We’re going to say it – The Life of Pablo‘s marketing campaign (which is technically non-existent apart from Kanye’s Twitter) has been the most innovative album delivery method this side of In Rainbows. Kanye doesn’t have to spend anything, he just has to tweet another couple of lines to get the media moving around his name. This isn’t lucky, the whole thing has been orchestrated by Kanye. Now the album has actually arrived, he’s apparently still playing around with it, which shows it’s a work in progress (not to mention it redefines the idea that an album is complete upon release. Is the album now an organic, ever-evolving statement? Can an album cycle end? The questions are endless). But to humanise it, this is a collection of seventeen songs by the same Kanye that released conceptual albums like Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 808s and Heartbreaks. He’s constantly ahead of the curve, with 808s… only recently being saved from its original mixed response due to its influence on hip-hop through artists like Drake. But this time, there’s no genre-hop like there was before, he’s stepping back and making… hip-hop. Maybe it’s a response to parenthood, settling down, accepting how far he’s come. For that reason, it’s a slight anticlimax, but it’s not like Kanye can’t make a good album without jumping on a genre. In fact, The Life of Pablo shows he can do ‘not experimenting’ very well.
Most of the traces of Yeezus are gone, from the industrial instrumentation and sampling to Kanye’s ‘I Am A God’ professing, aside from the screeching ‘Feedback’ and ‘Freestyle 4’, but even those tracks don’t stand out like ‘Black Skinhead’ or ‘Blood On The Leaves’ did. Instead, the tracks where Kanye is more introspective, like on ‘FML’, where he ignores the media’s skepticism about his marriage to Kim Kardashian, ‘Real Friends’, where Kanye thinks of himself as an outsider at family gatherings and ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2’, which is about his father. Kanye hasn’t been this inward-looking since 808s… and its refreshing to see him not announcing he’s a god by accepting he’s a human with flaws. But there’s still some moments where mature Kanye meets Yeezus Kanye and he’ll spill out that line ‘I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous’ which makes his later admissions of weakness or vulnerability less powerful in the face of an awkward line which is entirely unnecessary. Similarly, he’ll dedicate an entire track – ‘Facts’ – to how he doesn’t need Nike to succeed and in the process representing him as this whining celebrity the media has painted him as. Maybe it’s all on purpose, the balance of his egotistical side and his introspective side fighting each other is the story of Kanye for The Life of Pablo. Thankfully, it looks like his softer side is winning this time.
Kanye’s samples are (as always) well placed and sourced on the album. There’s a Goldfrapp string arrangement on ‘Freestyle 4’ which sounds like a quieter offcut from Yeezus with its grand minimalism, ‘Famous’ samples Nina Simone and ‘Facts’ has Street Fighter 2 samples, funnily enough. There’s even a child preaching gospel on the emotional ‘Ultralight Beam’, which is the most gospel that this ‘gospel’ album gets. The track shows that Kanye can do gospel well, so why not incorporate it more? Kanye’s faith doesn’t get enough tracktime and proves an interesting topic for him to cross, where the choir sings ‘End my holy war / I’m trying to keep my faith’. The guests on the track are perfect, from Kelly Price complimenting the choir’s holy voices and Chance the Rapper, who has some memorable lines such as ‘I met Kanye West, I’m never gonna fail’ and ‘My daughter look like Sia, you can’t see her’. The guests featured are Kanye’s best since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which had Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver stealing the spotlight, but even a Kendrick Lamar feature can’t deliver the same power that Nicki Minaj did on ‘Monster’.
When Kanye raps about losing his longtime girlfriend, being with his wife or the birth of his children it almost makes up for some of the occasional weird lines that he comes out with. It’s not the best album of all time, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. What Kanye has instead excelled at here is not just showing one side (be that his ‘I am a God’, ‘I am heartbroken’ or ‘I am the king of rap’ side’) but showing his many dimensions, including his flaws. I don’t think that ‘Facts’ is purposefully dumb, that would be giving a bad song too much credit. Saying a terrible song is good because it’s bad on purpose is a stretch even for an artist like Kanye. However, a lot of The Life of Pablo is purposeful and direct. Kanye doesn’t pussyfoot around with his emotions, he’s speaking the most directly since 808s… and making better songs. This is the sound of a very clever man parading as a very dumb man and making everyone else look dumb in the process.
Funnel Recommends: Ultralight Beam / Real Friends / Wolves