When I reviewed Kanye West's new album The Life of Pablo last week, I wrote that the Chris Brown feature "Waves" might be the most beautiful song he's ever made. I'm out of my honeymoon phase with the album, and I still stand by that opinion. Brown turns in the best vocal performance he's ever given, and the warped chorus in the background radiates heat and light. It's something like a love song on an album that could use a few more of them, and it's one of the best songs I've heard so far this year. (It's crazy to think it wouldn't have made the album without the timely intervention of Chance the Rapper. Thanks, Chance!)
Now that we've established my preexisting enthusiasm for "Waves," I'm going to hit you with a mind-blowing revelation: it's even better backwards. Noisey shared amateur producer Justin Lombardi's flip of the song this morning, and I clicked "play" with an eyebrow raised. My skepticism washed away like flotsam being lifted from a quiet beach by a rising tide.
Why is this so compelling? I've spent the last half-hour trying to figure it out. Everything's knocked off-kilter, and that wonky choral loop that sounds so inspiring in the song's standard form totally transforms. It's more dramatic, maybe even a little more pained; its movement is more sudden. It keeps you on your toes. Brown's lead vocal loses any semblance of meaning it had before — "Waves don't die!" — and becomes unintelligible, pure emotional goo. West himself just becomes another bit of texture, a distant bark carried on the wind.
Perhaps it boils down to this: in West's own words, The Life of Pablo is a "gospel album" that explores faith through struggle, through failure. West is constantly fighting to be a good husband, father, and servant, whether that means maintaining his fidelity, acknowledging his failures, or protecting his family. He slips up occasionally, like anyone else would: he takes shots at Taylor Swift and his exes and ends up having trysts with models. The music is at its best when it's reflecting that struggle, that push-pull dynamic, and the reversed version of "Waves" — melted, oozing, transcending speech — captures that feeling more effectively than any "real" song on the album. Or maybe it just sounds really cool! I don't know! Either way, The Life of Pablo is still officially unfinished, and Kanye might just include backwards "Waves" on the final version if we all tweet hard enough.
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