The flawed genius of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo

Culture Music
Illustration by Jane Qi
Illustration by Jane Qi

Kanye West, perpetual source of controversy and brilliant music, occupies a desirable position in pop culture: as his commercial potency goes down, his relevance — and notoriety — go up. His influence on music after his 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak is evident, despite the left turn into stark territory West’s music took at the time, and the fact that it sold less than half as many copies as his preceding album Graduation. Echoes of West exist in a generous swath of current hip-hop, from the likes of Tyler, the Creator to Drake to Young Thug, and many more. The hip-hop landscape tangibly shifted again following his 2013 album Yeezus, as artists such as Jazz Cartier and Travi$ Scott adopted the industrial gear-grind that defined that work.

Nobody knew which direction West would take after Yeezus; that album verified West as a habitual risk-taker (both musically and behaviourally). Now, after a very confusing album rollout, we finally have The Life of Pablo (TLOP), a vibrant, collab-heavy, 18-track collection that finds West evolving themes and sounds from each of his previous albums, a kind of melting pot of their defining aesthetics. West also ups the spiritual ante here, calling on a 32-member gospel choir for a number of songs.

The guest list is massive. With production from Metro Boomin, Swizz Beats, Boi 1da, Cashmere Cat, Post Malone, Rick Rubin, Madlib, and more, it’s clear that West is as open as ever to the power of collaboration. And the vocal feature list, which is again
extensive, showcases some of the best in the biz: The Weeknd, Ty Dolla $ign, Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, and Frank Ocean shine the brightest. Even Chris Brown pays a visit, which is both surprising and fitting, as he is probably second to West in terms of media-crucified hip-hop stars (though, in Brown’s case especially, with good reason.)

As if to silence public disapproval, West made a sophisticated crowd-pleaser here; indeed, TLOP has some serious slappers. “Feedback,” a Yeezus-inspired tune with considerable club potential, is one of the album’s more jacked-up songs next to, among others, the smartly redone “Facts.” But to complement the album’s more accessible musical nature (as compared to Yeezus), he has stepped up his rapping as well.

Lyrically, West is the best he’s ever been. While he doesn’t part with his deliberately off-putting sex lines as on his last two albums, he clearly wants to solidify his worth as an MC on TLOP, largely in relation to his views on family matters. “No More Parties in LA,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, is probably the most impressive lyrical feat West has ever pulled off, as he weaves through musings on his early days as an up-and-comer, the problems of low-income families that “use they kids as meal tickets,” his worries about his own family, and more. On “Wolves,” West reiterates his concern for his children in the face of inescapable media attention with, as in much of the album, biblical parallels: “Cover Saint in lamb’s wool / We’re surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves.”

It’s hard to point out one best track on the album, as this collection is at such a consistently high level. Most notable is “Highlights” with Young Thug, which resembles a tour through an art gallery as the song moves from vivid idea to vivid idea in the blink of an eye. The song is triumphant, imaginative, concise, and gorgeous; all at the same time. “Real Friends” is another acme, and can be seen as a mature evolution of his debut album’s final track “Family Business.” On “Real Friends,” West is weary of, rather than enamored by, his worldwide fame as he reflects on prioritizing his career over his family: “When was the last time I remembered a birthday? / When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?” he asks. The melancholy beat, courtesy of both West and all-star producer Madlib, is like a nostalgia trip: some things resonate, but others are muddled, while the delicate core beauty of the moment remains. Ty Dolla $ign, known more for his turn-up-get-down club jams, contributes affecting, understated harmony and lyrical dialogue reminiscent of his recent album Free TC. “Waves,” the album’s purest moment of uplift, defies gravity for its three-minute duration, with Chris Brown providing a crystalline vocal experience backed by an angelic, autotuned choir.

Despite the album’s brilliance, there are missteps uncharacteristic of West. Long considered a valiant proponent of the album as a whole — that is, a front-to-back listening experience —TLOP’s sequencing is confounding at times. “30 Hours” plays like an outro, with West even saying on the record “this the bonus track” and “this the type of shit that you ride out to.” This isn’t the final track though — not even close. It’s followed by three substantial, fully-developed tracks.

TLOP is a large-scale collaborative art project, the product of many of pop music’s most gifted icons. But the album is unmistakably West’s, as he once again proves his flair for combining a multitude of creative notions into a focused work. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” West asserts. And he is crazy for making this album. But he’s genius for pulling it off.