A REVIEW with a twist! And followed by an alternative listening order.
2016 is the year I stop writing about Kanye West. Mostly because if I’m ever going to get a serious job in this medium I ought to expand my wheelhouse. You can’t just write about one guy as an arts journalist; I have bills to pay. Well, I don’t. But maybe one day!
And also, because he specifically asked me to.
To Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, New York Times, and any other white publication. Please do not comment on black music anymore.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Which, given some of the other tweets on his account over the past few weeks, is entirely reasonable. So, last article. New Year New Me and so on.
Writing about him now has so many qualifiers that this review does away with them entirely. The one where you point out the line between legitimate criticism of his character and blatant racism that many cross with every tweet with “someone finally said it” self-righteousness. The undeniable misogyny. The discussion of whether or not his status as a black man at the head of the zeitgeist is productive or harmful – a discussion, by the way, which I have no right to contribute to.
This track-by-track review only features one mention of his name; the one in the first sentence, in the hopes that I can side-step the debates and focus on the music.
“Ultra Light Beam”
A personality so abrasive can still be unwaveringly God-loving, apparently. A full album that stuck to this kind of theme might have been even more impressive; as it is, it’s massive in scope, gentle and powerful in all the right places, and appropriately leaves the title artist on the sidelines. Chance the Rapper is the star of the opener, interpreting lyrics from Late Registration and Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, he follows 2015’s “Sunday Candy” with a similar verse, placing his faith in God and his family.
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & 2”
Mixing the expanse of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the old-school sampling with more contemporary beats of Metro Boomin, the opening lyrics are the first sign of the artist’s personality going off the rails in his raps, derailing what’s been built over the first five minutes. That stumble aside, the Future feature in “Pt. 2” rounds off another solid track that makes a seamless translation from “Ultra Light Beam”‘s gospel to capital R Rap.
If you want to hear Rihanna, listen to ANTI. A track that isn’t worth your time by virtue of its first line. Listen to the disbanded Das Racist’s “SWATE” instead; the beat is similar, and features less Swizz Beatz yelling for a silent crowd’s approval. No one should be cheering this one.
Some of the sharpness of Yeezus resides in this track – “Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you” – Mike Dean the Doctor Frankenstein to Rick Rubin’s masters from 2013.
A nice interlude, “Low Lights” is a continuation of the evangelical theme, a God-loving extollment that comes before one of the more joyful tracks on the album.
“This album is embracing the music, joy. Being of service to the people” was the claim over a year ago; “Highlights” sees that claim realised, a Young Thug hook reminiscent of T-Pain’s “Good Life” hook, 9 years ago.
“I Miss The Old Kanye”
Okay, that one didn’t count. It’s in the title.
Apparently, Chance is to blame for The Life of Pablo’s delay, lobbying for “Waves” to appear on the album, after writing and arranging it. The fight is not worth it. In 2016, why is Chris Brown allowed to appear on high-profile albums? Or in public at all? Anywhere?
That said, Chance’s influence, and Hudson Mohawke’s beats, make “Waves” structurally sound and The Life of Pablo’s most likely hit, should it ever be available for sale.
Ditto for The Weeknd, the Drake alternative who matches the crassness of the album thus far in his solo work. A weird track with an even weirder outro.
This is the point where it becomes clear that this is an excellent 30-minute album stretched to over an hour with the occasional pointless excess. “Real Friends” is tightly produced, another Madlib beat with featured vocalist Ty Dolla $ign, building on the 8-year legacy of 808’s & Heartbreak’s autotune, that informs the work of many of the featured artists.
The obvious final track, now at number 13 in the 18-track album. One of two tracks that surfaced before 2016, the original mix featured both Sia and Vic Mensa, who helped perform it on SNL in 2015. They’ve both been axed, and replaced by a coda from none other than Frank Ocean, hip-hop’s single most elusive character. It’s subtle, but it’s the most we’ve heard of him in many months, and with his new album promised in July of last year, the prospect of its impending release is more exciting than anything on offer here.
“Silver Surfer Intermission”
A phone call from Max B, the progenitor of the term “wavy” that informed The Life of Pablo’s third title, and sparked a vicious Twitter feud involving Wiz Khalifa the week before its release.
“No More Parties in LA”
I’m writing this on the night of the Grammys. Though he will almost definitely be snubbed again this year, Kendrick Lamar is one of the two greatest musicians currently working at surpasses any artist on this album in almost every way. The social message. The onstage composure. In 2016, only Beyoncé keeps pace with him. (Or vice versa) His verse in “No Parties” is a breath of fresh air over another Madlib beat.
Artists have to evolve. The previous biggest rock star in the world, David Bowie, can attest to that. “30 Hours” is another obvious end, one that’s less emphatic than the one on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” but still feels final. And yet it rolls on.
Bizarrely, the version on the album features a freestyle added to the track after it was uploaded to Soundcloud on the 12th, with André 3000 providing backup vocals. Apparently the lineup of this album is still changing. A downtempo reflection on past relationships, with references as far back as The College Dropout.
More posturing; but at least the original beat for this track, which aped Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” is replaced with something with a little more bite.
The Life of Pablo is available on Tidal, and only on Tidal, forever. Apparently.