Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” Kanye challenges on “Feedback,” the fifth track on his most recent The Life of Pablo (2016). It is a special privilege of Kanye’s that this line feels expected, that this declaration isn’t remotely puzzling. With this line, Kanye presents an unresolvable contradiction: is the artist who is so intensely self-aware capable of irrationality, of being “crazy?” Pablo encourages us to say “no.” Its stunning production and immersive beats are the result of cultural cunning and stylistic calculus, something that simply cannot be miraculous, as we sometimes expect true genius to be. And yet, Kanye’s public persona, one of many mysteries and eccentricities, argues the other side. Pablo unfurls in the battleground of these two personas.
“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” reverberates in a catchy beat, unfolding in a style similar to something on Yeezus (2013). “Pt. 2” advances where “Pt. 1” cuts off, elevating the tempo and pushing the pace of this album into a more charged, purposeful plane. Many of the tracks on the album have this drop-and-pick-up style, which tightens up a journey that might otherwise feel hopelessly scattered. Kanye’s eclectic style betrays him slightly on the album; in reaching for so much, some progressions feel undeveloped or even a little underdone, such as “30 Hours,” which feels like it might have been tagged on lazily just before release.
The Life of Pablo makes fewer clear statements than Kanye’s past works; its medium is not preaching, but nuance. Kanye repeatedly calls into question traditional aspects of the industry he has experimented with for years. Even the concept of a song is pushed to its limits on the album, seen most prominently on “Highlights,” which moves through several distinct stages, each bearing its own personality; one that, if singled out, could easily stand on its own.
Pablo’s resistance to be recognizably Kanye (its lack of divisive statements and boundary-shattering innovation) makes it hard to fully characterize. Perhaps it makes most sense to analyze it in the context of Yeezy’s artistry: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and Yeezus are reaches, exemplars of a bravado unparalleled by Kanye’s contemporaries; The Life of Pablo is a revision. This is not to say Pablo wastes time playing it safe—this album is not a reinvention. But it does symbolize a true artist confidently removing his foot from the accelerator, watching the side of the road glide by fluidly. This revision is Kanye allotting himself the time and space to explore the art — perhaps the genre — he has created (or, to those not convinced of his genius, simply “expanded”). After so many years of innovation, surely he has that right.
Kanye West seems to be undergoing an identity crisis similar to that of the writer Jorge Luis Borges. “I do not know which of us has written this page,” Borges concludes in his short story “Borges and I,” wondering whether his work is property of his own or of his image. Kanye West may as well have quoted this line on the back cover of his newest album, The Life of Pablo.
“See, I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes, and now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes.” So goes the line in “I Love Kanye”, the short, a capella track on The Life of Pablo. The title of the track bears an unmistakable resemblance to Kendrick Lamar’s “i”, with its repeating chorus, “I love myself.” But unlike Kendrick’s single, a champion of self-confidence, Kanye’s track is a play on his own narcissism, criticisms, and portrayal in the media, all in a splay of self-mockery culminating in a chuckle. Looking back over the artist’s career, there have been quite a few incarnations of Kanye. Early Kanye, Taylor Swift-interrupting Kanye, “sweet Kanye,” “chop up the beats Kanye,” spaz Kanye, 2020 presidential candidate Kanye, designer Kanye. But under all these Kanyes, where is the real Kanye?
Perhaps The Life of Pablo portrays the true Kanye—disorganized, maybe even slipshod, synthetic, original, flagrant, ambitious, strange—a mosaic portrait. The album seems to be a synthesis—both synchronic and diachronic—of both Kanye past and present. It even seems to span laterally and vertically in its representations, calling on talents like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Rihanna to bring together the zeitgeist of hip hop, rap, R&B, and pop. It samples deeply, from “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy to Drake and Future to Pastor T.L. Barrett. Teeming with self-reference, the album lends itself as a panoramic survey of the continually bifurcating Kanye. Even the title itself — The Life of Pablo — sends Kanye’s selfhood elsewhere. But where that is exactly is unclear… Pablo who? Picasso? Escobar? St. Paul of Tarsus (Pablo, in Spanish)? Nobody in particular? It only adds to the confusion and wonder that surrounds Kanye West as an icon.
Everything about this album screams The Life of Pablo and nothing else. This is one of Kanye’s great talents, the dedication to album crafting, the creation of a unique, if incohesive experience. One of the reasons this project was so highly anticipated, and that all Kanye projects are so hyped, is the characteristic unexpectedness of The Kanye Album. When Kanye drops an album, nobody knows what to expect. We don’t know what’s coming, and that may be precisely what makes his icon, his brand, his music, and his personality so popular.
It is also difficult not to notice the divine ambiance of the album. It’s no wonder that the original title of the album was So Help Me God. The initial track, “Ultralight Beam” features a young kid preaching, the profound refrain repeating “this is a God dream,” and gospel choirs; “Father Stretch My Hands (Part 1 and 2)” and other songs sample heavily from old school gospel tracks; the track “Low Lights” delivers a long sermon over an instrumental. All of these contribute to the divine presence that lurks behind the music. It’s as if Kanye, in typical Kanye fashion, wanted to thread this celestial undertone throughout the album. And we can’t forget the lines from “Wolves”: “What if Mary was in the club / ‘fore she met Joseph with no love? / cover Saint in lambs’ wool / we surrounded by / the fuckin’ wolves,” alluding to the birth narratives of Romulus and Remus and Jesus. Even the act of naming his newest son “Saint” suggests a heavenly aspect to the West-Kardashian family. One of these Kanyes seems to be suggesting his own apotheosis.
The Life of Pablo is a story. It has characteristics that we’d expect from any piece of fiction that aims to say something about reality. For one, there’s dialogue: “Silver Surfer Intermission” is an obvious example, but there is also the implied conversation with God in “Low Lights.” Other songs speak to each other thematically, and all of the songs involve some sort of collaboration, which is nothing if not dialogue.
In writing these conversations, Kanye sketches complex relationships between characters. More often than not, these fictive versions of people in his life serve as a backdrop for his own character development in the album. He mixes in social commentary with personal anecdotes, wrapping everything together with a healthy dose of his typical, self-conscious narration.
Constructed around a vibrant sound, Kanye tells his story with familiar wit and lyricism. He riffs on themes of faith, family, and love but also delves into the sobering psyche of a man made and unmade by success. “Feedback” is cool and unapologetic, a minimalist pledge to success. “FML” has the same sparse texture, but its openness is a result of emotional honesty rather than bravado. Both are easily among the tightest on the record. Other favorites (“Real Friends,” “Wolves,” and “30 Hours”) balance tenderness and grit in reflections on the unexpected and overwhelming.
Many accuse the 18-track release of being contradictory and confusing. Moving from track to track, it’s easy to see The Life of Pablo as fragmented. “Silver Surfer Intermission” is a humorous, bizarre interlude; “Facts” and “Fade” offer a surprisingly unmonumental transition out of the album. At the same time, it’s clear that each song has been meticulously crafted, endlessly revised. Hidden artistry is at work even on the seemingly silly “I Love Kanye.” Fourteen cheeky lines and a Kanye-to-Kanye rhyme-scheme? A righteous Kanye sonnet for all the haters.
The chaos of conversation may be destabilizing, but the album’s nonlinearity is ultimately essential. In weaving together different elements of his life story, Kanye challenges listeners to piece together his “under construction” reality. This idea is even echoed in the album cover—Kanye positions himself as living The Life of Pablo, but we must figure out for ourselves WHICH / ONE that may be.
In the months leading up to its release, The Life of Pablo changed titles four times, turning from So Help Me God to Swish and Waves until finally reaching its current moniker. This identity crisis is apparent throughout the album, which features elements of gospel, hip hop, rap, pop, dance-hall, and blues. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo is an experimental-near-schizophrenic amalgamation of multiple different styles and genres. In his tongue-in-cheek, self-referential ode “I Love Kanye,” Ye’ raps, “And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes.” Throughout the track, Kanye rants in the third person, alternatively stating that he misses the old Kanye and that he invented Kanye. “I thought I was Kanye,” he raps. This constant third person posturing obscures the identity of the speaker, to a point where it’s unclear whether Kanye is rapping as himself or as some detached narrator. As the song progresses Kanye raps with increasing urgency, constantly out of breath and always on the verge of shouting. There’s a certain hysteria here that’s disconcerting, as Kanye lists a summary of nearly every criticism he’s faced. The uncertainty of the song reflects the uncertainty of Kanye himself, who seems to have attempted to craft a gos-pel record dedicated to himself rather than some higher power.
During his backstage breakdown on SNL on February 13, Kanye reportedly remarked on his cultural influence and significance, saying “[I am more influential than] Stanley Kubrick, Apostle Paul … Picasso and Escobar.” Like Picasso, Kanye presents his world in a series of constantly shifting, distorted images, turning from the glorification of God to misogyny and his sexual ex-ploits (see the transition from “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”’s psalm-esque praise of God “You’re the only power” to his now infamous line about bleached model anus). Lyrically, the al-bum is a work in cubist style. On “Freestyle 4” Kanye uses simplicity and repetition to elicit a feeling of delirium depicted by the lyrics of this fever dream, just as Picasso used technical simplicity in line and form to create more emotionally evocative pieces. Kanye also mirrors Picasso’s use of the collage, combining and sampling various different styles and songs to startling effect.
If there can be said to be one common thread that ties T.L.O.P together, it is a common chaos, a wildness that runs through the album. The album is raw, and feels unfinished at some points (see the vocal mixing at the beginning of “30 Hours”), perhaps indicative of the constant edits Kanye made to the album before and after its release (see Kanye’s “Ima fix wolves” tweet and the lyrical changes between the leaked versions of “Waves” and “FML”) . He has abandoned all the rules of record making, refusing to be pigeonholed by release dates or even traditional releases with his refusal to make the album publicly available for purchase (it is currently streaming on his website and on Tidal). This disregard for the rules is the first parallel that can be drawn between Yeezy and infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Escobar’s infamous cocaine empire made him a phenomenally wealthy man before his capture, and it is this success that West seeks to emu-late. At the height of his power, Escobar exacted near absolute control over Colombia. Kanye hopes to rise to similar prominence in music, to cement himself as the greatest artist of all time. But, this success comes at a cost. In “Feedback”, West raps “Pablo bought a Roley and a Rott-weiler/ Seem like the more fame, I only got wilder.” The combination of West’s meteoric rise to fame and his self-imposed God status has only resulted in increasingly erratic or wild behavior, from his antics at the VMAs to his recent twitter public breakdown on Twitter. Kanye’s desire for power and influence are brought up time and again throughout the album, from his self-declared rap god status on “Freestyle 4” to his claims of immortality (“Young and we alive, whoo!/ We never gonna die, whoo!”) on “Famous.” Kanye wants power over society and music in the same way Escobar had power over Colombia.
In an interview on Big Boy Radio, Kanye called his newest offering a gospel record, an explora-tion of his faith through his sufferings as a man, as a father, as a public figure. With T.L.O.P, Kanye attempts to relate his own life with Apostle Paul’s, who he claims inspired him. “Paul… The most powerful messenger of the first century […] I have the right to speak my voice.” The only gospel West preaches on the album is the Gospel according to Yeezus, and it’s a characteristi-cally narcissistic one at that. The title of “Ultralight Beam” is a possible reference to the conver-sionary experience of Paul, who was experienced God via a beam of light. On the track, Kanye raps “We on an ultralight beam/ This is a God dream.” Nowhere is the central message of the album more visible; the record is Kanye’s god dream, the dream of his own supremacy. Therein the gospel portion of the album only serves to praise one god over all others; Yeezy, self- pro-claimed god of rap.
Despite that, the album is still a triumph, though not quite on the scale Kanye had hoped. The best moments on the album aren’t Kanye’s contributions; from Kelly Price’s powerhouse vocals and Chance’s earnest (and perhaps career-best) lines in “Ultralight Beam” to Kendrick’s verse in “No More Parties in L.A.”, Kanye’s album is a record that highlights multiple different personalities, while failing to impress with his own.