Finally being able to press play on a brand new Kanye West album was a surreal feeling for me. After all of the teasing and waiting (and more waiting) The Life of Pablo has officially landed… Thank God. I don’t think I could’ve lasted another day. Why? Because Kanye West is the greatest recording artist of our generation. He has continued to release dope music consistently for 15 years straight. Who else has done or is doing what Kanye does? No one. Not even Jay-Z; not even Drake. Drizzy is, of course, the hottest rapper in the game and will be for another few years. But he’s no Kanye West. Not yet, at least.
Yeezy gave Roc-A-Fella Records its first number-one single (“Slow Jamz”). Yeezy perfected the Soul-sampled Hip-hop beat. Yeezy gave us a debut album that catapulted Rap music from the laughing stalk of the mainstream music community to the envy of the mainstream music community. And not only that, he used similar production and honest-to-God lyrical styles on his follow-up album, remastering his signature sound to create something even more impressive. Naturally, going into this album I was expecting Kanye to give us another upper echelon classic. Although, I will admit I did express some apprehension as February 11th inched closer and closer.
How in the world could this man make *another* great album?
Could this be Kanye West’s first career blemish?
Those are valid questions seeing as practically every artist has one or even a few lackluster outputs. I felt bad for doubting the man whose music I hold in such high regard. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that I was simply afraid of hearing a Kanye album I didn’t like. I almost thought that happened when I first heard Yeezus among a group of my friends. I was actually kind of pissed. Eventually, I got out of my comfort zone and tried listening through West’s ears instead of my own. It was only then I came to appreciate the fact that there is beauty in all things, even perturbed frustration. One thing I will always value about Kanye’s music is that he finds a way to replenish his core sound with each release. All of his albums are unique and groundbreaking in their own approach yet they are all still so… Kanye. And just when you think he can’t do it again, he proves us all wrong.
That’s a trait exclusive to truly great artists such as Kanye West. He feeds off of criticism, skepticism, and all of the other “-isms” he rants about in his interviews and Twitter feed. This time around, his resilient gluttony left my thirst sufficiently quenched. Nevertheless, this album is not the instant classic many will crown it as.
It’s very difficult for me to say that. However, instant classics are incredibly rare so saying that TLOP isn’t one of them is hardly a diss. After the eighteenth track fades into nothingness and the totality of the album sets in, it is a hard pill to swallow. Is this album the greatest thing I’ve ever heard or am I just the biggest Kanye West dick-rider on the planet? I honestly couldn’t tell. So I played the album continuously on repeat. I have been listening to different forms of TLOP for days on end now. First came the singles: “Real Friends”, “Facts”, and “No More Parties in LA”. I nearly played myself out of “Real Friends”. I was trying so hard to determine whether or not this dude still had it. I’m genuinely embarrassed confessing that to you. I concluded that Kanye absolutely spazzed on all three (even though I’m not really a fan of “Facts”).
Next came the ten-song live rip. Seeing those song titles on my iPhone music screen felt like a childhood Christmas morning. I was enthralled with the concise route because that meant Kanye was in hyper focus mode. Despite the fact that the rollout for The Life of Pablo might be the goofiest, clunkiest, most anxiety-inducing one I’ve ever been a part of, Kanye proved with Yeezus that deadline stress at this stage in his career does more help than harm. I thought the ten tracks flowed well as a whole and welded together enough dynamic soundscapes to give TLOP an authentic Kanye West vibe.
But then, in true Kanye fashion, he cancels that idea and decides to add on eight more tracks. Needless to say, I was flustered. Don’t get me wrong, I am always down for more Kanye West music, but my heart was so set on those initial ten tracks. To be honest, the soul of this album is formulated through those ten songs. They are the most musically daring and ear-catching. My faith was restored, though, when Yeezy let it be known that Chance the Rapper was responsible for the album’s delay and additional length. I’m not sure what it is (most likely his incredible 2013 mixtape), but that guy has my trust. And if his stellar verse on “Ultralight Beam” doesn’t convince you of the same, I don’t know what will. Chance and the rest of the featured guests matched with the astonishingly progressive production are what make this album so special.
The chilling violin, suspenseful synths, and House-style horn in “Freestyle 4” develop into a rare Halloween-ish banger. That song is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from Kanye but it is somehow reminiscent of “I Am a God” and “Send It Up”. Every previous West album manifests itself throughout the tracklist. The uplifting gospel sound on the opener, as well as the 45-second freestyle “I Love Kanye”, was specifically built for all those “I mean, I like Old Kanye, when he was actually putting out good music” people. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Originally, “Ultralight Beam” was meant to be the final song on the album. But Yeezy knows how important first impressions are since admitting that making “On Sight” the opener on Yeezus is what probably made people scoff and label it as garbage.
West is more aware of the social chatter that surrounds his legacy than people might think. He cares too much about other people’s opinions if you ask me. But if you say you used to love Kanye and never give this album a chance, shame on you. He made this album especially for you. That’s not to say that every song on Pablo resembles College Dropout, Late Registration, and “the good ol’ days” but he did take a mental and creative pit stop to satisfy every type of Kanye West fan. We hear the arena-style, grandiose ambition from Graduation on tracks like “Highlights” with Young Thug and The-Dream (which reminded me a lot of “Good Life”), “Waves” with Breezy (thank you, Chance), and “Father Pt. 1” with Kid Cudi.
We hear the emotional digital crooning and robotic bass lines on “Wolves” and the impassioned tribal drums on “FML” all stemming from 808’s & Heartbreak. Twisted Fantasy‘s unapologetic bravado and luxuriant production seeped into “Famous” and “Father Pt. 2” sonically, and “Feedback”, “Highlights”, and “Father Pt. 1” lyrically. Elements from Yeezus can be easily recognized on “Feedback” with its semi-psychotic beat, the hyper aggressive delivery on “Facts”, and the “Guilt Trip”-esque confessions on “FML”.
The polished Soul-sampled production, family ties, and elite-level Rap verses heard across “No More Parties”, “Ultralight Beam”, “Real Friends”, and “30 Hours” are vintage Kanye yet have evolved into a distinct contemporary final form. Like I said before, there is a little something for everyone here. And that is the wonder of Kanye West.
Still, Pablo has some holes to fill. Much like its predecessor, TLOP feels unfinished. There are so many marvelously wild sonic concepts heard on this album that it seems as though Kanye got a tad bit overwhelmed. “Freestyle 4” simultaneously is the album’s most formidable and most disappointing track. I honestly believe if it were full-length and conceptualized to its potential, it could be Pablo‘s triumphant centerpiece. Imagine if “Runaway” or “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” were a measly two minutes and two seconds. That’s just it, though: This album is missing that one, magnum opus to place it atop West’s exceptional catalog. “Fade” is this album’s one-of-a-kind performance but Kanye is hardly even present. The Life of Pablo clearly lives through its dazzling production. Regardless, West’s lyrical offerings expose his biggest flaw. He is his own worst enemy at times.
The humor behind Kanye’s no-fucks-given raps is something I hope he never abandons. In spite of that, the insistent name drops and grudge-holding many of these songs promote hold them back from becoming great individual songs. Taylor Swift, Amber Rose, and Ray J should no longer be worth his time to mention on an album. But that’s Kanye for ya. That same bottled-up emotion and triviality has been the blueprint for some of his greatest musical accomplishments. As Kanye West fans, we have learned to deal with annoying recurring tendencies to witness extraordinary sonic feats. And as far as I’m concerned, Kanye West is perfect from the field so far. From So Help Me God to SWISH to Waves to TLOP; none of this album’s circus show behaviors hurt the overall product. The Life of Pablo validates West’s musical genius and dedication to his craft.