Full disclosure: I’m a Kanye fan. So when West announced that the release date of Swish would be Feb. 11, you can bet I scheduled a review of it weeks ahead for this issue of the Record. There were some complications along the way. Swish became Waves and then The Life of Pablo, and West premiered several of the songs during “Yeezy Season 3” at Madison Square Garden but didn’t release the album until Sunday at 2 a.m – which is why I’m writing this review at the last minute on layout night. Though late and stressfully prolonged, The Life of Pablo is entirely worth the wait. In true Kanye fashion, I’d say this review is, too, but unfortunately I can’t afford to be that confident.
West has built his career on things he’s said, whether that’s in the media or in his lyrics, which are always pointedly meaningful and sometimes even poignant. There’s no better place to start then, than with the album title, The Life of Pablo.
If it’s a reference to Picasso we’re talking about, I don’t think it falls short. It’s a lofty claim, but since when did we like Kanye for his modesty? He radiates untouchability as he sits at the throne of hip-hop, but it’s such a ridiculous, outrageous untouchability that you can’t help but laugh and ride along. “I Love Kanye” is perhaps the funniest track on the album, in which West openly acknowledges his biggest critics (read: haters), who despise the “always rude Kanye, spaz-in-the-news Kanye.” It says something about West’s ballsy artistry that he includes a very meta line that already predicts the criticism he’s bound to get on the track: “What if Kanye made a song, about Kanye?/ Called ‘I Miss The Old Kanye’ man, that would be so Kanye.”
This doesn’t mean West is an artist not to be taken seriously, however. Pablo opens with “Ultralight Beam,” in which a four-year-old girl preaches the gospel fervently, and West and The-Dream lead the first verse with an oddly beautiful use of Auto-Tune, reminiscent of his sound in “Only One.”
Of course, West has received a great deal of backlash for his past and present talk about his album. What West so infamously said about Taylor Swift in “Famous” is unforgivable – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” But West’s public abrasiveness is sometimes understandable – perhaps it’s in response to being a black artist today in America. When he tweets, “I love love love white people but you don’t understand what it means to be the great grandson of ex-slaves and make it this far,” there’s some sense to it. I can’t claim to understand Kanye’s life story, but I think there’s something wrong in the public’s propensity to criticize West for disparaging someone while blindly accepting Swift’s claim to fame in writing songs singling out ex-boyfriends.
West is brashly unapologetic in his lyrics, partly because they’re more urgent that way, and partly because there is perhaps no other way he can respond to the continued racism of our modern era than a kind of brazen audaciousness. “New Slaves,” off Yeezus, starts with “My momma was raised in the era when/ Clean water was only served to the fairer skin/ Doin’ clothes you would have thought I had help/ But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.” West didn’t pull any punches in 2013, and he isn’t pulling any now. It’s because, unfortunately, nothing has changed.
Three years ago, West rapped blatantly about race relations in “New Slaves.” One month after the album it was on was released, George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and the “Black Lives Matter” movement was launched on social media. So maybe we need a little more progress – and what better than in the form of progressive hip-hop?
At the end of the day, however, West is still a real person, real friend and real father, no matter how far his celebrity seems to remove him from those roles. “FML,” featuring The Weeknd, is a keen sentiment and an eerily beautiful song rolled into one, speaking to West’s struggle to control himself and stay faithful to his wife. Say what you will about Kim Kardashian, but West’s devotion and confession to his temptations are very real:
“I been living without limits/ As far as my business/ I’m the only one that’s in control/ I been feeling all I’ve given/ For my, children/ I will die for those I love.”
The Weeknd, as expected, bridges the stanzas and softens the corners of West’s verses, singing, “They wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up/ Can’t let them get to me/ And even though I always fuck my life up/ Only I can mention me.”
The Life of Pablo, as a whole, still sounds like a work in progress, but in the best way possible. Pablo isn’t even finished yet, according to various news sources. Keeping in line with the Picasso analogy, this brings to mind a passage from Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy:
“During all these months the Pope kept insisting that Michelangelo complete his [Sistine Chapel] ceiling quickly, quickly! Then one day Julius climbed the ladder unannounced.
‘When will it be finished?’
‘When I have satisfied myself. …’
‘It is my pleasure that you finish it in a matter of days.’
‘It will be done, Holy Father, when it will be done.’”
Listening to the album feels like you’re in the studio with West himself. The album isn’t quite done but it’s nearly there – and we get a fascinating listen-in. But art is never really “done,” is it? Paintings hang and sculptures stand in museums, waiting for viewers to look and think. As for Pablo, we only know that Kanye West never rests until he’s at his Kanye Best – and so I guess we just continue waiting hopefully, then.