ALBUM REVIEW: Kanye West - The Life of Pablo

ALBUM REVIEW: Kanye West - The Life of Pablo

Genre: Hip-hop

Date: 14th Feb 2016

Label: GOOD Music / Def Jam Records

You’ve probably heard that Kanye West just released his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo (or TLOP for short).

In typical Kanye fashion, the moments leading up to the release of the album were littered with controversies: celebrity squabbles, constant delays, name changes and other theatrics.

Yeezy season hype began with the release of Kanye’s both stellar and soulful experimental ballad 'Only One' (which has unfortunately been left out of album). Kanye continued the momentum with singles like 'Four Five Seconds', which has also been omitted from The Life of Pablo, and 'Wolves'. But 'Only One' marked the most distinct shift in style for Kanye. The samples he’d relied on so heavily for years were conspicuously missing, and we were treated to the idea of Kanye the lyricist, dropping the archetypal rap star bravado and taking us on an intimate, unfiltered tour of his personal life. Music pundits speculated that this might be the direction Kanye would take his new album in — they were only half right.

In the last couple of weeks, prior to the release of The Life of Pablo, Kanye sent the album through four name changes (So Help Me God, Waves, Swish, and finally settling for Pablo), entered a rap beef with Wiz Khalifa (which abruptly ended), and once again offended Taylor Swift fans with outrageous lyrics from 'Famous' when it was first premiered with the entire album at Madison Square Garden for Yeezy Season 3.

While all this was happening, Kanye once again booted up his much beloved GOOD Fridays series, originating back in 2010 prior to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, giving away a free track every Friday. On Valentine’s Day this year, The Life of Pablo was finally made available to the public.

But first, who the hell is Pablo? There was initial speculation that Kanye is referring to surrealist painter Pablo Picasso. In an Oxford Guild address, Kanye compared himself to the art icon saying, “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater." Others have theorised that Kanye was referring to the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar — a figure whom several rappers have heralded for his lavish and brutish lifestyle, not unlike Tony Montana aka Scarface.. So which theory is right?

As it turns out, neither. 

Kanye refers to the Apostle Paul, whose name translates to Pablo in Spanish. Kanye explained on Twitter of “Paul... The most powerful messenger of the first century…”, then comparing himself to the Biblical figure, “He was saved from persecution due to his Roman citizenship...I have the right to speak my voice…” and finally calling all pundits and theorists out, “All memes are wrong... The Life of Paul... The life of Pablo…”.

The fact that Kanye titled his album after a Biblical figure shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, considering the overwhelming gospel influence on The Life of Pablo. But the name Pablo could still have a second “meaning” — Pablo is, in all likelihood, the everyman. A family man in his forties, nameless, black, devotedly Christian, who occasionally fantasizes about "big booty bitches" — that’s the side of Kanye that he’s trying to bring out in the album. This idea especially shines through with "I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news”. When Kanye’s at home in a wife-beater and boxers, lounging on a couch with a beer in hand, seeing himself on the evening news, that’s when his own duality — family man/famous rap star — becomes the most discernible.

It’s a beautiful concept and some of the album’s most powerful moments come from it. On the track 'Real Friends', Kanye laments his own failure as a friend. He raps about a cousin who stole his laptop which contained compromising material, resulting in him having to pay off his own cousin $250’000 to retrieve; at the end of that episode he resignedly mutters, “I guess I get what I deserved”. On '30 Hours', Kanye talks about a failed romance. He’s so emotionally invested in this woman that he drives 30 hours to meet her, and then when it becomes apparent that their romance isn't working out, he drives back another 30 hours. The haunting voice of Arthur Russell — repeating the refrain of the song as a sample — drives home the personal journey there and back again, and the breezy, melancholic production expertly alleviates the emotional heft of the entire song.

These moments, where Kanye is the weak, vulnerable, and very emotional Pablo, are some of the most relatable and outstanding moments in the hour-long album.

Unfortunately, while we may see glimpses of Kanye the lyricist (or Pablo), Kanye seems neither willing nor capable to produce an entire album with thoughtful and affective lyrics. The very first verse off 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1' has Kanye worrying about his t-shirt getting stained by a model’s bleached anus. In 'Wolves', Kanye ponders, "What if Mary was in the club before she met Joseph, with no love? Cover Saint in lambs' wool, We surrounded by the fuckin' wolves”. 

It’s cringe-inducing moments like this where we're forced to wonder if Kanye is deliberately trolling with provocative lyrics. While Kanye has never really been known to be a lyricist, there’s a certain point where they get so bad they venture into excruciating tastelessness. 

Kanye’s strong suit is in his production, and on this front he certainly doesn’t disappoint. 'Father Stretch My Hands', in both part 1 and 2, is structured like an imaginary scrapbook — full of soundbites and samples, displaying all the arresting moments in Pablo’s life. It's scatterbrained genius, one of Kanye’s most adventurous and advanced production achievements. 'Feedback' features production reminiscent of his abrasive last album Yeezus — the beat is dark, menacing, and dynamically innovative, breaking down into flat out discordant notes towards the end.

One of the highlights of Kanye West’s songwriting is when he samples himself, the best example of which is in 'No More Parties in L.A.', when he samples his own 'New God Flow'. The sample is remarkably different and brilliantly repurposed, but still made its own. It works as a very Kanye-esque statement: by sampling himself along with the likes of Nina Simone, Arthur Russell, and Ghostface Killah, he audaciously puts his own work right up there with the greats.

The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s most adventurous — and, like its album art would suggest, his roughest and most scrapbook-like work yet. It’s a homage to God and gospel music, a humble salute of the Pablos of the world and to the Yeezy who runs the world. The album's production is at once stylistically gorgeous and challenging — despite Kanye's embrace of his older habits of sampling old soul records and utilizing orchestral elements alongside statements of typical braggadocio, he still gets down with broken and discordant sounds that he first embraced in Yeezus. His lyricism still continues to challenge the boundaries of good taste — we can never forget “hurry up with my damn croissants!”. 

At the end of the day, Kanye operates in a paradox that's almost exclusive to the rapper — he shines when he talks about his intimate personal life, but when he goes on and on about money and fame and a "bleached a**hole", it becomes boring. 

Rating: 8/10

The Life of Pablo is available for streaming on TIDAL.

Kanye West headlines Paradise International Music Festival in Manila.