Kanye's new album is a good reflection of the man himself: disorganized, combative and brilliant.

Kanye's new album is a good reflection of the man himself: disorganized, combative and brilliant.

February 16, 2016

Powerful, Personal, Pretty and Petty: Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo

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Kanye doesn’t want his fans to be able to pick and choose. He wants them to love it all and to see all the pieces — his music, his outfits, his fashion line, his Twitter account, his family and their celebrity status — as part of one unified art project. He makes art for the age of social media celebrity, when persona and work are more inextricable than ever. He doesn’t want the art separated from the artist, because he is part of his art. His desire to synthesize was on full display at the bizarre event called Yeezy Season 3 that he threw at Madison Square on Thursday. If you’re a fan of Kanye’s music and have no interest in his clothing line (like me), he made it so that the only way you could experience his new album, at least for a few days, was by watching his fashion show.

Simultaneously a fashion presentation, a performance art piece and a first-time listening party for The Life of Pablo, Yeezy Season 3 balanced extravagant spectacle and inelegant improvisation in equal measure. The Kardashians arrived decked out in immense, angel-white furs. Kanye’s clothes were surprisingly conservative: a ballcap and a red sweatshirt. He said a few words and then moshed with his team to the album, in striking contrast to the fashion models, who stood grim and eerily frozen for the duration of the presentation.

My first reaction to the music I heard while watching this performance was disappointment. That’s because I paid most of my attention to the lyrics that Kanye delivers himself. His rapping in some places sounds careless to the point of incompetence, and he often opts for cheap shock tactics. As a diehard fan, I know that you can try to find ways to make everything Kanye does seem awesome. But it’s a dead end. Naming Kanye’s most misogynistic album really depends on which iteration of his misogyny you find most distasteful: pitying condescension (808s and Heartbreak), wounded disgust (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) or ferocious lust (Yeezus).

For me, Kanye’s lyrics regarding females hit a new, nauseating low on The Life of Pablo. There’s some nonsense about a model with a bleached asshole that throws off the dynamic production of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1.” On “Famous,” he reignites old controversy in tactless, pointless fashion by rapping “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” And on “30 Hours” he sneers, “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life / I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right.” He has been ugly in the past, but never as aimlessly petty as this. When he sings “If I ever instigated I am sorry” on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” it’s transparently insincere. Kanye is a total troll all over this album, mashing the sacred and the profane together to see what might happen. The album cover sums up Pablo’s range: an orange background with two pictures pasted on top, one a snapshot of the wedding of Kanye’s parents, the other of a model’s butt. Stacked lines of computer text next to the pictures ask “WHICH / ONE” over and over.

The hollowly provocative lyrics were what I mainly noted when I heard the first incarnation of Pablo on Thursday. By the time it was available to stream on Tidal early on Sunday, it was a different record. In the two days between the show and the album’s release, he extended the album by half its length, although several of the new songs had already been released through his SoundCloud account. “Waves,” one of the album’s best moments, was added at the last minute simply because Chance the Rapper convinced Kanye to include it and finish it at the last moment, delaying Pablo’s release by a day. This speaks volumes about the kind of work that Pablo aims to be in comparison to the rest of Kanye’s canon: casual, collaborative and haphazard, rather than ceremonious and consequential.

COURTESY OF VULTURE

COURTESY OF VULTURE

Kanye has always been a gifted, visionary musician, and he remains one. He’s also become increasingly savvy at orchestrating talent, making places in his music for both stars and unknown artists. On Pablo, Kanye plays the role of conductor more than ever, frequently stepping back to let others shine in glorious, varied ways. The-Dream coos and Kelly Price belts on the opening gospel hallucination “Ultralight Beam,” before Chance the Rapper appears and delivers perhaps the best verse of the year so far, a towering display of his vocal and lyrical talent. Rihanna provides a gorgeous and too-brief introduction to “Famous,” and Frank Ocean appears out of his seclusion like a ghost to lend his emotive croon to the ghostly “Wolves.” Even the odious Chris Brown is made to sound sublime on the radiant “Waves,” on which my favorite lines of the album are sung by Kanye: “Even when somebody go away / The feelings don’t really go away / That’s just the wave.”

Sometimes, Kanye still tears his guts out on record. In these moments, he brings all the grit, complication and naked emotion for which his fans love him. On the contemplative, unsettling “FML,” Kanye stares down his libido, fighting to stay faithful to his wife and family. On the gorgeous “Real Friends,” the spiritual sequel to 2004’s “Family Business,” he acknowledges the damage that fame has done to his family relationships, rapping, “When was the last time I remembered a birthday? / When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?” It’s classic Kanye, his impulses and reasoning going in all directions: he grumbles about his family hitting him up for money, then acknowledges that he’s a “deadbeat cousin,” turning the accusations upon himself. He also displays his self-awareness, always his most under-acknowledged quality, on the hilarious a capella verse “I Love Kanye,” a winking jab at old fans who miss the “sweet Kanye” and “hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye / the always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye.”

Kanye aims to please with sounds and textures on Pablo more than he has in years. There are bits that echo all of his previous incarnations from throughout his career: deep-freeze auto-tune confessions, grinding synthesizers, operatic splendor and above all soaring soul. Pablo is an album of disparate parts, many of them exhilarating. If you like experimentation, you will probably find a sound, a texture somewhere on the album that sticks with you. Much of its music sounds more purely joyful than anything since 2007’s Graduation, and more loose and unfussed than anything since his debut, 2004’s The College Dropout.

That’s not to say that Kanye didn’t do any fussing during the making of this album. I won’t try to cover the greatest hits of his Twitter account over the past few weeks, which has been sometimes entertaining and other times appalling. It also offered an incredibly intimate look at the making (throwing-together?) of this album over the last few weeks. A piece of binder paper with a tracklist written in Sharpie was gradually reordered and covered with the signatures of guests on the album, with Kanye tweeting pictures of the page as it updated. During this short period alone, the album title went from Swish to Waves to “We don’t have a name yet” to “TLOP,” which was then revealed to stand for The Life of Pablo. The titular “Pablo” was guessed by many to be an allusion to either Picasso or Escobar. Instead, Kanye announced that it is a reference to Paul the Apostle, a man who in the New Testament changes from a persecutor of early Christians to one of their leading members when Jesus appears to him in a blinding vision. This story of redemption through transformation is a fitting reference for a professional shape-shifter like Kanye.

The man himself appears to be in some rough straits. He claims to be $53 million in debt. His unhinged Twitter account has provoked thousands of uses of the word “rant” in online articles and comments these past weeks. Rhymefest, a close collaborator with Kanye for years, recently announced that he would no longer work with him, tweeting “my brother needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual & mental. He should step away from the public & yesmen & heal.” “I love my brother. I pray for his health not our entertainment,” Rhymefest continued. I worry that a lot of truth is contained in these tweets. Kanye himself admits in “FML” to acting crazy when he’s off his Lexapro, a drug prescribed for anxiety and major depressive disorder.

Of course, the rest of us can only experience him as an entertainer. And in his entertainment, Kanye appears happier than he has in years. During the SNL performance of “Ultralight Beam” on Saturday, Kanye ceded center stage to Chance the Rapper, grinning and dancing on the sidelines, his joy absolutely infectious. At the end, he lay on the ground on his stomach while gospel star Kirk Franklin prayed over him, a white-clad choir harmonizing behind them. Then the song ended, Kanye bounced to his feet and garbled ecstatically, “Album [incoherent] kanyewest.com, right now. Tidal, streaming, right now. Right now… ” as he ran across the stage. No transcription can do this moment justice. Watch it yourself.

That tension — between lofty pageantry and childish disorder — has always been one of the most compelling aspects of Kanye’s music. On the spectrum of his work, Pablo leans towards the latter. The fact that this frequently inspired and potent album ranks as a lesser Kanye project only underlines how consistently great he’s been. He has led the most interesting, vital, and surprising career of any musician over the last decade. On Pablo, he once again delivers something that sounds like nobody else making music. In the past this has always meant innovation and focus; here it also means messiness. Luckily nobody makes a mess quite like Kanye.

Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jjones@cornellsun.com.

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