The most important thing to remember when thinking about TLOP and the insane lead up to its release is the one thing that’s remained constant throughout the rapper’s whole career: Kanye West is full of contradictions.
It might be infuriating, but it’s true: The moment you think you can generalize something about Kanye, he’ll swerve.
How can someone who seems so unhinged in public (and on Twitter) be so completely in control of an intricate, cohesive whole on record? How can someone who constantly shuffles and rewrites and renames have every album he releases sound like a monument? How can the half dozen or so stupidest, most insensitive rhymes you’ve ever heard sit next to the half dozen or so most provocative and razor-sharp? How can someone whose opinions seem so tasteless and short-sighted (“BILL COSBY INNOCENT“) also produce the two most far-reaching, kaleidoscopic minutes in recent rap history (“Pt. 2”)? How can someone so egotistic be so sensitive?
Damned if I know, but I’m continuing to enjoy the ride.
The Life of Pablo is not my favorite Kanye West album. It might not even be top five. But for someone who has made sure every release represented a quantum leap and a lasting legacy, that’s not really saying much.
TLOP feels like it’s filled with oddities and fringe experiments rather than cornerstones. MBDTF is maximal and luscious; Yeezus is minimal and muscular. Pablo straddles the gap between those two. Though its track list is massive (18!), the majority of its songs are short and focused, and only rarely do they feel essential.
The album’s highlights are scattershot: Opener “Ultralight Beam” is a gorgeous, my favorite track after three spins. But it’s the ending that really lingers: “No More Parties in LA” is long and meandering, but meaty and powerful courtesy Kendrick Lamar and Kanye’s ferocious emcee work. “Facts” is fierce and fiery but still playful (the bounciness of Ye’s delivery of “we made a million a minute” is worth the album’s price of admission alone). “Fade” ends the album with funk and pizzazz.
There are plenty of other highlights… yes, including “Highlights,” despite this line: “Sometimes I’m wishing that my dick had GoPro.” (Keep in mind that’s probably just the fourth-most forehead-smack-inducing rhyme on TLOP.) “Waves” is a great enough track that I understand why he considered naming the album after it.
Unsurprisingly, the unifying strength of the album is the mastery and complexity of its sound. He plays with rhythm and surprising noises in a way that feels borderline profound, if clashing with Kanye’s often-brusque lyrics. Every time I listen, some sonic layer I missed the last time reveals itself. These are, generally, very rich and satisfying tracks to listen to.
I think the thing that I miss the most from Pablo versus other Kanye albums is a moment of humanity and reflection that grounds and amplifies everything around it: On Yeezus it was “Bound 2,” his confession of love to Kim. On Fantasy it was “Runaway,” his soul-bearing admission of self-loathing and existential loneliness. The closest we get here is the forty-second a capella “I Love Kanye” in which he reflects on his legacy and gradual transformation (and turns his first name into a rhythmic mantra).
As an aside, my prediction that Taylor Swift would appear on this album is only half-true, I suppose. And, since I’m on asides: The cover is awful (why not this or this?), though the title is thought-provoking and multitudinous.
After two days and three cover-to-cover listens, I’m comfortable in affirming Pablo as great, albeit not as astounding as Fantasy or laser-focused as Yeezus.
It’s more than enough of an album to keep me listening and unpacking and enjoying for a long time. But while it might be the album of the year (or close to it), it’s not quite “the album of the life.”
First impression rating: 4 stars (out of five)… maybe 4.5. Give me a few more days.