Kanye West may be the most polarizing artist in music, not only today, but of all time. In that same breath, when Kanye West eventually decides to retire from music, he likely may go down as the best rapper of all-time and perhaps even the best musician of all time. One thing that makes Kanye so great, is not only his ability to consistently put together quality albums, with literally every attempt, but his constant dedication to artistry. While many great artists have no problem sticking to conventional song structure, shying away from controversial lyrics and topics, making songs with broad appeal that will get plenty of radio play, and putting a lot of worry into publicity and their image, Kanye West does none of the above. This is Kanye West’s blessing and his curse. On one hand it plays a role in making him one of the most widely disliked characters in American culture, yet on the other hand, it makes Mr. West a unique boundary pushing visionary and a musical genius. Everything Kanye West says about himself is not only true, but at times, it’s arguably modest. The 21 Grammys, the critical acclaim, the countless number of classic albums, the role he has played in shaping rap, his memorable live performances, it all speaks for itself. Kanye West is the best thing to happen to music since The College Dropout released in 2004, and his new album The Life of Pablo, West’s seventh solo LP, is yet another example of why there is no other artist even close to Kanye West.
The Life of Pablo opens with ‘Ultralight Beam’, yet another great “light” themed record from West, to join the ranks with ‘Flashing Lights’, ‘All of the Lights’ and ‘Street Lights’. ‘Ultra Light Beams’ is a soothing record infused with a gospel choir, beautiful vocals from The Dream, Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price, and a Grade A verse from Chicago’s Chance The Rapper. While the song from start to finish is great, it’s Chance that steals the show with his verse. “Trying to snap photos of familia, My daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her,” raps Chance on ‘Ultralight Beam’. If you were to imagine a collaboration between Chance and Kanye, this record is everything you’d expect and more. Even before Chance comes in, the whole record sounds like it’s the best Chance the Rapper record you’d never heard yet, so it only made since that Kanye teamed up with another great artist from the Windy City’s Southside.
TLOP‘s next tracks come in two parts with ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ part one and two. With surprising production by Metro Boomin’, part one is nothing you’d expect to be crafted by the Atlanta producer, as it’s totally different sound from some of the records that have made Metro Boomin’ a household name in rap music. However the track itself is classic Kanye, as it contains some very Kanye-esk semi-comedic lyrics, mainly by rapping about fucking a model with a bleached asshole, and if he get’s bleach on his t-shirt then he’s going to feel like an asshole. It’s not the best lyric by any means, but it’s certainly a humorous couple lines that Kanye has been known to make. Jokes in Kanye’s verse aside, the record has a great feel to it, and it’s a song that Kanye admittedly cried when writing. Part one of ‘FSMH’ is also significant because it marks Kanye reuniting with former GOOD Music rapper Kid Cudi. Part two of ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ is essentially a hybrid between part one of ‘FSMH’ and GOOD Music‘s newest artist Desiigner’s record ‘Panda’. What makes part two of the record so unique and great though are the various beat changes throughout, that certainly make the tracks stand out, but still in a way that goes well together.
The fourth track from TLOP, ‘Famous’, is so far ironically one of the most famous track from the album, but for all the wrong reasons. While the song got a lot of bad press over Kanye’s lyrics about Taylor Swift, saying that he feels like him and Taylor Swift might still have sex because he “made that bitch famous”, the song should really stand out for so many other reasons. Whether it’s Rihanna’s amazing vocals that contrast with the swagger and bravado of Kanye’s verses, complimented by Swizz Beats adlibs, or whether it’s the super dope sample of Sister Nancy’s ‘Bam Bam’ which transitions into a Nina Simone melody, ‘Famous’ is a great record. And sure, the T-Swift line brought the record the wrong kind of attention, however it’s another example of why Kanye isn’t afraid of controversy for the sake of being an artist and making music the way he wants to make it.
‘Feedback’ is the closest thing sonically to Ye’s work on his last album, Yeezus. A fun record, even with a mini-skit where Kanye calls himself the “ghetto Oprah”, the song has a sick beat and still touches on some serious issues, but at its core it’s Kanye saying “sorry, not sorry” for his success. This is also a record where Kanye speaks on police brutality, but without dedicating a whole track to the issue. “Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us. Hands up, hands up and then the cops shot us,” Kanye raps on ‘Feedback’.
The album’s next record ‘Highlights’ is a collaboration featuring rapper Young Thug and The Dream, who was also featured on the album’s opening track. For many too, this is the record where Kanye talks about Kim Kardashian-West’s ex Ray J. “I bet me and Ray J would be friends, if we didn’t love the same bitch. Yeah he might have hit it verse, only problem is I’m rich.” The drums on this track are top notch, Kanye has a “GoPro on his dick” reference which is another classic Kanye moment, and if Thugger and The Dream alone didn’t make ‘Highlights’ a great collaboration, the track also features Teyana Taylor and Carole King. ‘Freestyle 4’ is The Life of Pablo‘s next track, and likely one of it’s weakest records. The strings in the instrumental are nasty, parts of the record are very catchy, it bangs, but at the end of the day it’s certainly not the deepest song that Kanye has ever written.
‘I Love Kanye’ is probably the funnest song on the entire album, and although Kanye is known as one of the best producers of all-time, this track is 100% acapella. A freestyle rap about those out there who say they “love the old Kanye” but not the new Kanye, the song is only :44 seconds long, but it’s very entertaining, very true, and ends with Kanye showing some humility by rapping the infamous Kanye meme, “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.” Following Kanye’s hilarious and self-dedicated rap is a song that nearly didn’t make the cut on the LP, with ‘Waves’. However upon a few listens, it’s head scratching to imagine why the song almost didn’t make the cut as everything about it is great. From Chris Brown’s vocals, to the wavy beat (no pun intended of course), ‘Waves’ is a quality record and luckily Chance The Rapper (who isn’t on the record) encouraged Kanye to include the record. It’s probably not a Top 3 track on the album, but it certainly deserves its spot in the tracklisting.
Kanye recruiting some great R&B voices for The Life of Pablo, from The Dream and Chris Brown to Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, who is featured on TLOP‘s next track, ‘FML’. ‘FML’ unlike records like ‘Freestyle 4’ and ‘Facts’ is one of Kanye’s deeper records on the new album. In the track he touches on his relationship with Kim Kardashian-West, the struggles of settling down, and always “fucking his life up.” Although the honest West shows in the track, as well as how great of a fit The Weeknd is for the chorus, the record also has one of my personal favorite lines. “But I’m gonna have the last laugh in-the-end (Indian), cause I’m from a Tribe Called Chekahoe (Check-A-Hoe),” Kanye raps on ‘FML’.
‘Real Friends’ is the album’s next track, which features rapper Ty Dolla $ign and asks how many of us are “real friends”. One of Kanye’s re-vamped GOOD Friday tracks, ‘Real Friends’ was well received by critics everywhere upon its initial release and rightfully so. Kanye keeps it totally real on this one, calls out his cousin who blackmailed him, and it makes us all think back and decide who is, and is not, a real friend in our lives. The album’s 13th and next track is ‘Wolves’, a song named after a concept album that West and Drake contemplated making. An early version of the record was also performed on Saturday Night Live last year with Vic Mensa and Sia, and premiered during Kanye’s Yeezy fashion show a little over a year ago. Mensa and Sia were eventually cut from the album version, unless Kanye decides to later re-add the two (which certainly isn’t unlikely). Although many fans were disappointed that Vic and Sia got the axe, and rightfully so because both fit very well on the track, they were eventually replaced by Frank Ocean. And if wolf howls transitioning into the return of Frank Ocean isn’t a more than great compromise, I don’t know what is.
Next up is the ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’, which is essentially a recorded shoutout to Kanye from rapper Max B. This is significant in the context of the album’s release because before The Life of Pablo the album was titled Waves for a fairly brief period of time. However this cause some controversy, mainly in the opinion of Wiz Khalifa, who didn’t support the new title as Max B made the term “wavy” famous. Although Kanye eventually (again) changed the album’s title, after a huge Twitter back-and-forth with Wiz, he decided to still keep the shoutout from Max B, almost stunting on Wiz over the wavy rapper’s huge co-sign.
’30 Hours’ and ‘No More Parties in LA’ are the album’s next two (bonus) tracks, and both were originally released as GOOD Friday tracks on Soundcloud. ’30 Hours’ samples Arthur Russell’s ‘Answer Me’ and takes aim at Kanye’s ex Amber Rose, while still showing some humility by admitting that he would still send her money and drive 30 hours to see her. He gets on Rose for a “blow job being better than no job” yet Kanye still expresses his embarrassment for taking part in an open relationship to begin with. Despite being a bonus track, ’30 Hours’ is definitely one of the album’s best songs and even recruits some additional vocals from the legendary Andre 3k of Outkast. And while ’30 Hours’ recruits the help of a rap legend, ‘No More Parties in LA’ recruits the help of a future legend, with LA’s own, TDE rapper Kendrick Lamar. This track is reminiscent of Kanye’s work on Late Registration, and the Madlib production and plethora of samples (Johnny Watson, Suzie Thundertussy, Ghostface Killah) all help make this track great.
The album’s second to last track is the Charlie Heat re-work of Kanye West’s Nike diss-track ‘Facts’. Instead of the song’s original remix of Drake and Future’s What A Time To Be Alive track ‘Jumpman’ when it released earlier this year, this time Kanye’s Nike ether is complemented by a sick beat from GOOD Music producer Charlie Heat. And although the track’s intro and outro are night and day compared to Charlie Heat’s beat, it samples Father Children’s ‘Dirt and Grime’ and all together everything fits together perfectly. Finally, the album’s last song ‘Fade’, like so many of the tracks before it, has some great samples, this time with Rare Earth’s ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ and Ms. Barbara Tucker’s vocals on Harddrive’s track ‘Deep Inside’. Assisted by ‘White Iverson’ rapper Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign, this track, which originally premiered during Kanye’s Yeezy Season 2 show, ‘Fade’ is so much more than just another bonus track. Kanye has an ability to recruit the most unlikely and random collaborations, place them strategically over some dusted off but still amazing samples, and make it into a masterpiece.
Like any of Kanye West’s albums since Late Registration, The Life of Pablo will be very polarizing. It isn’t put together in the most traditional way and it doesn’t have a pop and radio-friendly single. While it isn’t as sonically out-there as Yeezus and isn’t as far from Kanye’s norm (if there is such a thing) as 808s & Heartbreaks, The Life of Pablo is still very different, which is what we should expect from Kanye West at this point. But despite all it’s differences, it’s another great album that will almost certainly go down as a classic that was understood at its time. Structurally on its surface it looks like a mess at points (even more so than it’s cover art), but together it’s a beautiful piece of art, which can be best compared to Pablo Picasso’s best surrealism paintings. I can’t forecast exactly how music will change with this album and I certainly can’t even begin to rank this among Kanye’s entire discography, but whether you look at the album track-by-track or as an entire piece of work, everything from the production, to the use of samples, to the featured artists, to the lyrics, to the classic Kanye moments, to the humility Kanye shows, to the confidence Kanye shows, to literally everything that differentiates a quality record like the ones found in this album from a meaningless catchy tune that will make a killing in iTunes sales and radio plays, The Life of Pablo is a more than exceptional album… Let’s just hope it doesn’t take years for everyone but Kanye West to realize it.