A decade ago, while guesting on Rhymefest's breakthrough single Brand New, Kanye West described himself as, "... the motherf***er you love to hate, but can't, because you love what (he) make(s)." The self-analysis arrived a mere year after West's widely beloved second album, Late Registration, and more importantly, before the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 Video Music Awards, and before the most powerful man in the world felt compelled to call him a jackass. His unending braggadocio had certainly irked enough music fans to merit this proclamation, but back then there was still no evidence that could predict the intensely bilious reaction his every move now courts from the masses. The ensuing years have been either mercilessly cruel or impossibly kind depending on who you ask, the MC's three subsequent LP's, 808's and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Yeezus, each proving to be critical darlings capable of eliciting a near cult-like faith from his most loyal followers. For everyone else, nothing has mattered outside of his wanton Twitter persona, creating a remarkably enormous gap between the man's art, and his public image. Rather than shrink that space, West seems to relish widening it, a notion emphasized by each and every aspect of his new album's existence.
The Life of Pablo, which finally met the world last Saturday after a myriad of last-second change-ups, has been through a variety of publicly-exposed overhauls. At first, Kanye described his follow-up to the anarchic male id of Yeezus as "cookout music that just feels good" as produced by legendary beat-smith Q-Tip. Next up was the Paul McCartney-overseen full-length, a seemingly absurd notion that managed to birth two tracks, the impossibly intimate Only One, and the Rihanna collaboration FourFiveSeconds. Most recently, West took to Twitter, describing his latest as "a gospel album," a record that had, at varying points, been entitled So Help Me God, SWISH, Waves, and T.L.O.P., which more or less stuck. It is both a detriment and the ultimate compliment to The Life of Pablo that all of these ideas exist within its hour-plus runtime, combining into a hip-hop all-you-can-eat that proves mighty appetizing to those without sensitive pallets.
Sensitivity has always marked the difference between those who can ultimately bring themselves to follow West on his holy conquest, and those who simply cannot abide his tomfoolery, and Pablo pushes this schism even further into the forefront. Yeezus still holds the numerical record for crass, jaw-dropping bars on a Kanye album, but that disc's laser-sharp thematic focus on its creators' most deplorable tendencies seemed to somehow absolve his plethora of sins, zooming in on the grimy bits, and exposing them for what they were. This time around, no cohesive statement is there to save him, which is perhaps why his brazenly chauvinist dig on the aforementioned Swift ("For all my Southside n****s that know me best/I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous") has attracted more attention in the last week than all of Yeezus' blush-inducing crudeness combined. West, a provocateur on the level of 80's Madonna, certainly knew the line would grab headlines, and while his clumsy, aggressive jabs have ignited many meaningful discussions over the years, it's disheartening to see him rely so heavily on shock to attract attention after such a prolific career. They're empty-calorie lyrics, put out into the world to be consumed, digested, and subsequently forgotten.
That Taylor shot is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pablo's broadly salacious lyrics, but abiding all of these piggish ruminations seems to be the price of admission to what is otherwise an utterly dazzling hour of sonics that doubles as an eardrum massage. The Gospel notion that West recently posited is evident immediately, as opener Ultralight Beam takes listeners straight to church with its saintly intentions, and sumptuous chorus. The very first sound we hear on the album is a young child shrieking "We don't want no devils in this house," that urgent utterance attempting to provide a thesis statement to the otherwise rambling proceedings, casting West as the devil who desperately seeks the light. It's a notion that you don't have to squint to see, but many tracks, especially on the disc's backside, discard this through-line altogether, rendering a Kanye West album scatter-shot for only the second time in his career. Then again, the other was Dark Fantasy, which is widely considered the best of his career, calling into question the necessity of cohesion in the art of a man who's mind is as kaleidoscopic as they get.
The Life of Pablo, just like its most immediate comparison, plays like a Greatest Hits album, touring the many sounds West has pioneered over the years. Running the entire gamut between Graduation's maximalism and 808's and Heartbreak's minimalism, the record finds room for The College Dropout's soul music sampling (No More Parties in LA), Yeezus' structural chaos (Famous), and Late Registration's orchestral grandeur (Ultralight Beam). Even the guest artists find themselves subservient to the many sounds West crams into this single statement, Frank Ocean's angelic croon merely misting around the parameters of Wolves, while Andre 3000's only task is to glumly repeat the title of 30 Hours on into infinity. Kanye most frequently sees collaborating artists as colors of paint rather than individual voices unto themselves, making it that much more impressive when artists like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Kelly Price manage to avoid being synthesized into the larger mix by contributing attention-grabbing work themselves.
As a matter of fact, even Yeezy himself is often satisfied with becoming lost in the glorious bluster. Dance floor-ready closer Fade only features its credited author in a brief appearance near its opening, while Waves' relentless psychedelics can hardly find space for the rapper. The LP makes time for West to flow here and there, and the moments when he gets a headful of steam tend to impress, such as on gritty banger Feedback, and the second half of the celebratory Highlights. His elongated verse on No More Parties in LA stands among the best of his career, a manic, schizophrenic tirade that marks the first and undoubtably last time he will ever best Kendrick Lamar on a shared track. Otherwise, West's words often seem misjudged or half-baked, such as on the melancholic FML, or the punchline swing-and-miss of Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1. It's obvious that Kanye can still get it going when he feels inspired, but here he seems far more interested in being a curator than a star.
This is hardly a new concept in West's discography, and as a matter of fact, The Life of Pablo is the very first Kanye solo album that neglects to break new sonic or thematic ground. Its most revelatory aspect came in the form of its unveiling; with its release date announced long before its completion, West decided to debut the disc at a showing of his new fashion line, the event taking place in New York's legendary Madison Square Garden, and streamed to movie theaters across the globe. What's more, the thing was a work in progress even as it premiered, and while the majority of the LP could be heard echoing through the arena's cavernous enormity that day, the album proper dropped two and a half days later... and even that iteration is still being described as a rough draft. In an age of early leaks and studio transparency, West might have stumbled onto the only way to prevent the world from hearing an artist's work before its creator is ready: simply not being done yet. Was this new innovation purposeful, or just a happy accident? The same question could be aimed at almost each and every aspect of Kanye's career, and while The Life of Pablo represents a more confused and less focused Ye than we've become accustomed to seeing over the years, it's still the type of musical talent show that no one else on earth is currently capable of pulling off. You're allowed to have your reservations, and I have mine too, but even when West's words seem to fail him, the music speaks for itself.