It’s finally here, the album we’ve all been waiting for! Well, some of us. For most, I think we’re still waiting on Frank, but hey, he’s on Wolves now instead of Vic Mensa, so that’s new Frank Ocean music right? I wonder how Vic feels about Chance being on the first song while he isn’t on the album at all… Alas, I’m getting sidetracked, back to the main attraction, the magnum opus, the seventh album from the Grand Poobah of rap music, pop culture, and all things fly; we, lowly plebeians of the world, have been honored with The Life of Pablo! Pablo who? Escobar, Picasso, Neruda? I have no clue. Still, rejoice! Exclaim! Download TIDAL! Hold this summer’s impending Drake craze at bay! It’s the one and only Kanye West, another one!
Kanye really outdid himself with this project. For the first time, he’s created a pre-experience better than the actual product. I was on the EDGE OF MY SEAT in the weeks before TLOP dropped. I heard “Real Friends” and was geeked, the little Kendrick snippet of “No More Parties in LA” on the end of it? Classic teaser. I literally enjoy hearing that trailer more than the actual song, which I found extremely underwhelming as soon as Kanye began rapping. The album name changes via Twitter, the Wiz Khalifa sonning, and the epic Yeezy season 3 livestream, all won my heart. I was so ready for his album, whatever it would be called. And when I woke up on Valentine’s day and played it in my kitchen while I stirred Cream of Wheat, I was satisfied! “Ultralight Beam” has to be the best songs of the year, and musicians in 2016 will be hard pressed to compete with it: Kirk Franklin, The Dream, Chano, Kelly Price, with Donnie Trumpet, Mike Dean, Rick Rubin, Swizz Beats, Fontzworth Bentley and Kanye West on production? That’s like, the gospel rap equivalent of the ‘92 Dream Team (I don’t actually listen to gospel rap, so I understand that the previous statement is highly debatable). Then he hits us with the Metro Boomin’ tag on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” and wham, Cudi comes in yodeling! What an excellent Kanye move!
The first 9 songs are pretty good, some of them, specifically “Ultralight Beam”, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”, “Pt. 2”, “Feedback”, and “Highlights”, are all keepers. Whoever was in the room with Ye when he made those decisions deserves an album credit. But after “I Love Kanye”, the album loses steam. There are nine more tracks, five of which we’ve heard: “Real Friends”, “Wolves”, “No More Parties in LA”, “30 Hours”, and “Facts”. “Silver Surfer Intermission”, which I was freaking out about, is a phone call by Max B (which is a reference to Doom’s “Bumpy’s Message” off his album Born Like This, where rap legend Bumpy Knuckles leaves an extensive voicemail praising Doom’s work on Doom’s phone). That leaves three actual new songs on the latter half of the album: “Waves”, “Fade”, and “FML”. They don’t tickle my fancy half as much as other songs on the album, and nothing in the album works as well as the first cluster of songs, “Ultralight Beam” to “Highlights” all make sonic and thematic progression.
Notes: Upon first listen, I had a pirated version of the album (aye, get it how you live) so the tracks were all out of order. Once I put them in order, I heard a clear through line from beginning to end. The album feels like a series of scenes, like a movie, and in this way, it fits into all of Kanye’s previous work. What bothers me about this movie more so than his previous movies (let’s just call all of Kanye’s albums movies where he is both the protagonist and antagonist, although their are plenty of antagonistic characters) is the content. I’m not sure if I’m okay with the Taylor Swift and Ray J shoutouts, although I understand that these things follow or haunt his career, Kanye’s response to them is both bothersome and problematic.
To be honest, I want to give this album a bad rating because it doesn’t fit the standards I have for Kanye’s music. I want Kanye to be better, and to represent what I felt like he represented in the past. The simple fact is, that he doesn’t fully stand for those things anymore, or that he does but how he feels about those things are changed. What I mean is, I want Kanye to rap more explicitly about the struggles of Black America, but what I’ve come to understand is, Kanye rapped about those struggles when he had them. He doesn’t have them anymore. He’s rich. He now deals with discrimination in the fashion industry, comments about his white and Armenian wife, and the ever present commentary from white media institutions (some things never change). He can’t make the music I want him to make anymore, although I did love Yeezus and 808s and even My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, which took about two-three years of aging before I could appreciate it, something about TLOP doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like an authentic movie anymore, I don’t believe Kanye is acting, writing, and directing. I think he’s just directing, and he’s making choices I’m not okay with, like, what’s up with the obscene amount of sex on nearly every song? This was something else I heard on Yeezus, but passed it off as commentary, or a necessary part of the aesthetic. Yeezus was already blasphemous, and the hypersexual and hypermasculine lyrics seemed to play up what I believed to be Kanye’s point: that a Black man, an obviously flawed and largely disliked although undeniably genius Black man, could control his destiny and be his own/a god. But he has the same amount of hypersexualization and hypermasculinity on TLOP, and it makes me uncomfortable. It feels like he’s freaking out about his age.
I seriously doubt Kanye is still in the clubs, not just because of age, but also because a man who is a fashion designer, rap megastar, father, husband, movie director (of actual movies), and now video game designer, doesn’t have a lot of spare time on their hands. All of the sex stories he tells could be about him and Kim, or about his past, or a fantasy, or completely fabricated, or not even written by him; I don’t care to be honest, I just want less sex and more stories from other areas of his life. I want to hear about Kanye, not Kanye’s dick having a GoPro. That’s funny and all, but once you strip away the high-quality music and production of TLOP, you are left with babble about sex and other celebrities, some very inspirational and spiritual words, Nike disses, and Chance’s verse on “Ultralight Beam”. The album really starts to fall apart when you listen to Kanye’s voice specifically. For this reason, I’m stuck on whether I want to give this album a FLAMETHROWER (3 flames) or a FIRE BLAST (4 flames). Seriously, I’m a poet and writer ya’ll, the word means a lot to me, and if you don’t have anything to say but clever Young Thug-esque sex punchlines, I’d rather you not speak at all.
I wasn’t gonna to say this, but fuck it: I remember a time when Ye told a multitude of stories. That was my favorite Ye, Late Registration Ye, College Dropout Ye. He told stories with words as well as music. Now he only tells stories with music, and what comes out of his mouth is trash. I’m not sure what happened, because he could easily hire good writers, maybe he’s afraid because Drake got called out, but whatever it is, he needs to get back to storytelling, Slick Ricking, ya know? This hook, twelve bar verse with repeating lines, then back to the hook bullshit is wearing many of us down. I do not want the old Ye back, although it may seem like I just said that, what I want is for Ye to continue the legacy he began, as a storyteller and truth-sayer, as a poet. Yeah, I know Ye didn’t write a lot of his early stuff either, but he was a poet; that was his function in pop culture. He spoke truth to light. Back then he also said problematic things, like he does now. He’s never been perfect, but he did value telling us about his contradictions, and in turn, our contradictions. It is possible that nowadays Ye is filled with hot air and hollow words, and that his music is telling of his fame-hunger and sex-obsession, but I refuse to believe that. I still believe he can say more, and I’ll wait for another album before I pass my final judgement as an artist, fan, and critic. Until then, I’m giving The Life of Pablo a FLAMETHROWER, 3 out of 5 flames!