It’s been almost three years since we last got a Kanye West album. His focus has noticeably gravitated toward his Yeezy Season fashion line and more importantly, his family. For years, he tried to break down the wall that separated him from the upper echelon of the fashion industry. That aforementioned wall however, was probably more of a color barrier than anything. Getting a conservative-dominated industry to believe in the vision of a southside Chicago producer-turned-rapper who was also the son of a former Black Panther probably wasn’t an easy task. Kanye’s big brother JAY Z stomped in the business world but he was a smooth talking hustler—Hov had the juice. Not that Ye doesn’t but we’re talking about the same man that debuted “Black Skinhead” on SNL three years ago. You can’t exactly picture Black Skinhead Yeezy eating some damn croissants with Giorgio Armani.
Like Pablo Picasso, Kanye has made some controversial decisions over the course of his career, that have in one way or another shaped the way people view his art. And just as drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar so desperately wanted to shoot the shit with the political heavyweights of Colombia at one time—Kanye aspired to rub shoulders with a bunch of people (excluding Virgil Abloh) that didn’t want him at the party in the first place. So instead of playing by the rules, Kanye unveiled his third clothing collaboration with Adidas at Madison Square Garden and oh yeah, premiered his seventh studio album, The Life Of Pablo.
Kanye occupies a unique space in hip hop as one of the genre’s leading influencers. Whether he’s bridging the gap between pop and rap on 808’s & Heartbreaks or seemingly creating an entirely new sub-genre like he did on Yeezus, he’s always looking for ways to reinvent the wheel. This time, around Kanye isn’t really reinventing anything, choosing instead to synthesize his entire career (and life) on an album while taking us to a gospel church that mixes in a little house music every other Sunday to keep things interesting. The Life of Pablo isn’t structured as cohesively as other albums in his discography but it plays like the high-quality mixtape we’ve yet to get from an artist who’s still relevant after the demo tape era.
The opening track, “Ultra Light Beams” gets even higher than the intro of My Beautiful Dark Fantasy enlisting Chance the Rapper, The Dream, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, a gospel choir and a viral toddler who caught the holy spirit to shine bright as the most uplifting track on the album. Though all of the aforementioned artists (and toddler) mesh nicely; it’s Chance who steals the show at the song’s end with a verse that plays out like the kid in the church choir who got his first solo performance and transcended all expectations. (Think Ryan Toby’s rendition of “Oh Happy Day” in Sister Act 2.) The Life of Pablo closes with the bonus house track, “Fade” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone to bring the house-infused gospel church theme full circle.
“I Love Kanye” takes aim at your typical Kanye fan that refuses to appreciate what 808’s & Heartbreak and Yeezus did for hip-hop and music as a whole (we all know that guy). In less than a minute he sarcastically recreates a dialogue that’s gone on for years: “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye, Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye. I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye, the always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye.” After a few listens you get the sense that The Life of Pablo isn’t a shiny new Kanye ready to be unwrapped —it’s the quintessential hand-me-down that works just fine.
Sonically, The Life of Pablo floats on a lighter cloud than Ye’s last two albums. ‘Chop up the soul Kanye’ breaks through with a flip of a Pastor T.L. Barrett performance on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” featuring Kid Cudi with Future’s third cousin twice-removed from the Freeband gang family, Desiigner, joining the congregation on “Pt. 2." Bone-chilling violin chords take “Freestyle 4” back to the world of Yeezus with lyrics that make “I’m In It” sound like child’s play. Even if you doubt Kanye’s ability to turn a Vogue dinner party into a full-blown orgy, you have to appreciate his (likely Hennessy induced) honesty. Life as Pablo West isn’t all sex, fun and games though. The introspective “FML” featuring The Weeknd shines light on the darkest parts of Kanye’s soul, making 21 Grammys, a clothing line and a Kardashian sound a lot less appealing by the song’s end. When the man behind the memes, paparazzi run-ins and sensational headlines reveals the gnarled layers of his soul you get a sense of how chaotic The Life of Pablo can be.
“If Hov Jay, then every Jordan need a Rodman,” Kanye quips on the latest lights inspired cut, “Highlights." However, Ye doubles more as coach Phil Jackson on this album, producing all 18 tracks and bringing out the very best from the majority of his guests. The production is cinematic, recruiting co-producers Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Swizz Beatz, Rick Rubin and Dj Dodger Stadium to complement the sounds Kanye experimented with on his prior albums. When Frank Ocean creeps out of his cave on the outro of “Wolves” the world starts to feel like a better place until you realize you’re in district 13 of the Hunger Games. Chris Brown drops some of the best vocals of his career on the shimmering highlight of the album, “Waves” which was written by Chance the Rapper and Kid Cudi. Proven veterans like Rihanna (“Famous”), and Kendrick Lamar (“No More Parties in LA”) undoubtedly add to the record’s commercial potential.
The Life of Pablo won’t spawn any mini Kanye’s but it’s still the most creative work of his career excluding the Jumpman-inspired “Facts." Even a Charlie Heat rework couldn’t save the dismal three-minute Nike diss. After a legal pad full of track listings and three album titles, the album stands as the perfect 58-minute depiction of Kanye West. The Life of Pablo captures the evolution of one of the most acclaimed artists of this generation.
Words by CJ Rucker