An ode to ‘The Life Of Pablo’, the last truly great Kanye West album
For many, Kanye West’s climb up the rocky mountains of celebrity has long eclipsed his artistic legacy. Over the past decade, we’ve seen high-profile tantrums, the endorsing of some pretty dodgy ideals and his marriage to Kim Kardashian (alongside his infrequent cameos on Keeping Up With the Kardashians), all of which have catapulted his fame to precarious heights – enough to warrant more column inches in gossip outlets and larger font types in tabloid headlines.
I grew up with Yeezy as a musical fixture since cramming the entirety of ‘The College Dropout’ into my 128MB MP3 player 17 years ago. Fast-forward to today, where at least one in every three people I speak to do a double-take when I express my admiration for ‘Ye’s talents.
Many of us cringe whenever the topic of KANYE 2020 is brought up. There’s also his idiotic 2018 claim that “slavery was a choice”. And we shouldn’t be too surprised that he cosied up to Donald Trump – they’re both stubborn narcissists who thrive in being obnoxious provocateurs. But let’s take it back to 2016, which ended with West experiencing a breakdown onstage in Sacramento, California and was subsequently being hospitalised, barely a month after his wife was robbed at gunpoint in Paris.
In retrospect, Kanye’s turbulent 2016 was a case of life imitating art and, in a twisted way, complemented the chaotically fantastic clusterfuck that was ‘The Life of Pablo’. Released on Valentine’s Day that year, Yeezy’s seventh solo album is a sloppy, kaleidoscopic mess that cobbles together its 20 tracks with all the nuance of a planet-invading Rick Sanchez on speed. Its volatility is emblematic of the annus horribilis he – and the world in general, given Trump and Brexit – would later experience. It’s also widely seen as the last great full-length project he has released to date.
The build-up to ‘The Life of Pablo’’s launch, ending with Kanye grabbing the aux and premiering the record from his laptop in Madison Square Garden, New York, during one of his fashion shows, was just as erratic as the album itself. In the three years it took to arrive, the album went through four name changes and three post-release edits (where he relentlessly tinkered with tracklist on Tidal). And which ‘Pablo’ was he referring to in the album’s title anyway? Picasso? Escobar?
“The album’s volatility is emblematic of the annus horribilis the world would later experience”
Despite ‘…Pablo’’s haphazard composition, Kanye succeeded in crafting what he vowed would be a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, managing to bridge the throwback chop-up-the-soul Kanye with the more modern madness of 2013’s ‘Yeezus’ to create a captivating project that came to define an era.
Pre-release, ‘Ye promised that ‘The Life of Pablo’ would showcase a gospel theme, which is prominent from the get-go. Majestically transcendent with its choral harmonies, ‘Ultralight Beam’ rivals ‘Dark Fantasy’ as the best Kanye opener of all time, with West reaffirming his faith to God and featuring a Chance the Rapper verse that the latter hasn’t bettered yet. The concept of holiness continues when transitioning to both parts of ‘Father Stretch My Hands’, including hi-hats, mumbled ad-libs and sped-up gospel samples to craft Yeezy’s version of ‘church trap’ assisted by Metro Boomin, a rejuvenated Kid Cudi and a forgettable Future clone in Desiigner.
Then there’s ‘Famous’, the track where Kanye brought back his boorish side and reignited a rivalry with America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift by falsely proclaiming that “he made that bitch famous”. It’s a damn shame that the controversy surrounding West’s loutish boast overshadows what is indisputably one of the best tracks in ‘Ye’s 2010s catalogue. And it’s ironic that a song that cranks up the misogyny from the start is carried by the anthemic sampling of dancehall legend Sister Nancy’s ‘Bam Bam’ and Rihanna’s evocative take of the hook from Nina Simone’s ‘Do What You Gotta Do’s, before its original singer’s serene outro – an irony that couldn’t have been lost on ‘Ye himself.
‘Feedback’ is a nod to the abrasively industrial avant-garde rap at ‘Yeezus’ core, as he acknowledges his delirium and dares anyone to “name him one genius who ain’t crazy”. The claustrophobic ‘Freestyle 4’ follows a similar formula, with Kanye lost in a freaky fantasy where he can’t contain his libido for much longer (“Fuck, can she fuck right now?”). ‘FML’, while not as in-your-face, shares similar strands of DNA to the aforementioned tracks by tapping into the caustic sound and bleak lyricism of that previous album. And ‘Wolves’ is a sprawling, distorted journey into ‘Ye’s insecurities, its hauntingly downbeat aura not just reminiscent of ‘Yeezus’, but also 2008’s desolate ‘808s & Heartbreak’.
On the other hand, the old Kanye also left smudged fingerprints across ‘…Pablo’, and I’m not just referring to the satirical, self-deprecating a capella track ‘I Love Kanye’. The introspective ‘30 Hours’ sees the return of early 2000s ‘Ye, rapping over an instrumental that sounds like a J Dilla Easter egg thanks to the contributions of the late beatmaster’s protege Karriem Riggins. ‘Real Friends’ humanises the larger-than-life Kanye into someone who genuinely laments his distance from his family (“When was the last time I remembered a birthday? / When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?”), a far cry from the earnest raps of The College Dropout’s ‘Family Business’, where he gathered around his loved ones to “take a family Grammy picture”.
‘Ye’s God complex runs deep on this record”
Equally tellingly, the Madlib-co-produced ‘No More Parties in L.A.’ sees Yeezy keep pace with Kendrick Lamar as they bless and bemoan the trappings of that Hollywood lifestyle that they can’t seem to detach themselves from. ‘Ye’s shamelessness is a pivotal part of what makes him arguably the greatest artist of our time, but listening to him wheel it back to straight-from-the-’Go Kanye offered a refreshing break from the grandiose posturing and excessive pontificating.
Looking back, it would make sense that Kanye would name ‘The Life of Pablo’ not after Picasso or Escobar, but rather Paul the Apostle. In a stream of pre-album release tweets, West likened himself to one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, someone who was famed for being Christianity’s biggest advocate after getting struck by lightning. Yeezy’s proclivity for drawing parallels with historical figures was already well-established – this is the man who’d already rapped “I am a God” – but plenty of eyebrows were raised at him seeing a kindred spirit in the man he described on Twitter as “the most powerful messenger of the first century”.
While Kanye intended for the record to be a gospel one, it’s actually less of a ‘love thy God’ album and more like a lucid tapestry of Biblical retellings from his self-anointed sanctity. ‘Ye’s God complex runs deep on this record, from him referencing the ‘Ultralight Beam’ that temporarily blinded Saint Pablo before his devotion to apostolicity to playing the role of Joseph to his wife Kim Kardashian’s Virgin Mary in the sombre ‘Wolves’. There’s also the iconic album artwork that juxtaposes a photo of a family wedding alongside a scantily clad glamour model, with the words “WHICH ONE” strewn over the top, perhaps an embodiment of the inner conflict between flesh and spirit playing out in ‘Ye’s head.
‘The Life of Pablo’ deserves its flowers, and has rubber-stamped its place as one of my three favourite Kanye albums at the time of writing (just behind 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and ‘2005’s ‘Late Registration’, his greatest record). It’s also the album where Yeezy most clearly projected his deepest turmoil to the world. Its greatest achievement wasn’t just its destruction of archetypal album conventions and willingness to take risks, but also its commitment to a visceral exploration into the mind of a flawed genius just when his year and reputation were about to get worse.