The Life of Pablo doesn’t ask us to reconsider Kanye the artist in the wake of Kanye the person.
The only way to try to properly explain Kanye West–a man whose recent words and actions are a mix between vile and confusing–is to assume that he wants people to hate him. This is a man who has sought out fame and top-tier pop stardom for so long that he just wants to be universally…something. If he can’t be universally loved, then he might as well try being universally hated. At times, the Kanye West media circus has threatened to consume his art, which has become for many the only way to excuse whatever awful thing has come out of his mouth this week. In that sense, The Life of Pablo has its work cut out for it, given West’s misogynistic Twitter tantrums (ugh) and his all-caps defense of Bill Cosby (really, man?). But The Life of Pablo doesn’t ask us to reconsider Kanye the artist in the wake of Kanye the person. Instead, the album is almost workmanlike, a reflection of the artistic process of its creator rather than a grand statement of intent.
Honestly, it’s surprising that we’re hearing The Life of Pablo at all; West has been tinkering with this album for more than a year now, and as of this writing, the “official” release isn’t even available for purchase. (West pulled it shortly after it premiered with promises that he would “fix” the recorded version of “Wolves.”) West seemed to take his time making a final decision on anything and everything about the album, including its title. As a result, The Life of Pablo often feels like a patchwork release, a haphazard collection of songs and ideas culled from the past two years of Kanye’s one-off singles and G.O.O.D. Music releases. There’s no thematic bent to The Life of Pablo; instead, we get bits and pieces of the many sides of Kanye’s music.
As there is no thematic bent the way there was on Yeezus or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Pablo is a far more disjointed listen. Kanye’s erratic personality is writ large here: things start off with the gospel-tinged “Ultralight Beam,” on which Kanye seems to want to talk one on one with God. Once that fades, though, sex-crazed maniac Kanye takes over and asks us if a bleached asshole will get bleach stains on his T-shirt. The pieces of Pablo don’t quite fit together over the course of its runtime; Kanye is just running rampant, letting his brilliance and his unrepentant ugliness go unchecked.
At times, Pablo is an uncomfortable listen. Not much more needs to be said about his verse on “Famous” (a great beat deserving of better rhymes), but there’s also his inexplicable baiting of Ray J on “Highlights” (“He might’ve hit it first/ Only problem is I’m rich”), and his proclaiming of himself as the “ghetto Oprah” on “Feedback.” It’s a waste of time to track Kanye’s thought process, but more so than ever, Pablo finds him indulging in his uncontrolled, unapologetic id.
When things click, though, Kanye can still remind you of why people still love him. While The Life Of Pablo has a handful of moments and song elements that shine, the tracks that pull everything together are easily some of his finest. “Ultralight Beam” rides on the strength of its collaborators, with Chance the Rapper taking a well-deserved turn in the spotlight. “Real Friends” is even better, with Kanye bringing up his disassociation with his family over a brooding, watery beat that could have come off of an early CFCF mix. And while the version of “Wolves” that was officially released excises Vic Mensa and Sia in favor of Frank Ocean, the song loses little of his snarling power. These two songs, coupled with “FML,” form a sort of core of ideas and concepts that point towards something for Kanye to elaborate on. They’re the closest that The Life of Pablo gets to any sort of cohesiveness.
Otherwise, the album frustrates more than it rewards. The last part of the album after “Wolves” feels like hastily-added bonus tracks (Kanye admits as much on “30 Hours”) that either rehash old ideas (the admittedly great “No More Parties In LA”) or fail to elaborate on new ones (the worthless “Jumpman” knockoff “Facts”). Songs abruptly stop, as if Kanye cut his ideas short before they reached a logical endpoint. Then there is “I Love Kanye,” the self-aware spoken-word piece that most encapsulates the attitude of Pablo: it’s pointless, self-indulgent, and defiant.
It’s entirely possible that Kanye West didn’t care to try to strive for greatness with The Life of Pablo. Then again, given his opinion of himself, one could assume that Kanye would think that his every recording has elements of greatness in it. Brilliant in fits, The Life of Pablo is ultimately as frustrating and difficult to grapple with as its author. It’s encouraging, though, that even when he couldn’t care less–even when tabloid bullshit and controversy for controversy’s sake seems more on his mind than art–Kanye West is still capable of producing jaw-dropping moments. Let’s just hope that he can find focus again before his ego and id consume him whole.