“The Life of Pablo,” the fourth title of Kanye West’s seventh album, remains conspicuously vague in the specifics of its reference, a curiosity given the levels of transparency otherwise afforded to the recording process by its maker. Since he originally announced the album, then titled So Help Me God, in March of 2015, West has reworked seemingly every aspect of the project, oftentimes chronicling his changes in real time on social media. So Help Me God became SWISH; SWISH was rechristened Waves. Handwritten track lists that appeared first on West’s Twitter, second on music blogs across the internet, were scrapped and revised at random. Between the slow drips of official information were adrenaline spikes typical of West’s persona: maniacal rants, spastic raves, claims of Bill Cosby’s innocence, et al. Three excellent, wildly different singles were released (“All Day,” “FourFive Seconds,” and “Only One”), none of which appear on the final product, The Life of Pablo. Last week, during the launch of his Yeezy Season 3 fashion line, at Madison Square Garden, West finally premiered the new album to a crowd of 20,000 listeners, in a simulcast event that compelled as much as it confounded. The listening party felt like a creative culmination–not just for West, but for everyone who’d experienced his artistic process secondhand. The Life of Pablo dropped three days later, its orange cover emblazoned with a question. Despite all the transparency, the answer was still unclear. As was what, exactly, was being asked.
Not “Who’s Pablo?” Which//One. Which Pablo?
In the twelve years since the release of his debut, The College Dropout, in 2004, Kanye West has established himself as the most substantial musician of the era, of this decade and the previous one, precisely by way of these reversals. His art doesn’t simply refute obvious answers; it insists on a contradictory phrasing of its questions, on a euphonic gobbledygook that mirrors the freely associative mind of its speaker. To date, West’s studio albums, particularly the more recent, artier three, have provided structure to the mania of his thinking, allowing the smutty to coexist with the symphonic, the hellish with the heavenly. 808s & Heartbreak was grief pop sung by someone who can’t sing, a modulated voice made more human by technology. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proved perfection is only achievable by the admittedly flawed, that a single struck piano key can support a universe of sound. On Yeezus, his most accomplished work, West willed all these contradictions into a charged kind of harmony, a controlled belligerence that revealed itself, by album’s end, as a defense mechanism shielding a profound vulnerability, an unspeakable need to be loved. The madman struggled against his straight jacket until it tore, then used his freed arms to embrace the world. The Life of Pablo, to continue the metaphor, tells the story of that madman deciding what to do with his arms.
In sound and construction, The Life of Pablo may be needlessly convoluted, overblown even, but its pleasures are viscerally simple. West persists as peerless sonic aesthete, capable of wringing melodies from noise like oceans from stone. On “Ultra Light Beam,” the album’s effulgent opener, a synthesizer brightens and darkens like a distress beacon, calling forth a never-nimbler Chance The Rapper, a crooning Kelly Price, a choir whose voice blows the church roof into heaven’s basement. “Famous” begins with Rihanna channeling Nina Simone, transitions to a banger built on the chimes of altar bells, before it trapdoors to a Sister Nancy sample, gloriously random as a party crasher who brings your favorite beer. The songs on Pablo are shorter, more scatterbrained; the album itself longer, confident in its incoherence. Dispensable larks like “I Love Kanye” abut the triumphal “Waves,” the brilliantly brooding “Wolves” gives onto a voicemail message from the Harlem rapper Max B. The hodgepodge is apt for an artist who evokes bleached assholes in one breath, the dreams of his god in the next. Like the man who made it, The Life of Pablo is a mess that burns solar hot, its light life-giving.
To a certain extent, Pablo functions as a career retrospective for West, whose six albums to this point can split into two trilogies, with the dividing line represented by the death of West’s mother, Donda. West’s music deepened considerably after her passing, when he turned the full force of his world-conquering energies inward, but with that evolution came the shedding of the silly charm of The College Dropout and Graduation. By combining the expanse of his earlier albums with the mastery of the latter, The Life of Pablo signifies a return to a more carefree mode, though this can sometimes play as careless on West’s part. With the exception of “No More Parties in LA,” many of his verses sound phoned in from a runaway nowhere close to a recording studio, with West repeating awful lyrics ad nauseam, as if to confirm their awfulness. Aside from padding the song count, tracks like “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Low Lights/High Lights” are separated to no end. There are six albums’ worth of ideas on The Life of Pablo, but the bloat rarely reads as unintentional. Kanye West has always been an artist of abundance; at this creative junction, a more focused record would frankly be dishonest. West never settles for giving less than his whole self.
Prior to Saturday’s performance on Saturday Night Live, West embarked on yet another Twitter rant, relating the Biblical story of Paul (Spanish name: Pablo), “the most powerful messenger of the first century.” Speculation about the album title has cited West’s lectures at Oxford and Harvard, where he made repeated reference to Picasso, while equally entertaining the likelihood that the rapper just really enjoyed the Netflix series Narcos. On “No More Parties in LA,” West raps, “I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my shoes/I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news/I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my house/Tell them party’s in here, we don’t need to go out!” To which Pablo is West referring? The saint? The painter? The drug lord? Does West view himself as a channeler of all three? That seems like a real possibility, especially since all the other Pablos are dead. Which Pablo? The only one left.
Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.75 out of 5 Strawberries