REVIEW: Kanye’s latest lacks focus
by Quinn Fenger
Kanye West hardly needs an introduction. He’s just as famous for his celebrity and ego as he is for his music.
Over the years, he’s expanded his empire far beyond music, dabbling in his own lines of shoes and clothes. As his presence grows, each move Kanye makes seems like an attempt to outshine himself. This album is clearly a product of that effort.
“The Life Of Pablo,” Kanye’s eighth studio album, was created following a drawn-out Twitter- based publicity stunt.
The final rushed decision to exclusively post the album on up-and-coming music streaming service Tidal caused many listeners to use torrent site Pirate Bay instead. Despite almost 500,000 pirated downloads, the album’s release still propelled Tidal to the top of the iTunes app store within days.
“The Life Of Pablo” begins its long, 18-track journey with an energetic child preaching “Jesus praise the Lord” to her encouraging mother. “Ultralight Beams” is the grand, religious opening to the album that tries to set the tone for the rest of the ride. The title references the true Pablo that adorns the name of this album, Saint Paul the Apostle, and how he was blinded by a light beam from heaven on his way to persecute Christians.
The gospel choir that sounds throughout is reminiscent to Kanye’s “Never Let Me Down” in his album, “The College Dropout.” However, instead of Jay-Z backing this song, Kanye brings in fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper to bust out some rhymes. Chance takes command of the song with his soft, raspy vocals and witty lyrics.
“Ultralight Beams” is easily one of the album’s best tracks. It begins the list of the very few, fully fleshed out songs the fairly large LP has to offer.
The album then takes a turn, from a roaring church choir to a smooth jazz sample provided by Pastor T.L. Barrett’s, “Father I Stretch My Hands.”
“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” are two tracks of the same song. In them, Kanye takes a few moments to rap about past love interests, but nothing truly interesting comes until “Pt.2” when he contrasts the holy father from the track before, to his real father and how his absence has rippled through Kanye’s thoughts.
For one short, hopeful glimpse, an insightful and relatable topic seems to set the tone, only to be shut down by Desiigner’s mumbling and unimportant verses taken from his recent hit, “Panda.”
The next song, “Famous,” opens up with some notable lyrics referencing Kanye’s past run-in with Taylor Swift before revealing that he wishes to be broken from his confines as a celebrity. Even with Rhianna’s vocals, the track falls short. Rather than being beautifully artistic, it’s an exercise in ego. Further, the brilliant Sister Nancy sample comes in way too late to be truly enjoyable.
The next six tracks, “Feedback”, “Lowlights”, “Highlights”, “Freestyle 4”, “I Love Kanye”, and “Waves” are a mix of catchy productions with inconsistent and often cringe-worthy lyrics cast over them.
The seventh track, “Highlights,” features a verse that references Kanye’s sex life and manhood. I consider it an unsuccessful attempt at creativity, that ended up seeming childish. This feeling occurs again in the ninth song, “I Love Kanye,” where he spits out an acapella track touching on his public image with a fun sense of sarcasm that only Kanye could pull off.
While, admittedly, “I Love Kanye” is fun to laugh at, by the end of the track, I was tired of hearing him reference himself in the third person.
The last song in the series of misses is “Waves.” The gritty back-up vocals are reminiscent of Childish Gambino’s “1.Crawl,” and contrast Chris Brown’s smooth vocals. Unlike “1.Crawl,” “Waves” lacks the quick and meaningful lyrics that Childish Gambino is so well known for.
After this sequence of songs, I was left wondering what a proven lyrical artist could do with the catchy production provided here.
The eleventh track, “FML,” brings a great song into the mix. Kanye pairs with The Weeknd to create a moody sound with great transitions throughout that show what this album could have been.
The track also plays with the meaning of its titular acronym. Whether or not “FML” actually means, “f*ck my life” or the more cryptic “for my lady” is unknown, but is hinted at throughout. It leaves an underlying curiosity while the main message of self control propels forward, eventually doing another hard cut into the next track.
“Real Friends” was shared with the world weeks before the album’s full release. It features a steady beat and dreamy, distorted piano riffs alongside a rare, self-reflective set of verses from Kanye — a welcome contrast to his normal, narcissistic lyrics.
The hit’s followed by a set of eerie, synthesized vocals and an autotuned hook in the next track, “Wolves.” Once again, Kanye uses lyrics referencing religion and a self-proclaimed sense of genius that’s so often in his music. The intriguing tune draws attention in the beginning, but later disappoints. At this point, the pattern becomes expected.
“30 Hours,” however, is one of the most mesmerizing and catchy tracks on the album. A distorted set of vocals taken from Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” echoes throughout the song as Kanye references a former relationship and how he would drive 30 hours to see his ex-girlfriend, from Chicago to Los Angeles.It features a brilliant but simple instrumentation with relatable lyrics until Kanye decides to turn it into a “shout-out track,” trailing on for a useless two-and-a-half minutes before finally cutting to the album’s last good song.
“No More Parties In L.A.” consists of Kanye and Grammy award-winning rap artist Kendrick Lamar sharing stories about their first world problems and how Hollywood’s creation of the celebrity is often a drag. Although the topic seems distant, the two rappers still manage to come off as extremely honest.
Kanye manages to pleasantly surprise with technicality and meaning in his verses. This contrasts Lamar, who is typically unparalleled in his lyricism. This, however, doesn’t last the whole album.
The last two tracks, “Facts” and “Fade” feature interesting samples and gritty beats followed by, yet again, uninteresting and uncreative lyrics that distance Kanye from his listeners.
“Facts” works as a celebration of Kanye’s shoe line with Adidas and, at the same time, disses his competition. His hook is a rip of Drakes pair up with Future in their song, “Jumpman,” which references Nike’s Michael Jordan logo. “Fade” ends the massive album with a rushed mess and an almost non-existent Kanye — overshadowed by Ty Dolla $ign’s awkward vocals.
All in all, Kanye West’s ability to bring together brilliant samples, features and overall production is just as present as it has always been. Bumping beats and unique hooks don’t make a legendary hip-hop album though. A successful record needs substance and organization, or at least an arching theme, that can tie each song together. This is where the “The Life Of Pablo” falls flat.
Music vlogger, Anthony Fantano summed “The Life Of Pablo” up perfectly when he said, “It doesn’t really read to me as a Pablo Picasso comparison, … to me this album is more like a Jackson Pollock painting, where each color is a song and they are all just kind of splattered on top of each other.”
I agree. Despite a few solid singles, the album itself is reflective of its release — a powerful mess.