is frenetic, and despite multiple drafts of tracklists, its sequencing is thoughtless.

All of this places West at odds with the crop of rappers who’ve come to define hip-hop’s post-Yeezus period. Drake’s devotion to a specific sound and perspective — the King in the North, in touch with his feelings and anxious on the throne — is unyielding. Kendrick Lamar uses his albums to weave complex narrative tapestries, ones in which every word and note is working in service of a larger whole. Future has set a new standard for nihilistic, drug-addled consistency. All three of them are uncompromising, thoughtful stylists.

West's technical skills have never felt less important

Meanwhile, West’s technical skills — his rapping, his second-to-second beatmaking — have never felt less important. If his self-made comparisons to Steve Jobs hold up anywhere, it’s here: he’s responsible for the look, feel, and vision, not the grunt work. He’s more valuable as a curator and orchestrator than a presence on the microphone. That’s been true as far back as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s even more notable here. Save one or two particularly distasteful lyrical moments — the infamous Taylor Swift line on "Famous," the spiteful jab at an ex on "30 Hours" — the most memorable moments on The Life of Pablo are supplied by its guest stars.

Rihanna’s turn on "Famous" joins "FourFiveSeconds" and the bulk of ANTI near the top of her vocal résumé; Chris Brown has never sounded better than he does gurgling all over "Waves." ("Waves don’t die" is a line so meaningless it ends up taking on some kind of mystical profundity with repeated listening.) Frank Ocean emerges from the wilderness to provide the last 30 seconds of "Wolves," a dose of analog warmth on an album that sorely needs it. Ty Dolla $ign makes a perfect foil for West on "Real Friends," playing his grainy, tired alter ego. And Chance the Rapper outshines them all by turning in the verse of his life on "Ultralight Beam": it’s proud, agile, and deeply felt. (His emergence as West’s spiritual successor is probably the album’s most interesting development.)

His shamelessness is one of his great gifts

There’s an episode of Mr. Robot in which Elliot, the show’s brilliant, deluded protagonist, laments the fact that humans don’t have source code he can easily plumb and digest. "‘View source.’ What if we had that for people? Would people really want to see?" His co-workers walk around the office with placards dangling from their necks: "I am bulimic." "I pretend to love my husband." "I’m dead inside." I keep thinking about that scene while listening to The Life of Pablo, an album that is perhaps less valuable as a collection of music than it is as an act of radical creative transparency.

West’s shamelessness is one of his great gifts: it’s the quality that allowed him to make "Runaway," to blaspheme by naming himself Yeezus, and to spend an afternoon passing around the aux cord at Madison Square Garden. The blind spots that emerge when we presume to know artists aren’t a problem with Kanye because he’s willing to show you everything. You could watch this album come together in Instagram pictures, Twitter missives, and public pronouncements, you can watch it continue to develop, and you know exactly what its creator thinks about its reception. It’s the closest thing to a human "View source" we have, and that alone justifies the maelström surrounding it.