From the moment you throw on Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo,” you know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s a Kanye album. There’s absolutely no possibility of it being a bust. Sure, there’s the chance you won’t be able to fully grasp it, and it’ll take some time for you to understand the beauty behind it (see: “808s & Heartbreak,” “Yeezus”), but no matter what — at the end of the day — a Kanye album is a Kanye album, and should be considered as such.
When this album was announced, I, like most, was anxious to hear the finished product. I turned on Twiter notifications to assure myself that I wouldn’t miss any of Kanye’s ludicrous rants or his seemingly countless name changes for “Pablo.” Last Thursday, I went ahead and splurged on a Tidal membership so I could watch Kanye plug his laptop in for the thousands of people at Madison Square Garden. And when, after hours and hours of more waiting and non-stop Twitter refreshes, Kanye failed to deliver on his promised release date, I toughed it out and went on with my week. Well, if you consider going through every single one of Ye’s other six albums moving on.
Then we got that Saturday Night Live performance. That weird, questionable, totally over-embellished and unorganized — yet downright beautiful — SNL performance of lead track “Ultralight Beam.” A sample of a four-year-old preaching, accompanied by an organ and The-Dream’s silky smooth voice opens up the performance.
Kanye, front and center, is surrounded by a church choir in the back, Kelly Price on one side and the aforementioned silky-smooth-voiced singer on the other, all dressed in white with a colorful, pixelated sky backdrop. Kanye stumbles through his verse in a mumbly, yet phenomenal and extravagant way, as only he could do.
And then, it happens. My realization that this album, whenever it finally comes out, will be just as fantastic as I’d hoped. After Kelly Price kills her part, Chance The Rapper comes out and delivers what I maintain is the best verse of the whole album. As he impeccably spits “Tryna snap photos of familia/ My daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her,” you hear Kanye let out an excited “Woo!” into his microphone. He continues: “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell/ I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” and he points at his fellow Chicago rapper. First time watching this: goosebumps. Second time watching this: goosebumps. Third time? Goosebumps. It’s fucking incredible, despite the fact that Kanye, who goes on to awkwardly lay on the ground as if he’s being born again, looks like he’s totally unprepared for any of it. But, performance aside, it’s safe to say “Ultralight Beam” is one of, if not the, best song on this album, and Chance’s verse is to “Pablo” what Nicki Minaj’s verse in “Monster” is to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Kanye’s Twitter activity over the course of this production has been genius. I mean, the guy’s a total asshole, from tweeting out that he owns Wiz Khalifa’s son to “BILL COSBY INNOCENT,” but that doesn’t take away from the unparalleled manner in which he chose to make his audience attached to — to make them a part of — the album’s creation. When Kanye tweeted out that this was going to be “the album of life,” meaning the best of all time, I didn’t know what to think, but I was intrigued. When he said this was going to be a gospel album, I wasn’t sure what to think, but I was curious. When he very publicly bounced around the name and tracklist of the work without any sense of self-control, I didn’t know what to think, but I was getting sick of it, and that made me become even more anxious for its release. Certainly, this isn’t the best album ever. It simply doesn’t keep that promise. It’s great, and it’s got a piece of every single other Kanye album, but it’s not even his best album (S/O, “MBDTF”).
BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 9, 2016
This album is actually a Gospel album— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 27, 2016
A gospel album? Yeezy’s never been afraid to talk about religion and faith, and this takes it to a whole other level, jam-packed with religious references. From comparing him and wife Kim Kardashian to Joseph and Mary in “Wolves,” to the voice of an uncredited vocalist thanking and praising God in “Low Lights” (an extended introduction to “Highlights”), to almost explicitly saying that the album’s “Pablo” is based on Paul the Apostle, the overtones are impossible to miss. But the difference between a gospel album by Kanye and a gospel album by, say, Whitney Houston, is that this is Kanye West: an uncensored, narcissistic rapper with a messiah complex. And, in this album, like most, he uses the image he has given off to the rest of the world wholly to his advantage, with lyrics like those found in “I Love Kanye” and the unapologetic braggadocio found in “Feedback.” The combination of religion and self has always been in your face with every Kanye album, but “Pablo,” combined with the heavy “family, friends and love” themes, feels different.
All memes are wrong... The Life of Paul... The life of Pablo... Ultralight beams... Moms dads daughters sons stand up...— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016
On the surface, this album feels hurried and disorganized. I mean, it wasn’t until the days AFTER the release date that Kanye decided to add six more tracks. But if you listen closely, there are bursts of “wow” that make you realize this was a piece of work that took time and legitimate genius to accomplish. The most exceptional representation of this, to me, is in the song “Famous,” which has already brought on heaps of controversy. Specifically, the opening line for Kanye’s verse, which became infamous the moment it rang through Madison Square Garden’s speakers, is important. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ I made that bitch famous,” Kanye lets out, almost in sing-songy fashion. This line, in its glorious misogynistic assholery, is not technically OK. There’s a lot to it, and no one really knows the true story yet, but that’s beside the point. Let’s not forget the rest of the song, and let’s not forget that Kanye specifically chose to sample the 1982 song “Bam Bam,” by Sister Nancy, a Jamaican singer and one of the first-ever female dancehall DJs, which is based on the push for gender equality in a male-dominated music world. This irony is a genius specific to Kanye West. Yes, he’s being completely crude and seemingly unfair to Taylor Swift, but this subtle Sister Nancy juxtaposition makes me realize the true intelligence behind even the worst of Kanye’s actions.
On a few occasions in “Pablo,” Kanye shoots for a Steve Jobs comparison. In “Feedback,” he raps, “Awesome, Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin,” and in “No More Parties in L.A.,” it’s “When I get on my Steve Jobs, somebody gon’ get fired.” Both of these refer to different things: In the former, he’s saying he’s got brains and brawn (Stone Cold Steve Austin is a 19-time WWE champion), and in the latter, he’s showing off his power. But ultimately, the similarities between these two are closer, and run deeper, than those lyrics. In fact, Kanye’s been compared to not only Jobs, but Walt Disney and Michelangelo, and this album embodies the real reasons why these are not too far from the truth.
All three of these figures, in their lifetimes, did exactly what Kanye did when producing “Pablo”: They all spearheaded, and were the face of, their final products, but didn’t do all of the work. Apple wouldn’t be Apple without Steve Wozniak, Disney wouldn’t be Disney without Ub Iwerks and Michelangelo wouldn’t have created his masterpieces without the help of the artists he hired to fulfill his vision. “Pablo” is a Kanye work — that’s not up for debate — but the features in it are what makes it so phenomenal. From Chance and Post Malone to newly discovered Brooklyn rapper Desiigner to the Weeknd, Rihanna, Sia and even the surprise of Andre 3000 and Max B, this is a team, composed and led by Kanye West, that created the genius that is “TLOP.”
This album isn’t the best of all time. But even the worst of Kanye West’s albums (of which this is not) are well-made, intricate and, for lack of a better term, genius.
MOVE gives “The Life of Pablo” 4.5 out of 5 stars.