Album Review: Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’

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Note: I will not be discussing any of the songs following “Wolves”, as Kanye himself labeled them bonus tracks at the end of “30 Hours”. Have a blessed day.

“Name me one genius that ain’t crazy”, Kanye West challenges on “Feedback”, as if he knows he can’t possibly justify the escalating antics that populate gossip blogs and Twitter feeds across the world. There was a time when the Kanye we knew and loved would show his crazy genius rather than tell, but that spirit is sparse at best on The Life of Pablo.

Past Kanye releases paired unfiltered thoughts with meticulous craftsmanship, a signature blend of emotional vulnerability and musical confidence that endeared the Chicago native to a generation of impressionable listeners. But for anyone who followed Pablo’s haphazard release cycle, it slowly but surely became clear that craft was the last thing on Yeezy’s mind. With his energy torn between clothing lines, sneaker designs, parenthood, a video game tribute to his mother, and miscellaneous Kardashian duties, it’s incredible we even got an album at all. Unfortunately (and inevitably), the end result is a rambling, occasionally inspiring, ultimately disappointing 60-minute ode to self-destructive ambition, a monument of a career in freefall.

From a lesser artist, The Life of Pablo would be impressive enough as an amalgam of gospel, electronic, trap, and old-school hip-hop, but this is Kanye West. We know full well what he’s capable of—the narcissistic splendor of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the lush orchestration of Late Registration, the pop futurism of Graduation, even the hard-hitting nihilism of Yeezus—but unlike those standout releases, Pablo just can’t commit to any of its ideas. Instead, Kanye opts to schizophrenically shift through half-formed songs, brief moments of brilliance, and mean misogyny.

At the very least, the album starts on a high note. “Ultralight Beam”, a stunning proclamation of faith, lends a warmth and compassion that’s absent elsewhere, but Kanye’s brief, nervous vocal contributions pale in comparison to his guests’ brilliant work. Kelly Price’s soulful belting is undeniable, but it’s Ye’s spiritual successor and fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper who truly steals the show. His verse is a virtuoso display of the same quirkiness and hunger that made us fall in love with a certain college dropout over ten years ago. Chance comes across as a clever, giddily charming thinker on a mission to put his city on the map, provide for his daughter, and redeem his past transgressions.

Early single “Real Friends” is the most contemplative Ye we’ve heard since Fantasy, anchored by an entrancing synth loop and rich vocal interjections from Ty Dolla $ign. For four nearly flawless minutes, Kanye calms his ego for a compelling slice of storytelling that touches on forgetfulness, fatherhood, and familial betrayal. When Kanye drops the tired role of world-conquering genius sex god and lets himself be human, the end result is arresting:

“I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions
Fuck the church up by drinkin’ after communion
Spillin’ free wine, now my tux is ruined
In town for a day, what the fuck we doin’?”

Elsewhere, uncertainty gets in the way of otherwise promising musical flourishes. Both parts of “Father Stretch My Hands” are powerful in their own right, tackling Ye’s complex relationship with his father and the pressure of marital indiscretions. Yet somehow, Kanye thought it best to start “Pt. 1” with perhaps the single worst lyric of his career: “Now if I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my T-shirt, I’mma feel like an asshole”. Nevertheless, “Pt. 1” coasts along on a solid Kid Cudi hook before crashing to a halt, as ominous choral chanting and militant hand claps throw us right into the thrilling confessional of “Pt. 2”.

Kanye rapidly documents a laundry list of personal issues before interpolating Desiigner’s completely unrelated trap hit “Panda” surprisingly well, only to cut to an ill-fitting downtempo soul sample, followed by an Imogen Heap-lite robot vocal interlude that’s interrupted by the same sample that kicked off “Pt. 1”. It’s even more confusing than it reads, but it didn’t have to be. The two-parter could have been remarkable—maybe even a career highlight—if treated with just a little more care.

If that weren’t frustrating enough, there are several moments where Kanye mumbles his way through a bar or two (most notably on “Wolves”), indicative of using a reference vocal track rather than a finished take. If the numerous title and tracklist changes are any indication, Kanye spent about as much time on the lyrics here as he did on Yeezus, an infamously rushed release saved by Rick Rubin’s ruthlessly efficient editing. On Pablo, however, “Feedback” comes across as a tired, trite rant that wasn’t good enough for Yeezus, screeching to a halt for yet another unfunny and self-indulgent proclamation:

“Hold on, hold on, hold on, wait a second, everybody here, I’m the ghetto Oprah
You know what that mean? You get a fur! You get a fur! You get a jet! You get a jet!
Big booty bitch for you! Woo!”

Meanwhile, the Young Thug-featuring “Highlights” is a pale imitation of the celebratory, Auto-Tuned opulence that made Graduation’s “Good Life” a Grammy Award-winning, Top 10-charting hit. And then there’s that Taylor lyric, one of many lyrical duds that detracts from the chilling, entrancing production on “Famous”. Stop encouraging Kanye to “talk that talk”, Swizz Beatz, and stick to making bangers.

Don’t get it twisted—there’s enough excellence here to make The Life of Pablo a worthwhile listen for all but the most stubborn of hip-hop heads, but the final product is an ugly stain on Kanye West’s otherwise storied discography.

Rating 6 out of 10

The Life of Pablo is currently available on TIDAL