Kanye’s instilled something lasting in his listeners across seven albums, but people’s individual interpretations of his work vary. Everyone wants their Kanye to prevail and prove that all the other versions were just a blip or an act. The never-ending vortex of think-pieces reached its peak on 11 February, when Kanye took over Madison Square Garden to launch the album. But by the time he’d plugged his laptop into the aux and clicked play, we were already exhausted. The constant online commentary – some of it progressive, some of it elementary and unhelpful – along with Kanye’s indefensible comments made separating his actions from his work more desirable than ever. The line between his personal life and his artistry is thinner than ever but, as we know by now, to enjoy a Kanye West LP isn’t to endorse his every word.
There’s definitely a lack of agenda on Pablo, which means it fails to level up to the cohesive power of Yeezus. On the plus side, it’s the first time since Graduation that Kanye seems willing to put his new world order to one side and so he can test what kind of energy he has in him. This playfulness shows in diversity. The minimal bounce of Feedback, the majesty of Waves and the old school purist pleasure of No More Parties In LA demonstrate this kind of freedom – no running theme but unwavering energy levels throughout. For loyal supporters, hearing him explore ideas so freely is a pleasure. We’re so often told to “sit back and enjoy the fireworks” with Kanye, but there are tracks on here with enough intimacy to make his fans feel close to him. Take the emotional nakedness of Real Friends, a song full of confessional lyrics and poignant melody that will last far longer than a cheap shot at a pop star ever could.
One of the album’s key victories comes in Kanye’s willingness to be upstaged, the cast of collaborators provide Pablo with most of its defining moments. Chance The Rapper’s verse on Ultralight Beam – a definite highlight – is masterfully composed and performed, the addition of Andre 3000 on 30 Hours gives the track’s haunting Arthur Russell sample a sombre depth and Rihanna sounds like she’s taking flight delivering her stunning interpretation of Nina Simone’s Do What You Gotta Do on Famous. Futuristic production from Hudson Mohawke sits next to Madlib’s sunny samples, Metro Boomin’s hefty Atltanta trap and contributions from legendary collaborators like Rick Rubin, Swizz Beats and Mike Dean. If we’re to see Kanye as a kind of bandleader, then The Life Of Pablo is an undeniable triumph.
He’s still firmly at the centre of all of this though – leaving us wincing with clumsy lyrics then cutting to our core with the chilling confessional ballads such like FML, where he wrestles with his turbulent mindset: “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / This nigga when he off his Lexapro,” he confesses, revealing his use of the prescribed antidepressant. The quality of the lyrics fluctuates dramatically. There’s some tender imagery in Wolves about him wrapping his children in lambs’ wool for protection, but as per usual with Kanye, the song later requires you to embrace the cringe-factor; “You tried to play nice, everybody just took advantage / You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich.”
While he’s recognised as an incredible sequencer and a true album artist, Pablo is Kanye West’s most disjointed work. There are also times where the whole thing feels like too much of an extension of the media circus that preceded it, as if he’s a little too preoccupied with creating music as reactionary content. There’s the number-crunching braggadocio on Facts, the reference to Rob Kardashian’s new girlfriend and the inclusion of a phone call with incarcerated “Wavy King” Max B – the latter a response to a petty Twitter dispute with Wiz Khalifa which probably should’ve just been washed away by the tide of the timeline. To reference such recent history in an impressive trick, but the longevity of its appeal remains to be seen.
Yet, beyond all the furore, there’s Kanye – the erratic self-elected messenger – and there just isn’t anybody else operating at this level. Nobody else takes this much constant condemnation and somehow comes back with even more belief in their vision. We probably had the same conversations about staying power when he barked about croissants on Yeezus, or when he name checked Leona Lewis on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There’s a flippancy to his magic – the work of “38-year-old 8-year-old” still ever so slightly lost in the world, desperately trying to live for today while fighting for his place in the history books of tomorrow. The Life Of Pablo is a frustrating but undeniably engaging listen – dazzlingly unpredictable and fleshed out with enough strokes of radiance for us to follow Pablo’s lead and keep the faith.