“The Life of Pablo” and the Mad Honesty of Kanye West | Stripe

Kanye West needs no introduction. Love him or hate him, you know who he is. And even if you’re the most casual peruser on the Internet, you’ve also heard about his latest full length album.

Previously known as So Help Me God, then SWISH, then Waves, and finally The Life of Pablo, this highly anticipated LP has been on the foreground of music culture for the past year or so. It’s been a long and characteristically annoying wait, more so than any other recent release that comes to mind. There are a few reasons to why that is but mainly because of Kanye’s own madcap creative process, made largely transparent to us via Twitter.

All the superfluous alterations of the album title, the cover art, the track listing over the span of just a few months showed us that even Kanye wasn’t always sure of exactly what to have us expect from this new project. All bets were off on the kind of music he would be putting out. But like with most aspects of his artistic undertaking, the project’s constant state of revision turned out to be a genius marketing ploy.

With every little change came a tidal wave of new social media coverage. Some touting outrage and some just plain ridiculous.

But for all the strange and confusing Twitter promotion, Kanye was still in control. So when the album finally dropped I wasn’t too surprised to find it to be just as bizarre as Kanye’s recent behavior itself.

The Life of Pablo is a spectacular mess. And I mean that quite literally. This album is for the most part a total reflection of Kanye’s own state of self, spectacular yet so very messy. In the face of being one of the biggest celebrities in the world, his actions constantly manage to get him labeled as crazy, erratic, offensive; the list could go on. And he may be all of those things but before being able to completely comprehend these implications, it’s important to know where Kanye West really comes from.

After dropping out of college he started breaking in the late 90s and early 2000s as a producer in Chicago, under the mentorship of hip hop and R&B producer legend No I.D..

Kanye had previously worked with his contemporaries producing and programming, like on Jay Z’s The Blueprint, but yearned for his own career as a rapper to which the industry of the time opposed him in every way. Record labels wouldn’t back a rapper who didn’t make music about narcotics, fornication, and gangbanging. And Kanye wanted to rap about his own experiences. He wanted to rap about things anyone could relate to. Like family, and struggling with identity, and dropping out of college. Normal stuff.

Then after a near-fatal car crash he recorded his first EP and single “Through the Wire” aptly titled since he sang the whole thing while his jaw was still wired shut.  

With his first album The College Dropout, he single-handedly brought hip hop music out of the gangster rap era. He was able to do this by being one of the hardest working people in the business. A work ethic he picked up from his late mother, an English professor who wanted nothing more for her son than a college degree, and his father who was a photojournalist and also happened to be a Black Panther.

Kanye wanted to be the greatest rapper alive and nothing could stand in the way of his commitment to his craft. He helped develop the modern style of soul sampled vocalization. Then after his mother passed he went deeply personal in 808s & Heartbreak, an album many at the time shrugged off and found abrasive because of this little thing called progressive autotuning, and yet it went on the change the very sound of popular music for years to come.

Kanye West made himself exactly what he wanted to be and did exactly what he wanted to do, becoming today’s greatest example of a self-actualized artist. He is a force of sheer will and commitment.

But during all this time the media and the paparazzi managed to find a way to keep the public conversation around Kanye West about the shallow, tangible aspects of his personality: the girlfriends, his off-putting quotes, and of course, his ego, citing accusations of narcissism and megalomania. And the reason why this never went away in the two decades he’s been active is because Kanye’s music was a persistent present in that very same public consciousness.

His music always, always seems to matter more than his many social faux pas. No matter what ill-advised incursion he makes, his peers have the utmost respect for his talent. Because there’s always a power anthem out there, or a soulful ballad, or a weird earworm. Kanye’s work seemed to have an uncanny sense of what the cultural zeitgeist needed at every turn. And it’s because Kanye’s music is deeply confessional.  

Kanye is possibly the most honest person working in music today. This is excruciatingly apparent in everything he says or does. It’s not that he’s stupid, it’s because he truly doesn’t care to lie about what he thinks. Which leads to some truly awkward red carpet moments, horrifically revealing interviews, and the most confusing Twitter ever. He is as honest in person as he is in his lyrics, making him the most provocative artist alive. And while most artists use provocation as a mechanical tool to the end of artificial controversy, it is in fact Kanye West’s default setting. He literally can’t help who he is.

And the person Kanye is now seems to be in a transitional stage in his life. He hasn’t been able to settle down in the way he would like, with his ideas in a constant state of flux. His work in fashion has been scrutinized much in the way of his early days rapping, yet he perseveres disregarding the fact that he is $52 million in debt because of these endeavours. Debt that directly affects his life as a family man with a wife and two kids. While also still struggling with the loss of his mother and his Christian faith, he brings us his first gospel album in the form of The Life of Pablo.

This album also appears to be his first that behaves as just an album. With no grand gestures and a sporadic slew of guest features, TLOP is not greater than the sum of its parts. The title referencing both Paul the Apostle and Pablo Picasso, TLOP is a collection of ideas rather than songs. The tracks stand much like the singular strokes of a Jackson Pollock painting. Each color matching only itself and blending into its surroundings sharply but ever so slightly.

There are a lot of ideas on this thing, and most of them just buds in the process of blooming because Kanye doesn’t seem to want them to flower just yet. Ideas stuck in a transitional phase, paralleling Kanye’s current state of self.

The album booms open with the stunning raw power of “Ultralight Beam”, a gospel track through and through, deliberating Kanye’s convictions in his faith in God, complete with an outro prayer held by the legendary gospel artist and pastor Kirk Franklin. Then immediately shifts gear with the next track “Father Stretch My Hands” into coarse and all-too-revealing verses about past and present relationships, with a chorus from Kid Cudi that is more realized than his last five releases combined.

The most controversial track on the album, “Famous” sees Kanye breaking up with his “fame”, personified by verses from Rihanna’s third collaboration with Kanye. Referencing the Taylor Swift 2009 VMAs incident in an opening bar that is easily misogynistic and abrasively hilarious, Yeezy releases himself from the event that has partly defined public perception of his fame for several years now. Lyrical content fused with heavy beat switches makes for the only straight up banger on the album.

“Real Friends” brings in Ty Dolla $ign to rap as the perspective of old friends Kanye struggles to make time for given his present life.

“No More Parties in LA” is by far the best track off the album. Even from its brief tease during Kanye’s promotional GOOD Fridays releases, I knew the phenomenal Madlib had something to do with the beat. Add on top of it Ye’s first released Kendrick Lamar collaboration and the themes of fake celebrity lifestyles are hardly necessary to elevate an already special track. These are only a few instances off the 18-track album but it’s already clear how Kanye dropped exactly how he was feeling in the minute into these songs. An idea that reflects the immediately responsive Twitter-Instagram-Tumblr culture we live in today.

Unlike the tightly measured constructions of any of his past full length releases, Kanye drops in broken pieces of his psyche into TLOP and challenges fans and listeners to assemble them back together, which makes for a listening experience that is just as engaging as his other projects. And as ever, his architectural mastery over sampling and manipulation stands as a sure highlight of this insane album.

But it does remain a challenging experience, perhaps too esoteric for Yeezy fans disappointed with 2013’s Yeezus. With the multitudes of brash ideas on TLOP, Kanye experiments with his sound in the same way as on that release. And as with all things that are completely honest, this album is at times too much. With total honesty can come true ugliness. The Life of Pablo and Kanye West are no different.  

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Raised on a steady diet of genre films, second wave hip hop, and Spider-Man paraphernalia, Rashad is a writer and editor at Stripe who once made a film about radioactive magic potato chips.