This is A God Dream - 'The Life of Pablo' one year later
A few months after the release of The Life of Pablo, a friend of mine—a HUGE Kanye West fan—implored me to give the album another critical listen. He was sad that I had panned it upon its original unveiling, and thought it would be worth my time to listen to the original version of the album, and compare the differences between it, and the subsequently remixed edition that West released to additional music outlets after its initial Tidal exclusivity.
Comparing two versions of the same album seems like something I would do, and have probably done in some ways when I write about remastered reissues. However, at this time, I was quite literally drowning in depression brought on by my former job writing for the newspaper. I spent over eight hours a day sitting in my cubicle, staring at a small, old computer screen, forcing myself to write news stories about things I didn’t care about.
At the end of the day, the idea of going home and writing something more (about music, or anything else, really) was almost always out of the question. And so while a comparison between the two Life of Pablos was interesting, I knew that I just didn’t have it within to actually execute it.
I listened to The Life of Pablo for the first time under probably not the best circumstances. It was Sunday, Valentine’s Day 2016, and I was working at the bookstore. Not the kind of album to be played over the PA system in the store while customers were browsing, I listened to the first half of it on my headphones before I opened the store for the day, and, coming through my laptop’s speakers, I finished the latter half when the store was empty, quickly hitting pause when a customer would wander in.
I don’t think that listening under a different situation would have helped my opinion of it, and now, a year later, I haven’t, like, grown to love or even understand The Life of Pablo. Kanye West, at his core, is a polarizing artist, and this is his most divisive and polarizing effort. In a sense, it represents everything that happened to him following the release of the record as he careened toward an honest to god meltdown at the end of the year.
The Life of Pablo suffers from West’s inability to focus. As a person, or a persona, if you will, he has to have a hand in everything. He’s a rapper; he’s a producer; he’s a fashion designer. He tried his hand at acting and filmmaking. He’s got a family. He’s spread too thin, and whether it was intentional or not, he translated that desperation into music. It’s full of half-baked and poorly executed ideas—sketches that could have either been developed more, or just cast aside in favor of something else that had more strength. For West, it’s too self-aware, and it tries too hard to have a sense of humor, but the jokes fall flat and at times it becomes a parody of itself.
I don’t claim to understand or love this album, however, there are bits and pieces of it that I have come to appreciate slightly more now that I have sat with it for a year.
“Real Friends,” of course, was always the stand out; from its initial release as a single in January 2016, I knew it was going to be one of my favorite songs of the year—and it was. Musically, it’s hypnotic and somber, and lyrically it’s one of the truest things West has ever written.
If only the whole album could have been like this.
At the end of 2016, Pitchfork named “Ultralight Beam,” the album’s opening track, as their top song of the year. And yes, that title is earned. “Ultralight” is a good song; it’s a weird song, sure, but it’s one of the better ones on Pablo, despite the fact that it falsely sets the stage for what is to come. The song itself is dark and mournful, structured around a lurching rhythm and a reversed sound. And West himself? He’s barely on the thing. It turns into a posse cut nearly right out of the gate, with West stepping aside to give the spotlight to guests The Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and Chance The Rapper, who steals the entire song with his breathless, frenetic, clever verse.
Pablo starts to sink downhill from there pretty quickly. Over the course of the last year, I have warmed to parts of the sample-heavy first part of “Father Stretch My Hands”—the powerful refrain vocals that West added in the second iteration of the song on Pablo V.2 certainly helps, though I’ll never quite be okay with the whole “If I just fuck this model, and she just bleach her asshole,” line that opens the song.
“Famous,” too, is one that at least parts of grew on me—Rihanna is underused, Swizz Beat’s ad-libbing is unnecessary, and West’s controversial lyrics about fucking Taylor Swift are eyebrow raising. But the song’s bombastic production and use of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” at least make it one of the more interesting and focused songs on the album.
The first half, and even beyond the first half, really suffers from a lifelessness and lack of direction. It’s only until the album’s last section that things kind of come into focus a little more. “FML” is moderately insipid, yes, but it shifts into the darker tone that West teased, and the “You ain’t seen nothing crazier than this ni**a when he’s off his Lexapro” line still haunts with a brutal honesty.
Outside of “Real Friends,” a song that stuck with me the most was “Wolves.” I mean, there are just days and days where the music of this song runs through my head. On the original version of the song, released on the first iteration of Pablo, I was disappointed at how quickly it resolved itself, and the lack of Sia and Vic Mensa, both of whom were featured on an early performance of it in 2015.
True to his tweeted promise of “I’mma fix Wolves,” (a tweet that sure sticks with you), West expanded the song and included Mensa’s and Sia’s contributions, bumping Frank Ocean’s postlude to its own track on the album’s sequencing.
The thing, structurally, about The Life of Pablo is that it ends with “Wolves.” Everything else that comes after it can be looked at as “bonus tracks” of sorts, or at least a surprise “second act” to the album.
Much like the songs that arrive prior to all of that, there are flashes of brilliance, but those also fade away quickly. An early single from the album, “No More Parties in LA” boasts a guest appearance from ‘it’ rapper of the moment Kendrick Lamar, and both he and West deliver their verses like there is no tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean it is one of the stronger songs in the set. The same can be said for “30 Hours”—a song that starts out very, very promising, but then West completely lets it get away from him and it becomes a lengthy test in patience.
A year removed, The Life of Pablo isn’t a career misstep—truthfully, Kanye West would have to, like, kill a guy to alienate that much of his audience. Even endorsing Donald Trump (but eventually taking it back) didn’t actually kill his career. It just left people a little concerned, and scratching their heads.
The Life of Pablo is a head scratcher. It succumbs to its own lack of focus and lofty, unattainable ambitions, and collapses (very early on) under all that weight, as well as the weight leading up to it—the botched, long gestating roll out for it was hilariously maddening and bizarre. It’s an album that represents an artist that is, for better or for worse is both out of control, while in complete creative control; meaning, there is no one who can tell Kanye West what to do. Yeezus, for the most part, worked because at the 11th hour, West called in Rick Rubin to help give the album clarity. Up until that point, though, I think things were pretty out of hand.
No one was called in to help hone Pablo back in from the fringes. And even West continuing to change and remix the songs after its release (a benefit I guess of digital/streaming music) shows his inability to let something go after it is deemed “finished,” as well as how nobody is stepping in to say, “Hey, no man, it’s good. Just let it be.”
After bum rushing the stage from Taylor Swift in 2009, it took over a year for West to make a true triumphant return. He secluded himself in Hawaii and made what can be looked at as probably the finest (and most dense) album of his career. Following the 2016 he had, he could benefit from a year in the wilderness again, collaborating in a true fashion with others, sculpting something that is equally as ambition but can support itself once set free.
People have a hard time separating Kanye West as a media persona, and as a musician. You can hate the persona but you can love the music, and a year later, The Life of Pablo suffers that same fate. Not a footnote on a storied legacy, it will, more than likely, be remembered for the things surrounding its release, rather than the music contained within.