There has been a great deal of hype, praise and confusion surrounding the release of Kanye West’s seventh studio album The Life of Pablo. Amidst a backdrop of hyperbolic claims of greatness, constantly shifting titles, and endless media speculation, the album was finally premiered at an event for the New York Fashion week at Madison Square Garden. The entire arena of 20,000 waited anxiously for the much-anticipated release. The ambition and scale of the whole event reached Wagnerian heights channeling the spirit of the idea of a total work of art, or a synthesis of art forms in one work. The entire stage was set for what Kanye proclaimed to be the “greatest album of all time”.
Given this buildup, the expectations for The Life of Pablo soared past the overhanging jumbotron and right through the roof of the Garden. But would it actually be possible for any piece of music to live up to these expectations? With an ambition that has fueled an illustrious body of work, West is as qualified as any mainstream artist to attempt to soar to such heights
His ambition is evident in the opening of The Life of Pablo with its subject matter of spirituality and divinity, but it is also one of the many things that undercuts the album and prematurely consigns it to its inevitable fate. Rather than truly achieving greatness and bringing to light some aspect in the universality of the human experience, The Life of Pablo is a banal and grandiose celebration of self (which in this case is Mr. West himself) and rugged individualism devoid of any deeper meaning to push it towards its lofty aspirations. Being his most candid and self-aware album, there was much potential for it to transcend himself and become a truly relatable work despite his level of fame. But Kanye and his own personality squander that potential along with a rather capricious track list that leaves the album feeling as though it meanders.
At his best, Mr. West uses his massive ego and public persona as a tool to serve some greater purpose within his albums. This is one of the strengths of his 2008 release 808s and Heartbreak. It is worth briefly touching upon this album to highlight how he has previously utilized some of the tools and themes that are also found in The Life of Pablo. 808s and Heartbreak was created within the span of a month following two tragedies: the end of his engagement and the sudden death of his mother. Though one would expect it to be an outright emotional affair, the album mostly featured West singing through auto-tune complaining about all of his “first world problems” which are underhanded compliments that highlight his own success. Examples of this are all over the album such as in the song “Welcome to Heartbreak”.
“My friend showed me pictures of his kids
And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs
He said his daughter got a brand new report card
And all I got was a brand new sports car, oh”
Just as auto-tune masks any vocal imperfections, Kanye’s ego served to mask the deep sorrow he felt as he tried to appear unfazed and emotionally stable. This further accentuated the severity of the pain as it loomed over the album. When his sorrow was finally addressed directly near the end in “Bad News” and “Coldest Winter”, the thinly veiled façade put up is apparent and the underlying sorrow is accented by the coldness of the auto-tune and minimalism of the 808 drum machine. Created in a time where expression of emotion by a rapper was taboo, 808s and Heartbreak opened the door for much of the self-expression we now expect from leading artists from all over the hip-hop spectrum.
Because of the path that Kanye created with 808s & Heartbreak, The Life of Pablo is its inevitable progeny. It features a wide range of personal songs that are concerned with spirituality (Ultralight Beam), his relationship with fame (Famous), the perception of his persona, (I Love Kanye) his personal struggles (FML), the dynamics of his relationships (Real Friends) and a whole host of songs celebrating his greatness. But unlike 808s & Heartbreak, where his persona plays an integral role in the overall emotion of the album here it is placed in the spotlight. It feels more like a perfunctory fad at this point.
In the time between these two albums, West has perfected the cultivation of his persona down to a science and has relished in its ever-growing ridiculousness. He has constantly pushed the boundaries of how outlandish he can be, in a very similar manner to Donald J. Trump, and this has helped to pave the cultural groundwork for Trump to ascend to the top of the national polls for the Republican nomination. With each new outrageous comment, a debate ignites with detractors rushing to condemn and supporters lining up to defend. In this way Kanye has really learned how to use his persona to manipulate the masses and he employs this throughout The Life of Pablo.
The first set of songs begin with an overtly spiritual message which is reflected in lines such as “I’m tryna keep my faith/ But I’m looking for more/ Somewhere I can feel safe/ And end my holy war” in “Ultralight Beam”. There is also a yearning for freedom and individualism in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
“Just want to feel liberated, I, I, I
I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I
If I ever instigated I’m sorry
Tell me who in here can relate, I, I, I”
These messages are juxtaposed with absurdity in statements such as:
“Now 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 the surface this conveys the psyche and struggles of an imperfect human being who is searching for truth in the world, but can’t overcome the more vulgar aspects of his personality. This does serve to provide context for some of his statements made in recent memory. But just as Trump manipulates the polls with his comments, West manipulates us with this portrait. Both songs appear to illuminate his complexities, but in actuality they are mere celebrations of his proclaimed greatness. In his spiritual message, he draws implied parallels between himself and the Apostle Saint Paul who was blinded by the light of God before dedicating his life to spreading the gospel. This actually does more to shed light on how West views himself, more so than any aspect of his own spirituality. He then speaks about his importance overtly in the “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2”. Many of the songs on this album follow this rhetorical device, contrasting of introspection with vulgarities. “Famous” does this very effectively going between the chorus, which describes his troubled relationship with fame and incendiary statements crossing the line of decency (e.g. his quip about Taylor Swift).
There are several songs that do invite us to deeper introspection and bring to light different aspects of Kanye West as a human being. These songs are found in a string in the latter half of the album. “FML” draws on the minimalism and mood of 808s & Heartbreak and speaks on the difficulties of reconciling his lustful lifestyle with his marriage to Kim Kardashian.
“I been waiting for a minute
For my lady
So I can’t jeopardize that for one of these hoes
I been living without limits
As far as my business
I’m the only one that’s in control”
The song “Real Friends” delves even deeper as he opens up about trying to balance being a famous artist with being a husband and father.
In the second half of The Life of Pablo, we see traces of the self-reflection that West set out to explore from the very beginning of the project. In these songs, we can relate to him as a human being and not just a pop culture icon. But one of main issues, which keeps these songs from having a greater impact, lies with their placement in the wider musical context. Issues with pacing are not a new with Kanye’s music. It was one of the main criticisms of his debut album The College Dropout. Just as monotony plagued that album, it also bogs down The Life of Pablo. Many of the songs work in isolation, but they do not coalesce into an interesting whole. Though there is a clear arc with high and low energy songs, the lack of sonic variation between the different types of songs makes the album feel dramatically flat. There is a fine line between a sound that unifies and one that bores after extended exposure. What distinguishes an album that has a similar sound throughout like 808s & Heartbreak from The Life of Pablo is its nuanced explorations into the capabilities of auto-tune and the 808 drum machine. Each song has its own distinct variation of the same sound, which creates different shades of the same emotions.
At its best The Life of Pablo takes an introspective look into the mind of a complicated and often divisive figure. But at its worst, it is a celebration of self-professed greatness and superficiality further hampered by sonic monotony. It is an inevitable result of the exploration and development that has defined his career as a solo artist, but is also a product of the calculation and commodification of his public persona. This aspect is a reflection of the relationship between music and popular culture in our age of social media and instant connectivity. To some extent, we all have a public image that we manage on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which encourage us to live our lives out loud. The same goes for celebrities, like Mr. West, who live out their lives in the public sphere and as a result this becomes fused with their brand. His personal life becomes just as integral to his music as the notes and sounds themselves. We are past the times where music could be informed by our experiences and still exist apart from them and have moved into a cult of personality. With celebrities, the self is elevated to deified levels and the culture implores us to view ourselves with similar importance. Mr. West has actually come under fire by those who see blasphemy in his moniker Yeezus and lyrics where he describes himself as a god. But this is less reflective of any sort of disdain for religion. Rather it is the ultimate culmination of our mythology surrounding individualism and the self made man, which are just as American as baseball and apple pie. Though human connections are important to how we experience music today, it would be nice to see an album less concerned with the self and more with the music.
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