Kanye West’s activity on Twitter can not be overlooked when discussing the marketing campaign for his latest record. When he announced that So Help Me God would be released sometime in 2014, the hype surrounding the project was already impressive. A slew of tracks and early cuts were released sometime after that, such as “All Day,” “Only One,” and “FourFiveSeconds.” Understandably, people didn’t know what to expect from the album after hearing how different these tracks were from each other.
Sometime during 2015, Mr. West decided that So Help Me God just wasn’t cutting it as a title and switched it to Swish. There was some slight confusion as to the title change, but this confusion grew once he changed the album’s title to Waves. Along with this new title, Kanye tweeted a supposed tack listing for the record. Yet again, Kanye took to Twitter and said that he was changing the album title, but this time offered a free pair of Yeezy sneakers to anyone who could decipher an acronym in the form of T.L.O.P. Shortly after, The Life of Pablo was the confirmed title for Kanye West’s seventh album. To the dismay of many, it was only available to stream on Tidal. It was just recently released on Spotify and became an instant success. This buildup of anticipation was not only brilliant for its unpredictability, but also reflects the very nature of The Life of Pablo as an album – a stream of consciousness documented at a very particular point in the life of its artist.
The Life of Pablo begins with “Ultralight Beam” – a surprisingly minimalist and sincere gospel anthem. Originally planned to serve as the album’s closer, it instead leaves a rich first impression. While Kanye has touched on religion numerous times in the past, this is more reminiscent of Kanye’s more contemporary musical endeavors. The emotional range on this track is particularly strong, stringing together thoughts of sadness, joy, and hope seamlessly into a cohesive whole. Funny enough, it just so happens that Life of Pablo is arguably Kanye’s most abstract and sonically dynamic album to date.
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” continues the gospel-inspired train of thought, though its presence of obscene humor and fusion of hip-hop percussion indicates an impending departure from this style. The effortless transition into “Pt. 2” continues the loose narrative of “Pt. 1,” though things take a sudden dark turn, with Kanye reminiscing about tough times of his past. A sample of Desiigner’s “Panda” serves as the song’s chorus and sings of a gangster lifestyle. The contrast between “Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” is the album’s first major reference to the concept behind the album’s title, with “Pt. 1” acting as more of a Pablo Picasso while “Pt. 2” leans toward the Pablo Escobar side of the spectrum. The trap-influenced second half is a bit of a head-scratcher at first, but like the album itself, it feels appropriate after more listens.
With “Famous,” Kanye presents one of the album’s most obvious single-worthy tracks. It’s undoubtedly Kanye speaking from his current self, referencing the Taylor Swift debacle as well as his influential presence in the fashion industry. It’s a celebration of his undeniable stardom. Additionally, the Sister Nancy sample placed in the middle of the song is a nod to Kanye’s musical roots, proving that few can integrate samples in an equally awe-inspiring manner. “Feedback” has a similar “no care in the world” attitude, but there’s a more aggressive side to this track than its predecessor. While the instrumental alone would prove this point, the addition of a Pablo Escobar reference simply confirms it. Here we have Kanye comfortably referring to himself the way others do, with lines like “I’ve been outta my mind a long time” and “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” After these shenanigans, it’s interesting then to hear a song like “Low Lights” play next. At just over two minutes, it’s a short track, but it’s essentially motivational speaking placed over simple piano chords and a synth melody. It’s surprising in that it reverts back to the album’s Pablo Picasso mentality rather than continue with the recently developed Escobar mentality.
“Highlights” is a joyous flashback to Kanye’s accomplishments, saying that there are only more to come. Like “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” there are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines to be found here (with a particular one involving a Go-Pro as the most blatantly strange). Young Thug and The Dream both add some nice diversity to the track too, with the latter closing the song in smooth fashion. Just after transitioning back to its warm and fuzzy aesthetic, things change even more dramatically with “Freestyle 4.” While one could argue that it’s the album’s sex song, its string and warped percussion paint a vividly violent image.
It’s after this particularly confrontational song that we’re met with “I Love Kanye” – a thirty-second a cappella verse in which Kanye assumes the role of his fans who claim to miss the unmistakable sound of his earlier albums. Logically, one can assume that this interlude will pave the way to exactly what Kanye talks about – a throwback to his older material. While this is not entirely the case, the second half of Life of Pablo is undeniably more soothing than its first.
“Waves” relies heavily on its echoing vocal sample. Like the title, its a wave-like effect that sounds heavenly beneath Chris Brown’s chorus and bridge. Lyrically, the song is one of the album’s least demanding, but it’s a satisfying release from the pent-up aggression in some of the previous tracks. “FML” is a strong example of how instruments can act as building blocks. The first two minutes or so are remarkably stripped of production, instead focusing on Kanye’s contribution. Reflecting on his struggle to remain faithful to his wife, the title cleverly alludes to the traditional meaning of the acronym, but can also be viewed as “For My Lady.” The Weeknd’s chorus is a solid addition to an already fitting foundation. Its placement in the song is the beginning of a more exciting second half, which carefully inserts these building blocks one by one to form a complete vision.
Lyrically, “Real Friends” is bar none one of Kanye’s strongest songs on the record, examining his seemingly endless effort to maintain relationships with friends and family.
“I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions
F**k the church up by drinking at the communion
Spilling free wine, now my tux is ruined
In town for a day, what the f**k we doing?”
In just a matter of minutes, Kanye has taken what he’s said about himself and his success and flipped it upside down. He’s introducing a side to himself that’s disappointed with the way things are. Despite these personal issues, it’s obvious that he’s enjoying himself with each and every word spoken. The ending of “Real Friends” is quite nice as well, providing one of my of favorite transitions on the album. It almost makes me wish that “Wolves,” the emotional climax, was the last song on the album. While Kanye’s never been the strongest singer, you can usually here conviction in his voice. There are even a few instances in which his voice can be heard cracking. The comparisons he makes between his life and Mary and Joseph’s is all the more compelling under these circumstances. I also can’t move on until I give a shout out to Frank Ocean’s feature at the end of the track – a technically unnecessary addition that became one of the more memorable moments on the album.
What a treat it is to have Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Madlib all appear on one song. “No More Parties in LA” is wonderfully layered ear candy. Funky guitar and bass carry the melody in this lush contribution from Madlib, while the two emcees share equally colorful verses which pick at the manufactured lifestyle associated with Los Angeles.
After “No More Parties,” however, is when the album takes a turn that I just haven’t been able to figure out. “Facts” is a banger/diss track towards Nike. The song is playfully topical, but nothing more. Other than its placement in the album, which interrupts the consistently great flow of the album’s second half, there’s just no substance here to make it worth including in the track listing. It should’ve remained a spur-of-the-moment single at the very least. Lastly, there’s “Fade” – an unusually messy effort from Kanye, consisting of bare-bones lyricism and samples that distract rather than complement. It wouldn’t have been a terrible interlude, but it certainly didn’t need to be on the album, let alone serve as the final song.
The Life of Pablo is an interesting record for a number of reasons, with the main reason being that it’s the first Kanye West album that didn’t exactly redefine hip-hop. Kanye has created each of his previous records with a singular vision in mind. The coherency and artistic decisions behind these projects were bold on Kanye’s part, proving time and again that, unlike nearly any other mainstream artist, he was a risk-taker. None of that really comes through on this album, but that’s also where its greatest strength comes from: The Life of Pablo is a time capsule. It’s a collection of sounds and ideas which span over an entire career – one that has left a noticeable mark on the genre. It’s easy to say that Kanye’s vision got lost in the making of this record, but there has to be more to it. After all, this is an album coming from an artist known for his careful use of track inclusion and placement. Do I think T.L.O.P. would be stronger without tracks like “Facts” or “Fade?” Yes, but since they are representative of moments in his life, they make the experience of listening to the album feel like you’re reminiscing about these moments with him. It may not change the game, but that’s pretty cool if you ask me.