More than any previous Kanye album, The Life of Pablo displays the product of competing influences. If My Dark Twisted Fantasy was Kanye’s exploration of the competing pulls of the ego and an intense self-doubt following the infamous ‘Taylor Swift Incident’, his newest album outright embraces the contradiction. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent what Kanye West is, but instead offers a reflection on his career and life, feeling almost religious at times.
The album has a strong start with ‘Ultralight Beam’ a track with Kanye and Chance the Rapper supported by a full gospel choir. It’s Kanye at his most tuneful, with some smart wordplay from Chance which elevates the track to one I’d rate amongst Kanye’s best. Similarly, ‘Famous’ and ‘Fade’ are Kanye doing what he does best: Chopping up a great beat with inspired samples and running with it. His sampling work remains as on point as always, drawing on eclectic influences. These include an Arthur Russell track, some of his own work from ‘Graduation’, and sound effects from Street Fighter II. He also has a bit of fun with ‘I love Kanye’, a track that recognises the ridiculousness of the larger than life figure he’s become, with such lines as ‘I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye / I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye’. It’s endearing to see that for all the machismo and ego he displays in public appearances, he’s not too proud to make fun of himself.
The album is far from faultless, however. Tracks like ‘Waves’ and ‘Wolves’ show Kanye in full ego. ‘Waves’ maximalist approach feels overwrought, like it’s trying too hard to impress, and ‘Wolves’ casts Kanye and Kim Kardashian as a modern day Joseph and Mary. They’re both very heavily produced, to a point that it’s off-putting. ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’, a track in which Kanye actually calls rapper Max B in prison, manages to be less like a coherent conversation than when Kendrick Lamar literally stitched a chat with Tupac out of old interview clips, which is an impressive feat for a track in which both participants are still alive. It’s a bizarre inclusion on the album. All these lend to a sense of this album being both intensely produced, yet unfinished. Perhaps that’s appropriate for an album about, and by, the contradiction that is Kanye West.
In the end, this is an album featuring everything that you expect from a Kanye album, for better or for worse. The high points represent some of the best work he’s ever put on a record, and the low points show him at his most needlessly decadent and self-indulgent. He’s not making a statement, other than ‘This is what it is to be Kanye West in 2016’, but maybe he doesn’t need to anymore. For whatever else it might be, it shows he’s still got what it takes to put out some stellar tracks.
The album is currently on limited release on Tidal, hitting all other major streaming services later this week. (Edit: Or not? Kanye is now tweeting he never plans to release it on anything other than Tidal, but then given the changeable nature of everything related to the release of this album, who knows what the future may hold)