On The Life of Pablo, Kanye West is brilliant and frustrating, inspired and deluded – as we’ve come to expect
Kanye’s new album received one of the strangest launches in music history, and the record is much like that event – unfocused, rambling and overlong yet studded with flashes of brilliance
The 21st century offers a panoply of options for the pop star wishing to launch their new album. They can do it in time-honoured style: working the interview circuit, touring hard, keeping their fingers crossed for good reviews. They can go for the surprise approach and suddenly plonk it online without fanfare.
Or, if they’re Kanye West, they can hire Madison Square Garden and charge people US$160 a ticket to come and watch him play new songs off a laptop; show his new clothing collection in a presentation directed by contemporary artist Vanessa Beecroft that turns out to involve a lot of models just standing there for over an hour; give a couple of his famous speeches about the world’s failure to fully recognise his polymath genius; and hear him announce a video game that appears to entail the player piloting an avatar of West’s late mother, Donda, through the gates of heaven.
West protested the games industry had proved strangely unenthusiastic about this latter idea, a state of affairs about which he sounded more surprised than perhaps he should have.
The whole thing was beamed to umpteen cinemas around the world and streamed online: 20 million people apparently tuned in. It was by turns rambling, chaotic, deeply underwhelming, impressively audacious and completely infuriating, which, whether by default or by design, made it a perfect match for the new release in question, The Life of Pablo, an album that’s also all of those things.
Its unveiling marks the end of a lengthy journey. Over the course of the past two-and-a-half years, the album has undergone four name changes and been through at least two almost entirely different iterations. At various junctures, its supporting cast has included everyone from P. Diddy to Paul McCartney. Indeed, it was still evidently in a state of flux during its world premiere. West subsequently spent another two days alternately tinkering with it and leaving messages on Twitter: at one juncture announcing “I am consumed by my purpose to help the world,” at another posting a series of gnomic Tweets about St Paul, who you got the sinking feeling was being added to the ever-expanding list of historical figures Kanye West thinks he’s not unlike.
But you don’t need to have been keeping close watch on West’s social media feeds to know that The Life of Pablo is an album that’s been faffed about with for a long time: it sounds like it. In place of the stylistic coherence of West’s previous album, Yeezus, with its distorted electronics and overriding air of screw-you fury, there’s a record that’s audibly undergone endless revisions. It appears to have had ideas thrown at it until it feels messy and incoherent: over the course of four minutes, the two-part Father Stretch My Hands endlessly changes tempo and mood, stopping and starting, its sound heaving from crackling old gospel samples to pop chorus to a stark mesh of bass, drums and snarling to a hushed vocoder interlude. The problem is that it doesn’t really have a cumulative effect: it just sounds confused and scattered, which may well reflect its author’s state of mind.
Feedback features West finally doing what the rest of the world has been doing for the past few years and wondering aloud whether he’s actually gone round the twist: in the background, a sparse loop, apparently made from the titular noise, thrillingly spins out of tune, then starts to cut out, supplanted by sudden bursts of atonal screeching.
Elsewhere, Ultralight Beam and Low Lights/Highlights don’t feel episodic so much as fractured, and a track as great as the simultaneously euphoric and elegiac Waves turns up alongside the sparse, self-pitying collaboration with The Weeknd, FML, which lasts under four minutes but still contrives to feel like it’s dragging on forever.
Meanwhile, 30 Hours starts out beautifully judged – its alternately rueful and boastful lyrics backed by ghostly samples of avant-garde disco innovator Arthur Russell and a writhing synthesised bass line – but it’s allowed to meander until it’s about twice as long as it needs to be, dissipating its impact in the process.
Occasionally, you fancy you can hear the influence of music that wasn’t even released when West began making the album. If the album’s scattergun sound – gospel, 1970s soul, old Chicago house, post-punk, electronica – might conceivably be a response to Kendrick Lamar’s kaleidoscopic To Pimp a Butterfly (albeit with substantially less to say about the state of the world, beyond a token “pray for Paris” and what could conceivably be a passing reference to the shooting of Michael Brown, the state of the world being substantially less fascinating to Kanye West than the state of Kanye West), then the mournful Real Friends definitely feels like a track inspired by Lamar’s U.
The big difference between them seems pretty telling. On U, Lamar flagellated himself to the point of tears over the way fame and self-absorption had distanced him from his roots; West’s initial expressions of remorse are quickly supplanted by the loudly expressed belief that it’s actually everybody else’s fault for failing to appreciate how busy and important he is.
Indeed, while there are great lines and verses here, not least the funny, smart No More Parties in LA – which features Lamar – you’re occasionally struck by the sense that West doesn’t really have that much to say this time around, or at least not much that he hasn’t said before, unless you count the moment on Wolves where he appears to compare Kim Kardashian to the Virgin Mary, the similarities between his wife and the mother of Jesus having curiously escaped everyone else.
Mostly West sticks to the fairly well-worn topic of how talented and successful he is. Complaining about a rapper being self-aggrandising feels a bit like complaining about someone who works at an all-night garage pushing Rizlas and Snickers through a metal flap at 4am: it’s what they do. Ever since the first hip-hop MC lifted a microphone to their mouth in the mid ’70s, self-aggrandisement has rather been the point. Even so, something about West’s brand of immodesty seems to rub people up the wrong way, and listening to The Life of Pablo, you can see why.
Famous is a flatly fantastic piece of music that may be the best thing on the album: there’s something clever, dextrous and irresistible about the way it weaves a brilliantly warped sample of Sister Nancy’s ebullient reggae classic Bam Bam around a mournful snatch of Jimmy Webb’s Do What You Gotta Do, first sung by Rihanna, then sampled from Nina Simone’s 1968 recording of the song. But you don’t have to be a huge Taylor Swift fan to find the lyrics spectacularly disingenuous to the point of being a bit unpleasant. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex – I made that bitch famous,” he raps, curiously neglecting to point out that before he interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV VMAs, Swift’s second album had already sold five million copies in America alone, gone platinum in 10 countries and enjoyed the decade’s longest run at the top of the US charts.
The charitable assessment here is that West is just trolling. The uncharitable assessment is that he’s a deluded pillock who actually believes what he’s saying. Listening to Famous, you do find yourself wondering if anyone else has ever managed to seem so brilliant at what they do and such a thundering fool of a man at exactly the same time.
The Life of Pablo could be the sound of a man overreaching himself. Perhaps it’s a document of a mind coming increasingly unglued: you can find plenty of evidence here to support that interpretation. Or perhaps it’s something more prosaic. One of the weirder side effects of the Madison Square Garden event was to make his music seem like a secondary consideration to his fashion range. The focus seemed to be on the clothes, which might well explain the distinct lack of focus on the album.