At times West's album looms too large for its own good, but it succeeds on its moments of beauty, surprise and vulnerability
Say what you will about Kanye West, but he’s one of the few remaining artists who can make an album launch a newsworthy event on its own. Sometimes that has more to do with his brash personality than with his music—even those people who declare themselves to be utterly divorced from pop culture probably have an opinion on West and his antics.
West’s eighth album, which he referred to as “a gospel album with a lot of cursing on it” early in February, began life as So Help Me God long ago, then was redubbed Swish and transmuted into Waves before becoming #TLOP—The Life of Pablo. It debuted during a Madison Square Garden event that doubled as a fashion show for West’s clothing line and was beamed to movie theaters around the world—and then had tracks added to it for its initial commercial release, via the artist-centric streaming service Tidal, two days later. (He’s now said that the album will never be made available for purchase, and will only stream on Tidal.) Being in on its accelerated, highly public process over the year’s opening weeks was like watching the smartest kid in the class finish his homework on the bus ride to school, interspersed with self-promotional boasts that seemed essential to the hurried prodigy’s progress.
Does The Life Of Pablo bear out West’s Twitter-igniting self-adulation? Yes—to an extent. It’s sprawling and unpredictable, immersed in celebrity culture while at times being stubbornly withdrawn from it. It trafficks in myths taken from both the Bible and The Book of Kanye. Its guest list features old hands like El DeBarge, up-and-comers like Chance The Rapper and Desiigner, and chart stalwarts like Rihanna and The Weeknd. Its instrumentals teem with flourishes that are as informed by crate-diggers’ boundless discographical knowledge of acts like the gloomy post-punk act Section 25 as they are by pop savants’ familiarity with the power of the hook. In short: It’s a lot.
The hymnlike opener “Ultralight Beam” is West at his best, even though he’s almost a supporting player on his own track; West is joined by Chance The Rapper as well as soul savant The-Dream, R&B belter Kelly Price, gospel crossover star Kirk Franklin, and a choir—as well as a sample of a four-year-old whose anti-Satan testimonial was found on Instagram. The lyrics question faith and fate as the music ebbs and swells, with Franklin providing a closing blessing for, among others, “everyone that feels like they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times.”
West, obviously, has been in that position, and The Life Of Pablo offers multiple instances where he knows he’ll likely be called on to apologize again, from his inventive ideas about a GoPro’s bedroom uses on “Highlights” to his musings about Taylor Swift’s carnal availability and his role in her eventual world domination on “Famous.” Like most of Pablo‘s tracks, these songs sound great—DeBarge’s falsetto gives “Highlights” disco-ball splendor, while the bed of “Famous” shifts between the stormy and the sweet, as West’s broadsides switch off with Rihanna’s open-hearted reading of the Jimmy Webb-penned farewell track “Do What You Gotta Do.”
West’s recent period—let’s call it the Post-Kim Era—has reveled in contradictions like these, balancing jaw-dropping boasts of his greatness with soul-baring confessionals, juxtaposing ear-blasting noise with divinely inspired soul, looking to the future while taking time to aim at figures who wronged him years ago. The Life of Pablo is a maximalist statement that at times looms too large for its own good; the previously released Nike-bashing “Facts” works better as a raucous New Year’s Eve freestyle than a committed-to-album statement, while “Silver Surfer Intermission” only makes sense if you recall the details of the Twitter beef that led to its existence. And the album could change entirely; ticket-buyers for the Madison Square Garden simulcast received a note Monday calling the Tidal release a “partial version.” But even in its current form, Pablo has enough moments of beauty and surprise and, yes, vulnerability to be—if far from perfect—consistently compelling and pushing toward something bigger.