This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I love Kanye West. Both the music and the man. This is a rock blog but over the past 10 years or so I’ve warmed to hip-hop, thanks largely in part to the works of Mr. West. I totally get why most people don’t like the persona of Kanye West: he’s brash, arrogant, and sexist. Defending Axl Rose has never been about Axl Rose, but instead about the artists like Rose who operate on a completely different level than 99.999% of the rest of us. These exceptional artists have a vision and spend their lives struggling to bring that vision in its pure, uncompromised, form to the masses. They push boundaries in genre and offer us a window into both the artist and ourselves. Kanye West is a genius on the same level as Brian Wilson. Do I cringe when he belittles Taylor Swift or goes on Twitter and proclaims Bill Cosby “innocent”? Hell yes I do. But Kanye doesn’t really hurt anyone but himself so I forgive him. The music is so good I can overlook his faults.
THE LIFE OF PABLO has been on my must-listen list back when it was called SWISH and WAVES. When it came out last month, on the Jay-Z backed music streaming service Tidal, I downloaded the Tidal app and contemplated canceling my beloved Spotify subscription just so I could hear the record. I waited, with bated-fanboy breath, for Yeezus to announce when the non-Tidal world would get an opportunity to hear his latest masterpiece. Then the confusion began: the album’s physical sale was delayed and then it was scrapped. West proclaimed his album would never be fore sale on Twitter, despite the fact that he’d already given it away sort of by issuing download codes to the people who attended his NYC fashion show where the album debuted. Now there’s word that Kanye is still editing/changing the album, thus making THE LIFE OF PABLO the Star Wars of rap albums (Kanye = George Lucas).
This review has two paragraphs defending the man and giving context to the release of the album because that’s the only way to interface with Kanye’s music. One can’t like or dislike these tracks without taking the performance art piece that is Kanye West in as a whole. He’s worked (famously) with Paul McCartney and no doubt sees himself as a modern-day John Lennon, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Kanye West is really the modern-day Yoko Ono (Ono the artist not the Beatle girlfriend).
THE LIFE OF PABLO opens with gospel “Ultralight Beam.” An epic, beautiful track that begins with West’s 4 year old daughter praising Jesus and then builds to a rapturous choir. This song, about as unconventional as a pop song could be, works on a pure emotional level. I’m 100% agnostic but by the time Chance the Rapper comes in near the end I feel like a true Believer. The album descends from the opener’s lofty heights rollercoasting up and down a few times and bottoms out on “FML.” Here is what all the Kanye haters seem to miss about him: he’s not only his own worst enemy, he’s also his biggest critic. “FML” is about how he fucks up his own life. The song is about West’s troubles with infidelity, which is also touched on in “30 Hours” where West feels jealous because he finds himself on the wrong end of an open-relationship (one that he admits he insisted on having). “Real Friends” continues the tradition of “Runaway” and paints West as a workaholic loner who lives in a cold, friendless world. “Wolves” is another somber track where West gives insight into what it’s like to be a solitary figure against the whole of the world. You can’t help but feel sorry for they guy, even when later he compares himself and Kim to Mary and Joseph (yes, that Mary and Joseph).
Of course no review of THE LIFE OF PABLO would be complete without discussing “Famous,” the song where he throws gasoline on his feud with Taylor Swift. I don’t believe Kanye’s assertion that he “made that bitch famous,” but I do think that Swift has greatly benefited from her association with West. Just like Batman needs the Joker, Swift provides the perfect heroic foil to West’s exaggerated douchebag persona. That West has chosen to rag on America’s sweetheart and the music world’s biggest, most popular modern artist isn’t surprising. He’s jealous of her and like the third grade boy tugging his classmates ponytails; he’s picking on her because he likes her. It’s a shame West mars an otherwise perfect song with such a cringeworthy verse. Rihanna and the Sister Nancy sample are such a killer combo and balance West’s tough guy rapping.
My current favorite track, however, is probably the most-Kanye track of all-time. Title “I Love Kanye,” the song is a 43 second song that is just West with no musical accompaniment. The lyrics speak for themselves:
“I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”
The track ends with West laughing, and it’s a pretty good punchline, but there’s a lot of naked, personal honesty in this song. I don’t see Kanye as the arrogant asshole he’d like us to believe he his. Nor do I view him as the villain his detractors make him out to be. For me, Kanye West is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. If he was an oblvious asshole even his biggest fans couldn’t forgive him (myself included). But Kanye is acutely aware of his failings and I think would genuinely like to be the good guy.
There are no big radio-friendly tracks on THE LIFE OF PABLO. There is no “Gold Digger” or “Touch the Sky” on this record. Even if you hate Kanye and despise rap if you’re a music fan you have to respect that he’s one of the only (if not the only) mainstream artist who make albums. The album as a cohesive, artistic whole has been absent from the modern music scene for nearly 10 years (give or take). But the fact that Kanye agonizes over things like track sequences on his records makes this music fan happy. Don’t listen haphazardly to THE LIFE OF PABLO, instead take it track by track as God…I mean Kanye intended. Then when you’re done go online and seek out the endless stream of “I Love Kanye” remixes that have mushroomed all over the Internet.
I had to torrent this album, which is a real bummer. Hopefully something will change and THE LIFE OF PABLO will become commercially available in a wider-release. Though his mental state may be deteriorating, West’s ability to create intricate, interesting music is only getting stronger.