After a series of track listing teases, Twitter meltdowns and album title alterations; Kanye West debuts his highly anticipated seventh studio album, “The Life of Pablo”, at NYC’s Maddison Square Gardens (during the premiere of his Yeezy Season 3 clothing line) – playing host to a plethora of fashion designers, respected musicians, live streaming Tidal subscribers and the infamous Kardashians. “The Life of Pablo” highlights (no pun intended) the American rapper’s musical evolution as an artist, as he goes full circle on his extensive hip-hop oeuvre; comprising the intermittent and often braggadocious black punk of Yeezus, the melancholic minimalism of 808s & Heartbreaks, the audacious contemporary pop sensibilities of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and, at times, the alluring magnetism of his original trilogy.
The Life of Pablo’s angelic album opener, “Ultralight Beam”, harmoniously blends the paradisiacal blue-eyed soul of early 80s motown with infectious African American gospel polyrhythms – reminiscent of Kanye’s Graduation era. With its powerful heartfelt lyricism; encompassing themes of forgiveness, redemption and serenity, “Ultralight Beam” is a plea, a confession, a testament towards God. Kanye West questions “Why send depression not blessings? You persecute the weak / Because it makes you feel so strong” amidst a phantasmagoric barrage of organ-warbling synths and auto-tune – delivering his most introspective work since 2015’s “Only One” collaboration with Paul McCartney. However, the American auteur isn’t the only miracle-worker on “Ultralight Beam”, as a myriad of guest spots deservedly bask in their own holy light. Chancellor Bennett oozes charisma and charm on his awe-inspiring verse about salvation, the importance of family and religion, preaching “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell, I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”; Kelly Price’s soaring a-capellas on her confessional choruses are biblical beyond belief and The Dream’s euphoric choral crescendos contain more effervesce fizz than a shaken up Coca Cola bottle.
In addition to the heavenly trio of Chancellor Bennett, Kirk Franklin and The Dream, a spellbinding assemblage of superstar features are effectively implemented throughout the entirety of “The Life of Pablo”; and only accentuate the album’s chaotic melodrama and explosive idiosyncrasies. Rihanna’s resplendent rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ transforms headline-garnering “Famous” into an instant classic, Frank Ocean’s hauntingly ambient contributions to “Wolves” are both spiritually liberating and sensually captivating – gifting a master class in texture, style and form, while The Weekend’s ominous marital-blues add emotional substance and sophistication to the album, as “FML” dissects the broken pieces of Kanye’s psyche like a complex jigsaw puzzle.
When it comes to taking abstruse songs and electrifyingly repurposing them; Kanye’s a master curator. Historically reworking Shirley Bassey’s illustrious “Diamonds Are Forever” into “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, The ARC Choir’s “Walk With Me” into fan-favourite “Jesus Walk”, Chaka Kahn’s sensual ballad “Through the Fire” into “Through the Wire” and many more – these rich melange of samples are representative of Kanye’s entire discography and unique identity as an artist.
“The Life of Pablo” follows in the footsteps of its iconic predecessors, effectively sampling Pastor T. L. Barrett’s “Father I Stretch My Hand” and Desiigner’s “Panda” on appropriately titled “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2”, Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on aforementioned “Famous”, Whodini’s “Friends” on pensive “Real Friends”, Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” on sporadic “30 Hours”, Walter “Junie” Morrison’s “Suzie Thundertussy” in jaunty “No More Parties In LA” and Mr. Fingers’ “Mystery of Love” on Fade.
As for lyrical content on the album, “The Life of Pablo” is more obscene than the man himself. With the departure of distinguished co-writer and regular collaborator Rhymefest, Kanye’s librettos on his seventh installment suffer from a severe case of verbal diarrhoea. For example, he explicitly retorts “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” on controversial “Famous”, “Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’mma feel like an asshole” on misogynistic “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1” and “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye” on neurotic ode, “I Love Kanye” – on what documents the Roc Nation rapper’s most car crash songwriting to date.
To conclude, “The Life of Pablo” isn’t a self-professed “gospel album”, but a wildly fragmented farrago of narcissistic self-obsession and artistic affectation. Every spasmodic gospel snippet, smooth soul intermission and montage of musical spasms on the album aims to capture the essence of Pablo Picasso’s artistry – abstraction, originality and timelessness; but ultimately, aside from its ephemeral moments of sonic, melodic and poetic brilliance, Kanye’s greatest efforts to cultivate a magnum opus result in shambolic confusion and disillusionment. The production feels lively and well-polished, but is all too often camouflaged by the album’s structurally jarring incohesiveness. Also, tracks such as “Lowlights”, “Freestyle 4”, “Silver Surfer Intermission” and “Facts” feel like unnecessary filler.
Although “The Life of Pablo” is sometimes as comically laughable as “The Life of Brian”, it certifies Kanye West’s status as the most unpredictable artist in contemporary pop. He’s no American Picasso, but his music sure feels as dangerous as Pablo Escobar.
Written and published by James Macdonald.