Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has all the feel of a college paper composed during an Adderall-fueled all-nighter: Shambolic, half-baked, and haphazardly executed, it’s rife with cringe-worthy leaps of the imagination and displays of bravado. But there’s an exhilaration to the way the album’s strange links between Kanye’s many iterations—soul-sample enthusiast, heartbroken Auto-Tune crooner, hedonistic avant-pop composer, industrial-rap shit-talker—coalesce into something uniquely powerful, if not sharply honed.
Right up until its contentious release, The Life of Pablo‘s stable of songwriters and producers ballooned to the point where a writing credit from Drake (for “30 Hours”) didn’t elicit any surprise. Perhaps that’s one explanation for why the entire affair perpetually threatens to devolve into self-parody. The infamous Taylor Swift line from “Famous” (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous”) is a lame shock tactic that lacks the social resonance of “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” or the brilliant stupidity of “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” a blight that overshadows the track’s impressive flipping of an Sister Nancy sample into a doo-wop bridge and its devastating chorus-to-verse key change. Meanwhile, the Future-ripping fashion-industry kiss-off “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)” is just a lot of tough talk from someone who just made the questionably accurate declaration that he’s $53 million in debt.
But there are plenty of moments where Kanye’s lyrical charm prevails. “Real Friends” is bitter but reasoned, an examination of the strains that fame and adulthood put on old friendships, and “No More Parties in L.A.” sees him stepping up his game to keep up with Kendrick Lamar’s unsurprisingly beastly verse. Even the tossed-off, possibly improvised “I Love Kanye” is self-deprecating and light-heartedly humorous in a way that Kanye hasn’t been since Late Registration, a welcome reprieve from all his posturing and self-mythologizing. As competent as these verses are, though, it’s clear that Kanye’s actual rapping ability pales in comparison to his peers: Nothing here stands up to Lamar’s knotty spiritual narratives, Young Thug’s caterwauling unpredictability, or even Drake’s self-assured, straightforward boasts.
Kanye’s lyrics, however, have long been secondary to his production work, and that trend continues here. His real gift is his ability to see his songs as more than the sum of their parts, to punch in guests at just the right moment to push songs from good to great. Whether it’s Frank Ocean’s reedy voice lending humanity to the coda of the sinister “Wolves,” or the Weeknd’s heartbreakingly blunt chorus on the temptation-fighting ballad “FML,” the best of The Life of Pablo grants Kanye’s music a vulnerability that he can’t, or won’t, express on his own.
The inevitability of West’s success, and the success of those around him, emerges as a major theme throughout.
Some critics see The Life of Pablo as rap’s White Album, and there’s merit to that comparison. Kanye’s production work is as varied as it’s ever been, recklessly recasting his old sounds in a messy, digitized style reminiscent of Guided by Voices: simple compositions done up in lo-fi, lent power by their stitched-together nature. Kanye veers from Graduation-era synth-pop (“Highlights”) to squealing Yeezus-style industrial hip-hop (“Freestyle 4”) over the course of two songs, while the suite of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” is a collage of sped-up gospel samples, trap hi-hats, mumbled ad-libs, and a Daft Punk electro chorale. Like Robert Pollard, he’s repurposing oft-utilized hip-hop techniques (many which Kanye himself popularized) with little-to-no editing, coasting entirely on his charisma and compositional know-how. It’s fascinating to see him compose in the freewheeling style of his incendiary Twitter feed, seemingly free of artistic restraint.
If there’s one guiding principal to The Life of Pablo, it’s the bevy of gospel and soul samples, once Kanye’s bread and butter, rubbing up against raw digital production and some of the must vulgar, bone-headed lyrics imaginable. That one of the world’s most publically avowed hedonists would make a self-described “gospel album” seems contradictory, but Kanye’s brand of hedonism is all-encompassing: He feels he’s owed everything in life, from bleach-stain-free anal sex all the way to heavenly redemption. And The Life of Pablo is about redemption as much as anything.
“Ultralight Beam” finds Kanye tackling his self-doubt by affirming that God has a plan for him: “I know that you’ll make everything all right/And I know that you’ll take care of your child,” sings gospel star Kelly Price, reiterating that Kanye’s belief in God will bring him success and ultimate happiness. It’s a transcendent piece of music, with bombastic choral harmonies and Kanye’s clumsy Auto-Tuned vocals revealing cracks in the unrepentant façade he’s force-fed everyone via his acidic public persona. Chance the Rapper provides a deft, half-sung verse with more stylistic depth than anything Kanye lays on the album, but with a Watch the Throne reference, he preaches that same cocky prosperity gospel: “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell/I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.” Chance believes in Kanye’s holy mandate, and the triumph of “Ultralight Beam” rewards that faith.
The inevitability of Kanye’s success, and the success of those around him, emerges as a major theme. Kanye is grappling with the trials and tribulations of his life by assuming that history, and his impressive artistic output, will vindicate him. “Feedback” has him attempting to deflect any criticism (“I can’t let these people play me/Name one genius that ain’t crazy”), seemingly due to his underlying godliness. Music is his best, most honest form of communication, and on The Life of Pablo he paints himself as the troubled artist he is, desperate for affection and validation. In the hands of someone less talented, it’d be sad and pathetic, but Kanye is the rare artist who can turn a cry for attention into something more: a distillation of his artistic output to date that’s quintessentially Kanye, whether you like him or not.