Monday, February 15, 2016

album review: 'the life of pablo' by kanye west

There's no easy way to talk about Kanye West.

I mean, at first it was easier. The first three records hold up as some of the best hip-hop of the 2000s, excellently produced with a flow that was frequently clumsy and forced but had enough interesting ideas and personality to make up for most of it. But I'll also be the first to admit that I wasn't really won over by those records - solid, sure, but the braggadocious side of Kanye has always rung a little hollow to me, something that he wants to believe in his worship of Jay-Z rather than something that clicks on a deeper level. So while I liked Kanye initially, it wasn't those albums that won me over. That came with 808s & Heartbreak, which I'd argue hit me harder as a whole than any album he's released. The usage of autotune as a method for him to distance himself from the audience and his own emotions, an underappreciated gift for melody, and lyrics that tap into an unflattering but powerfully human heartbreak that felt more real than most of the flash of previous albums.

Then came the VMAs in 2009 and Kanye saw himself vilified, so he ripped away the smokescreen to make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record of which I have the contentious opinion of having simultaneously some of the best and worst of Kanye's discography - some great cuts and evocative images let down by sloppy indulgence and half-formed ideas. It's also a record that snapped into focus the picture of who Kanye is - a world-famous and gifted artist who is monumentally insecure and cares way too much, who has enough distance from his life to write with unflinching detail about it, but not enough to filter his emotions or outrageous thoughts before he says or does something asinine. That got amped up to eleven with Yeezus in 2013, where he consciously chose to embody all of the negative stereotypes he initially painted on his last record, but as such it felt far less convincing. Part of this is that Kanye is a consummate borrower: starting with sampling as a producer to the appropriation of whole styles like on Yeezus, where he essentially sounded like a low-rent Death Grips. As such, I tend to find my liking of Kanye tends to fluctuate the more of his influences I hear - I admire his production and his ability to paint some vividly unsettling pictures using the foundation of commercial hip-hop - 'Hell Of A Life' and 'Blood On The Leaves' are the two best examples of that - and yet his sloppy flow, corny references, frequently uneven performances, and occasional outright misfire makes him hard for me to really appreciate. 

As such, watching the build-up to this new Kanye release was kind of fascinating, at least before it started becoming exasperating. Not only did the album title change three or four times - along with the track listings and album art and Kanye's off-kilter Twitter providing more fuel for the fire - it seemed more like Kanye didn't know what to give. It certainly didn't show any indication of a coherent artistic vision, especially considering the track listening and album art was being changed not only up to the intended release date but right past it to the weekend. Whatever, Kanye's long ago reached the point where critics and his diehard fans will furiously masturbate over whatever he puts out, so what did we get with The Life Of Pablo?

Well, to some extent I got exactly what I was expecting, because The Life Of Pablo is a complete goddamn mess in terms of instrumentation and vocal performances, to say nothing of the actual content. Say what you will about Yeezus, for as over-the-top as it was trying to be, it was at least sonically and thematically consistent. Whereas here... the most I got out of this record is that Kim Kardashian now has her most damning piece of evidence when she finally gets sick of Kanye and divorces him - and I actually don't mean that as a joke.

But before I get to that, I think I need to highlight this record's real positives, because there are indeed a few. For one, Kanye does have a good record of giving his guest stars a real place to shine, and between Kendrick's verse on 'No Parties In L.A.', the few moments where Ty Dolla $ign shows up, especially on 'Real Friends', Chris Brown actually sounding pretty solid on 'Waves', The Weeknd easily being the best part of 'FML', and Chance The Rapper stealing the entire song on 'Ultralight Beam'. Hell, even Post Malone sounds good in a screaming through autotune sort of way on 'Fade', it's certainly preferable to the rambling garbage of 'White Iverson'. And points must be given for Kanye using Young Thug in the most agreeable way:  putting him on the hook where the damage is minimized. And Rihanna sounds better on the hook on 'Famous' than on many points of her own album, with a ton of personality and poise singing over a Nina Simone chorus. And hell, after Speeding Bullet To Heaven, I'll give Kanye credit for getting Kid Cudi not to make something atrocious out of his hook. All of that said, there are a few spots where the guests took away from the track, the first being Swizz Beatz playing hype man over 'Famous' when it wasn't needed, which was preceded by G.O.O.D. Music's newest signee Desiigner doing a Future impression that makes it clear Kanye couldn't afford Future himself. The most disappointing and wasteful usage of a guest star, though, came with Andre 3000 showing up on '30 Hours'... basically to play hype man for Kanye rambling through a shout-out, half-improvised bonus track where I'm quite certain he takes a call midsong.

Now I'm highlighting all of these guest stars for one big reason: often times, they have more presence on these tracks than Kanye does. There are quite literally interludes and segments where Kanye doesn't show up at all, and even when he does, it's no guarantee he's actually going to be rapping. Now I don't mind Kanye's autotuned singing on occasion, but placed in contrast on so many places with actual bars, it rarely carries the same impact, especially when he actually has some decent flows. On the other hand, there's still a part of Kanye who wants to keep trying bad impression of modern MCs that sounds like the worst part of Yeezus leftovers - and the autotune is definitely not helping him sound imposing or even all that interesting, mostly because we've heard much of this delivery before. It's probably worst on the repurposed remix of 'Facts' that for some ungodly reason shows up near the end of this album - Kanye, you don't have the voice for this sort of yelling, it's more laughable than anything else! 

Of course, his production doesn't always do him a lot of favours, where more than ever before the patchwork nature of samples and bass-heavy fragments leads to a record that rarely ever builds to a consistent groove or flow, none of which is helped by tracks feeling either far shorter or far longer than they ever needed to be. And this frustrates me because for the most part, there are some inspired production moments that I really like - that little horn piece on 'Ultralight Beam', the warped Nina Simone sample on 'Famous', and that choppy gospel vocal sample on 'Waves' filled with echoing howls that have some real punch against the trap beat, especially as they get a little deeper. Hell, on the topic of vocal samples the Arthur Russell sample on '30 Hours', that superb sample of Junie Morrison on 'No Parties In L.A.' - thanks to Madlib for producing that one - and the great groove on 'Fade' courtesy of a pretty damn propulsive Rare Earth sample... sure, it's later chopped up with a shrill fragment from Barbara Tucker that I don't think works at all, but it got closer than most! But it highlights how much this record feels micromanaged, clashing samples off each other for scattershot ideas rather than cohesive songs... which I'd be much more willing to support if the flow and underlying mood was consistent. The big example for me is on 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2', which takes a much more propulsive and dark Metro Boomin' beat that Kanye rides pretty well... and then out of nowhere we get Caroline Shaw doing her best Imogen Heap impression before a sudden lurch back to gospel. i get the montage intention, but in this case it's compromising the foundation of the actual song. And on another note, for as much as this album touches into gospel and makes me wish I was listening to Algiers again, the absolute worst parts of the instrumentation come on tracks like 'Feedback' and 'Freestyle 4', half because they're obvious Death Grips rejects circa Government Plates and they feel even more painfully derivative of the style Kanye tried to use on Yeezus, and they're all the more jarringly out of place here! 

And it's not just the beats or production, it's the content too, and here's where we get into the ugliest parts of this review. Because there will be a lot of hardcore fans of Kanye West - emphasis on the 'hard' - who will claim that I just want Kanye to go back to his backpack days and that he's not always trying to be lyrical. And while I'd argue the best moments of insight on this record come when he's in that zone - 'Real Friends' and 'No Parties In L.A.' both spring to mind - the larger issue comes in that so much of the content and controversy feels flagrantly redundant - self-deprecating bragging about fame that doesn't even hit the transcendent moments at its best and frequently skids into corniness. The most obvious examples are 'Feedback' and 'Freestyle 4', which are trying to be 'New Slaves' and 'Hell Of A Life' part two, but that reflective picture runs all through this record. I honestly don't care about the Taylor Swift reference on 'Famous' for its blatant dickishness and more because it was seven years ago and Kanye's still not over it! I'll give 'Facts' this, for as asinine as that song is, at least it feels marginally original! And the most controversial that I'd argue Kanye gets is on 'Highlights', where he tells black guys to go after white girls so they can have more black babies... yeah, not touching those implications with a ten foot pole, especially considering how Kanye also references the Nation of Islam on that track. And while I'll give Kanye a bit of credit for taking the piss out of his own ego on 'I Love Kanye', his insecurity is much more revealing on 'Feedback' where he questions why he'd even let himself get bothered by critics and bloggers. But honestly, that's peripheral to the central relationship/theme of this record, if you could remotely call it one, and that's Kanye's marriage to Kim. And as I said earlier, if Kim wanted evidence for divorce proceedings, this record is probably the best she could hope for, not because of Kanye's monumental insecurity that underscores it, but also at the many times he spends reflecting on previous relationships, with 'Waves' putting through the subtext that those feelings and emotions never really die. The best moments are paradoxically when this record gets the most depressing, like on the self-flagellating 'Real Friends', the best track on the album not just for its honesty but for how Kanye admits he's lost friends since he's dated and married Kim. And I liked The Weeknd's implication on 'FML', where Kanye might be trying to put aside his hoes, but The Weeknd seems to expect a relapse is inevitable. And yet on tracks like 'Wolves' Kanye tries to place Kim and himself as a Joseph and Mary analogue, but the final lines from Frank Ocean imply a sort of burnout in the face of the wolves that surround them and the wildness that consumes them both. If nothing else, I can appreciate the undercurrent of depression on this record, and the attempt to find some sort of solace in God.

And yet on some level I don't quite think this album would hold up as well as evidence in court - mostly because of how inconsistent, inarticulate, and scattershot it is. There are good ideas on The Life Of Pablo, but nowhere else in Kanye's career have the seams and cracks been so evident. It shows Kanye with the fewest lyrical ideas and consistent songs, a record whose hype has eclipsed both the music and to some extent Kanye himself. And while I think he knows that, it would require a defter touch than his to make potent music out of it. And I find it fascinating that Kanye says the 'Pablo' of the title is actually St. Paul - who if you actually reread his letters was rife with sloppy argumentation and blatant misogyny. Oh, the irony. For me, this is a 5/10 and only recommended if you're in that select fanbase. Otherwise, as much as I get the feeling that Kanye needs help, I also get the feeling that he's not going to get it until it's too late.

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