It wasn’t easy but, after three changes to the title and repeated adjustments to the track list, the enigmatic Kanye West’s new album is finally here. Twitter tirades, a listening party at his Madison Square Garden fashion show and public antics all threatened to take the spotlight away from what West started recording in 2013. Perhaps the nature of this ever-changing release best encompasses The Life of Pablo; it is visceral, always morphing and tracks feel like they might change entirely from listen to listen. But, that is precisely what makes the record so exciting and, even among West’s esteemed back-catalogue, one of his best pieces of work.
The gospel influences that West has repeatedly voiced over the last few years are evident from the uplifting opening ‘Ultralight Beam’, and soaring vocals from various guests throughout the LP, including Rihanna, Chris Brown and The Weeknd, prove West still knows a hook when he hears one. But, to try and pin down this album as one particular style does not do justice to the sheer multitude of sounds, references and musical indulgence on the album. ‘Feedback’ mirrors the harsh, laser-focused sound of West’s last album Yeezus; ‘Highlights’ would not sound out of place on the older, Grammy-winning albums of the younger Kanye years, and ‘FML’, a standout, harks back to the minimalist autotuned sounds of 808’s & Heartbreak. Even within tracks, samples abruptly end and morph into others, and musical interludes often crush a verse, just as West gets going. But, it is this instability that makes The Life of Pablo such a brilliant, enticing listen. Eighteen tracks take the album to all boundaries of Hip-Hop, break them, and on into other genres.
a crass, unapologetic riot and it makes for brilliant listening
That is not to say the album is without fault; this quivering intensity was frustrating when listening to ‘Famous’ (one of the LP’s strongest), as I could have listened to West rapping over that beat for another thirty minutes. The sickeningly-poor ‘Facts’ makes it on to the final cut, as does the underwhelming ’30 Hours’ and ‘Father Stretch my Hands Pt.1’. But, such is the nature of the beast that these are brushed off as the LP continues at its frantic, brilliant pace. The auto-tuned flows and rasping that may be divisive to some older Kanye fans are at the forefront of a lot of the tracks, but they fit with the brilliant production behind them. This styling also allows for welcome guest spots from Future, Desiigner and Travi$ Scott, as well (thankfully) Frank Ocean. Just as this threatens to overrule other styles of Kanye’s delivery, the punch lines and audacity still have their place. The well-publicised ‘Famous’ (with that Taylor Swift lyric) is a crass, unapologetic riot and makes for brilliant listening. As does ‘I Love Kanye’ where, as only he could, West raps in the third person about Kanye loving Kanye. It’s nice to see a morsel of self-deprecating humour still resonates slightly.
I had personal worries that this album would be dwarfed by West’s fashion pursuits, his personal life and questionable antics in the public eye, and that the end result would be a lacklustre piece so far removed from his brilliant discography. But, the frantic pace of West’s life seems to have injected this album with a brutal, quivering urgency. Those who are fans of a succinct album that flows eloquently from track to track will struggle with this album. It is by no means a relaxed, easy listen and things you like will hastily morph into other sounds far removed from the original piece. But, it is absolutely worth the listen from start to finish, as to appreciate the sheer scale and variety of the finished LP. It is glaring, frantic, mutating and fantastic. Perhaps West’s previous comparisons between himself and Pablo Picasso, and the album’s title, are very poignant. This self-declared, erratic genius has painted another masterpiece and, the best thing about it is, the paint is still drying. Praise be to Yeezus.