Kanye is no stranger to unconventional album lead-ups. For Graduation he was locked in a sales battle with 50 Cent after 50 said he'd retire if Kanye beat him, for My Beautiful Dark Twisted fantasy he previewed many of the tracks through his GOOD Fridays series and for Yeezus he projected visuals for the tracks on buildings around the world. Even with that history though, The Life Of Pablo is by far the strangest. He changed the name three times, altered the tracklist consistently, ranted on Twitter about everything from Wiz Khalifa to online media and held back the album's release after it was debuted at Madison Square Gardens so that he could finish one track, Waves.
It's been a ride and, somewhat appropriately, the album is as messy as its rollout. It ranges from gospel to electronica, stops and starts suddenly and is packed to the hilt with guests. And that's perhaps the best thing about it. Yeezy has always been a chaotic mind always working on multiple things at once. Since he dropped Only One last year it's been hard to predict what he's going to do next. Even two weeks ago you wouldn't have been able to predict what he had in store (it was then named Waves). At his album launch in Madison Sqaure Gardens he played the album, debuted his third season of clothing for Adidas and previewed a game he's been working on. Yeezus was unbelievable in the was that Ye was able to stick to a streamlined aesthetic but that's not the case here and it's a better reflection of Kanye as a person.
The Life Of Pablo feels like an amalgamation of everything he's released to date. It's got the grandeur of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Ultra Light Beam), the glitchy, industrial rawness of Yeezus (Feedback) and the chopped and screwed soul of The College Dropout (30 Hours). Over the 18 tracks he moves through a multitude of modes. He's angry, humorous, egotistical and emotional, somehow managing to piece it together in a way that reflects the Kanye we're seeing at the moment - part-bonkers, part-driven and part-loved-up.
Opener Ultra Light Beam sets the level of ambition for the record with a stirring choir rising above Kanye's auto-tuned vocal. Unlike when he released 808s and Heartbreaks, hearing an auto-tuned Kanye is second nature now and here, his voice shrunken by the choir, it's more of a symbol of imperfection than anything else. Kelly Price's vocals are stirring but it's Chance's verse that nabs the spotlight, delivering a verse that's not unlike anything he did on Surf, but also much better. "Let's make it so free and the bars so hard that there's not one gosh darn part you can't tweet," raps Chance which in many ways is the mantra of the album. Where Kanye's not rapping something shocking, he's giving us production that stops you in your tracks. The "look at me" vibe of it will annoy many but then again if you're only just noticing that on this record then you probably haven't spent much time with his music.
The first real shocker of the album is his already infamous line about Taylor Swift ("I made that bitch famous"). There's seemingly no need to say this and it's the occasional mysogony that detracts from his genius. Thankfully, Rihanna's raw, sultry hook is enough to divert attention. It's subtle and beautiful, another immaculate chapter in the ongoing RiRi/Ye relationship. On Famous, he brings back the "wake up Mr. West" audio stamp and continues it through to Feedback giving a subtle nod to the Kanye of old.
Kanye's always been an innovator within hip-hop but on this LP he also acknowledges many that are also shaking up the game right now. Highlights sounds like it's straight from the Young Thug/Metro Boomin collection, FML could've slotted in nicely to The Weeknd's last record and Facts is more Drizzy than Yeezy. The latter is the album's weakest track because it sounds more like he's snatched the aesthetic than taken inspiration from it. That's a rare misstep, however, on an album where he's inspiring more than he's inspired. Ty Dolla $ign, for example, turns up on Real Friends and Fade, giving better performances than anything on Free TC.
Where he was untouchable on Yeezy, on The Life Of Pablo he's a little more self aware. I Love Kanye is a humorous play on what people say about him ("I love you like Kanye love Kanye") and No More Parties catches him calling himself a "38 year old 8 year old with rich nigga problems." He's also more personal than ever talking openly about Kim, North and Saint plus the friends that surround him. Album highlight Real Friends depicts a lonely Kanye where people only call him to ask him for something. Still, for every emotional statement, there's an egotistical one to juxtapose it. On Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 he raps about a model with a "bleached asshole," and then on Pt. 2 he's apologising for not calling his wife Kim Kardashian back while rapping about his parents divorce. You get the feeling that if you had one without the other it would be overwhelming. Whatever he's doing though, Chance is right - it's all tweetable with hundreds of these lines getting printed onto tees for Etsy as we speak, just wait and see.
This isn't Kanye's best album but it's endlessly entertaining and so ambitious that it's hard not to marvel. He's gathered together an all-star cast of producers (plus put a spotlight on newcomers like DJ Dogder Stadium) and features and, even when he takes a background role like on Ultralight Beam, he still remains the protagonist. A lot of the time it's like he's simply saying, "look what I can do," like when he slips a Frank Ocean verse in during the album's dying moments or adds a testimony that could either be directed towards God or Yeezy himself ("I love him so much because he's done so much for me.") As much as his ego and genius statements can get exhausting, you'd have to take this any day over an artist who is simply riding in between the lines. The Life Of Pablo is an edge-of-your-seat type of album, one that has you constantly questioning what he's going to do or say next and there's not enough music like that. The whole thing from the album hype-build to its eventual release has been a spectacle and its been addictive to watch. He's mad as a meat axe but when has any ordinary person made something extraordinary?