On New Year’s Day last year, it felt like we were on the verge of Kanye West’s fatherhood album. We heard a man beaming from ear to ear on ‘Only One’, complete for a moment before realising something was missing. “You’re not perfect, but you’re not your mistakes”, he sang, channelling his deceased mother, looking forward to a better future with his wife and daughter.
Paul McCartney, who provided the song’s sweet keys, went in a similar direction post-Beatles, filling his early solo work with a blissful view onto married life, so a precedent had been set. After years of restless innovation, West looked ready to settle into his life for a while, lay down arms against his enemies (societal, personal, imagined) and make an album rather than another vessel for his own reinvention.
A year, another child, three fashion lines, four titles and multiple revisions later, we finally have West’s seventh record, and it is not as settled as those early McCartney collaborations predicted. It could still be his fatherhood album – it is harried, scattershot and struggles mightily to see what’s coming next – but it is far from domesticated. The optimism of ‘Only One’ has curdled by now, and while The Life of Pablo has a number of reflective moments, they are shouted down, according to the conversation surrounding the album, by some of the most inflammatory statements of West’s career. West is not only raging against the dying of the light, he’s blowing raspberries to stoke the flames.
‘Famous’ and its already infamous Taylor Swift reference (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”) is probably not even the worst offender. That honour may go to ‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1’s anal-bleaching anxiety, ‘Freestyle 4’s Eyes Wide Shut fantasies, or maybe even the reworked ‘Wolves’ (“You left the fridge open, somebody just took your sandwich”) if you find lazy non-sequiturs more offensive than brazen misogyny.
Moral judgement of West is a spectacular waste of time, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring his exposed id, but beyond the most provocative imagery, there are several lines that degrade women for lack of an easier target. ‘Freestyle 4’ works because West’s sordid, paranoid outbursts find a perfect counterpoint in piercing strings (sampled from Goldfrapp’s ‘Human’) and a nihilistic beat, but for every moment of inspired grottiness (the GoPro-enhanced dick of ‘Highlights’ for instance) there are ten more that will be forgotten once The Life of Pablo’s time has passed.
West has been reckoning with himself, however. In one of its earlier configurations, The Life of Pablo was supposedly a gospel album, and that version’s remnants provide a wealth of fertile ground. ‘Lowlights’, with its effusive central testimony, reinforces the equivalence West has created between himself and God (see: Yeezus’ ‘I Am a God’), but it does not betray any gleeful blasphemy, just longing.
That is not to say West is seeking redemption, but that he is left feeling unfulfilled and maybe, less charitably, short changed. He is trying to keep his faith and says that he is looking for more on ‘Ultralight Beam’, but the sermon sampled at the end briefly absolves him of his guilt. It’s a prayer “For anyone that feels they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times”, which you can read as West realising many of his troubles are self-inflicted or just being annoyed at having to apologise a lot.
His relationship with the Lord may be self-serving, although that is covered by the song’s utter beauty. With rousing choirs, sparse, cascading keyboards and a verse from Chance the Rapper that is among the finest in recent memory – it’s certainly the best rap on a West song since ‘New Slaves’, maybe even since Pusha T on ‘Mercy’ or Nicki Minaj on ‘Monster’ – ‘Ultralight Beam’ makes for a stunning introduction. Chance shows breath-taking emotional and technical dexterity, building up such momentum as he rides the beat that you can understand why West chose not include a rap of his own. The evangelical young girl who opens the track might have also put him to shame.
While gospel proves the perfect refuge for West’s maximalism and self-aggrandisement, the fear and guilt gnaw away throughout The Life of Pablo. ‘Real Friends’, with its muddy, nostalgic beat (and an assist from Ty Dollar $ign) will speak to anybody struggling to find time for what’s important. It strings together images of absent-minded neglect and public embarrassment to paint a vivid picture of West’s regretful but seemingly necessary absence from his family’s lives.
‘FML’, meanwhile, uses permanent devil-on-the-shoulder the Weeknd to great effect. Abel Tesfaye is clear and true as he gives voice to West’s doubters, and West is at his most frenzied – slowly sing-rapping as he states his unwavering commitment and then rattling off a list of self-destructive incidents (relating to his Lexapro withdrawal) before the song descends into a creepy, meandering Section 25 sample.
‘No More Parties in LA’ caters to fans stuck on The College Dropout and Late Registration, but the presence of Kendrick Lamar inspires West to raise his game. It’s an incredibly long rap, one that suffers from occasional breakdowns, rehashed topics – why do single mothers attract such scorn from Kanye? – and airless editing, but the production does wonders to placate the listener as West works up to his optimal level.
’30 Hours’ should be another highlight, but it goes on about two minutes too long. Built on a delicate Arthur Russell sample, the song is refreshingly unhurried and again finds West on great form lyrically, but somehow outstays its welcome with adlibs galore. Which brings us to The Life of Pablo’s biggest problem: editing.
With his austere, uncompromising masterpiece, Yeezus, West showed he could be truly ruthless with his material. Days before release, West brought Rick Rubin in to “reduce” the album. It weighed in at 10 tracks, 40 minutes – lean and snarling. The Life of Pablo, by comparison, is still in flux – a living, breathing document that is probably still to be finalised. As the first diss track directed at a corporation, ‘Facts’ proves that West is still working on another level to everyone else in the game, but it has no place on this album. The same goes for ‘Fade’, which was also added after the album’s MSG debut at the request of fans.
The Life of Pablo’s troughs have been strung out from some its most inspiring moments. ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’ and ‘Pt. 2’ are nearly incoherent as songs, but they contain some great ideas. The initial sample is gorgeous, the Metro Boomin tag/Kid Cudi drop is jaw dropping, West’s verse on ‘Pt. 2’ sees his whole life flashing before his eyes, and the Holly Herndon-like ending has a lovely ersatz warmth to it – it’s unfortunate that the connective tissue has the strength of papier mâché.
‘Famous’, too, is fairly weak, but its Nina Simone sample (and Rihanna’s interpretation of it) are plaintive and the reggae-like break is incredibly buoyant. ‘Feedback’ slithers and grinds underfoot like a Yeezus offcut, but doesn’t inspire much from West lyrically until the final verse, while ‘I Love Kanye’ is awkward and doesn’t really chastise any of West’s detractors as he might have intended it to.
‘Wolves’ suffers most for West’s tinkering. It now has a gorgeous Frank Ocean-led outro, but absent are Sia and Vic Mesna’s contributions from the Yeezy Season 1 version. It’s no surprise that the internet has already edited the two together. West’s calls to Kim to protect their children from the “wolves” on his newly-added verse are bolstered by the song’s tense, isolating acapella beat, but the rap is clearly unfinished and the song is clumsily sewn together.
After the tight, scowling Yeezus and the bombastic grand-standing of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a frazzled West has embraced the median and dropped a level in the process. The album’s fantastical peaks sit messily with some of the sloppiest material of his career, and West tries too hard to facilitate gospel, Future-esque trap bangers, soulful nostalgia and Yeezus-like sparsity.
The tight deadline West set for himself has proven unforgiving. There’s a truly great album in here somewhere, but what The Life of Pablo lacks is clarity of vision and purpose. It’s probably his worst album to date. It’s still guaranteed to be better than nearly all of this year’s releases.