You know when you’re trying to put together a Spotify playlist of whatever you’re feeling at the moment, and it doesn’t seem to all quite gel, but you’ve got to put it all on there anyway? You want a Motorhead song, but you also want something from Run the Jewels and, hell, why not, “Bad Blood?” And it doesn’t all work together, but it doesn’t have to, because it’s all good music and it’s all for you? That’s The Life of Pablo, yet another confounding, flummoxing, embarrassing, deeply felt and gorgeous astonishment from a man who doesn’t seem to know how to create anything else. Like that Spotify playlist, Pablo is a disjointed, overlong, self-indulgent mess that works beautifully on its own, ever-shifting terms. And, like that playlist, it’s a work in progress. No sooner had Kanye West released it on Tidal than he yanked it, tweeting to his 19 million followers that he needed to “fix Wolves.” What, exactly, needed fixing? Did he maybe prefer an earlier version that featured Sia and Vic Mensa instead of the one with Frank Ocean and Caroline Shaw that made it on the then-thought-to-be-finished product? It’s hard to say because, like that Spotify playlist, what’s wrong is so idiosyncratic to your own tastes that it’s impossible to explain to anyone else.
Unlike that Spotify playlist, however, The Life of Pablo isn’t on Spotify. It’s—at least as of this writing—not even for sale. Kanye has declared that it will spend its existence on Tidal, which is tantalizingly close to it not existing at all. In a way, it’s the first product of the digital music age that doesn’t feel beholden to the pre-digital age in any way at all. It’s not a product at all. It’s an ever-evolving idea, that can be tweaked and retooled to Kanye’s infinite whims. In the hands of a lesser artist, this would be infuriating. For Pablo, the possibilities are thrilling.
The first words on the album are “We don’t want no devils in the house,” and Kanye promptly sets on turning any such nefarious creatures out on their ass with “Ultralight Beam.” The song is up there with “Dark Fantasy” as the best kickoff to any Kanye album, all the more notable for how little Kanye actually does on it. R&B chanteuse Kelly Price is the song’s anchor, Chance the Rapper is the highlight and Kirk Franklin brings it all home with a Sunday morning sermon. Kanye’s got a reputation as an inscrutable glory hog, and it’s not wholly undeserved, but on “Ultralight Beam,” he has the good sense to sit on the sidelines.
About 60 seconds after Kirk Franklin ushers us into the presence of the Lord, Kanye’s rapping about models bleaching their assholes, which is as good a lyrical snapshot on how The Life of Pablo operates as any. The sacred and profane bump into each other violently here, and neither is apologizing to the other. “What if Mary was in the club before she met Joseph?” he asks on “Wolves”—maybe the starkest, spookiest track Kanye’s ever recorded. It’s hard to tell whether Kanye is telling dick jokes from the pulpit or handing out tracts at the club here, and that’s almost certainly the point. From “Jesus Walks” to “I Am a God,” Kanye’s relationship with the Big Guy has always been fraught with contradiction, but it’s never felt more transparent or less apologetic than here. On “Father Stretch My Hands”—which is split into two tracks—he airs all manner of dirty laundry, mourning the loss of his mother, the divorce of his parents, the burdens of monogamy and, incessantly, the need to “just feel liberated.” The second track closes with the beat dropping out, and Caroline Shaw plaintively moaning, 808s-style, “How do I find you? Who do you turn to?” It’s a haunting moment, showcasing Kanye in all his naked emotionalism and bravado.
It’s a largely naked album, Pablo. Kanye’s been praised for sparse, minimalist production in the past, but he’s never been as scant as he is here. Most songs thrive off variations of one or two bold ideas which weave in and out of each other—sometimes dropping out altogether before the song is even over. The terrific “Feedback” courses forward on one jarring sample, and showcases Kanye at his cockiest (“If Hov J then every Jordan need a Rodman”) and most candid (“name one genius that ain’t crazy!”). In many ways, the album pulls from his past inspirations like a buffet. The excellent Kendrick collab “No More Parties in L.A.” would not feel out of place on College Dropout, while the Chris Brown (ugh!) feature “Waves” has some serious “Bound 2” vibes. But it’s all restrained. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy threatened to collapse under the weight of just how much was going on. The Life of Pablo—in production, if not running time—is an exercise in modesty.
Modesty is not a term one associates much with Kanye, and he deals with that critique on a fascinating called, awesomely, “I Love Kanye.” Though it has the feel of a jokey, freestyle lark, kicking off as it does with “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye …I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye,” it subtly shifts into something less predictable and more unhinged. “And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes!” before settling into a cocksure grove and capping off with a line that just missed the deadline for being the finest Valentine of 2016: “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.” It’s a narrative that charts the evolution of our generation’s most un-ignorable rapper, sure, but it’s also a reminder to his many detractors that he’s much more self-aware than they give him credit for. He knows he’s polarizing. He knows how many people don’t buy that he’s the GOAT. He also knows they’re wrong.
He talks about it at length on one of Pablo’s standout tracks, and it’s the one we’ve been leading up to—the one every analysis of TLOP is required to address. “Famous” features some of Kanye’s strongest ideas in an inspired, Rihanna-helmed take on Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do,” and also “I think my and Taylor might still have sex, cuz I made that bitch famous” which might be the stupidest bars Kanye has ever laid down. Setting aside the fact that Kanye hooking up with Taylor Swift is about as likely as Amber Rose showing up on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, conflicting reports of whether or not Swift cleared the line beforehand, and just the general taste of the thing, it’s not good. Piling that line on top of a few weeks of trigger-happy Twitter rants, and a reported meltdown prior to his SNL performance has stirred up the old cultural conversation about Kanye’s mental health.
This is approximately half-nonsense. If an unhealthy obsession with Taylor Swift is a sign of mental illness, the world is in dire straits. If we’re going to suddenly start getting outraged about crass about a celebrity pop star’s sex life, then Kanye West is hardly that conversation’s nucleus. Blaming mental illness for Kanye’s offensive edges and wince-inducing chatter about women is a way of removing responsibility from Kanye. He should be held accountable for the way he talks about Taylor Swift and Amber Rose. These things should not get a pass as some sort of bizarre byproduct of his artistic genius. But likewise, Kanye’s admission that he’s on Lexapro and Rhymefest’s expressed concern for Kanye’s mental health should not be ignored. Holding Kanye to a higher standard in his treatment of women, validating numerous expressed concerns about his own stability and appreciating his massive contribution to American art are not mutually exclusive attitudes.
But it can feel that way, which brings us back to that Spotify playlist bit. He’s a mess of contradictions, Kanye, both in his art and his personality. He is, by all appearances, a loving husband and doting father, but his music would have you believe he still prowls the streets for supermodel ass. His clothing line is selling tattered sweatshirts for four figures. There’s a lot of pressure put on artists to put out Big Statements with their albums, but The Life of Pablo signifies that that pressure may be a thing of the past. Kanye knows he doesn’t easily fit under any label. If his art did, it wouldn’t feel very much like Kanye. And that’s something Kanye simply couldn’t live with.