Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

The release of Kanye West’s latest LP was never going to be an easy ride; we strap ourselves in for the hip-hop hype of the year.

Album Review by Jon Davies | 18 Feb 2016
Album title: The Life of Pablo
Artist: Kanye West
Label: G O O D / Def Jam
Release date: 13 Feb

Coming off the back of his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the build up to 2013's Yeezus was relatively low-key, with Kanye West having then recently married and refocused on creating a decidedly experimental aesthetic following trips to study modernist art and design. In stark contrast to Yeezus’ hermetic process, West has struggled to control the hype surrounding The Life Of Pablo. Public outbursts, unsavoury Twitter feuds and countless revisions to the release have dogged the album while simultaneously ramping up the excitement of what history might call Kanye’s most anticipated record.

Rather than answering his critics, The Life Of Pablo poses even more complex questions to where Kanye West is going. As most of his followers expect, West runs the gamut of emotions, from the deceptively insightful to the most trite and offensive fantasies of his mind, but the gospel opener Ultralight Beam implies a dual meaning, that of the biggest Mail Mary of his career, and perhaps more cynically the shield to protect him from the predictable criticisms of his ego running rampant.

Descending the pulpit, West returns to the profane: “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” on Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1, before taking on Taylor Swift’s rise to fame in the album’s most unnecessary beef on the otherwise celebratory Famous. Lord, protect Kanye indeed.

This serves to be West’s modus operandi throughout, an exercise in self-sabotage and dualities that would be intolerable for most artists. But the genius of Kanye lies precisely at the point where his manic ego gives way to his vulnerabilities points laid bare, when he lets his mouth run that little longer than it should.

For the audience, the delight is in seeing the parachute ripcord malfunctioning. In Freestyle 4, West alludes to the car crash elements of his public outbursts and his rampant libido, countered by I Love Kanye, on the surface a throwaway (but vital element to the record) retort to the critical opinion that West’s ego has got in the way too many times. You begin to realise that The Life Of Pablo is more self-assured than you want to believe.

The second half of the album is a gorgeous run of redemptive confessions; take the chilling us-against-the-world-ballad of Kim and Kanye (FML) or the Arthur Russell sampling 30 Hours, which details a breakup with his partner during The College Dropout. Then there's much hyped Wolves, which reflects on Kanye at his most low, contemplating leaving his ambitions while his detractors take advantage of his public vulnerability.

Such varied moments rub shoulders with standout track Real Friends, a beautiful, sober and subtle ode to relationships. Even Facts, when taken on its own merit an indulgent and pointless tirade against Nike, is perfectly poised to create a sense of rooting for the underdog who constantly looks to challenge himself and the world surrounding.

Initially, the beauty that The Life Of Pablo exudes towards the end exacerbates the gratuitous, boorish nature of Kanye’s misogyny, the depths he plunges to for point scoring with exes and the strawman tactics of deflecting criticisms with religion. But don’t we want our icons to reflect the state of our times? West is as cynical as he is hopeful, as crestfallen as he is determined, as narcissistic as he is generous (the album’s creative egalitarianism reminiscent of Holly Herndon’s groundbreaking Platform), as rich as he is in debt and as sexist as he is devotional to Donda, Kim and North, a past present and future of women he pins his life to.

In the fog of his production committee's stylistic turns and his own deliberately obtuse observations, coupled with arresting emotion (and at times crass collaging, once again Nina Simone is uncomfortably appropriated in Famous) you feel that, while it's nowhere near cohesive enough as To Pimp a Butterfly to be regarded a classic, The Life Of Pablo reflects an uncertain, schizophrenic zeitgeist.

Kanye West’s ego is clearly stressed to breaking point, as ever naively attempting prometheanism, but not only is he candid in recognising his shortcomings, he’s able to turn it into a strength as every great artist should. West wants everything, equally we expect everything, so the result is exhilarating in its instability. The Life Of Pablo is bursting at the seams with ideas and talking points, from his mental health and destructive ego to the very fact that this album defines how useless the format is. As with every one of his records, you feel like this is only the tip of the iceberg.