Reviewing a Kanye album is a task quite distinct from reviewing most other albums. The boundaries between Kanye’s music and his public life as a celebrity have become increasingly blurred as his career has progressed (something perfectly encapsulated in the meta track ‘I Love Kanye’), and as such it has become increasingly difficult to appreciate his artistic output as divorced and isolated from his outspoken public persona. Can we proclaim ‘Death of the Author’ and judge The Life of Pablo solely as a hip-hop album when Kanye himself is almost a piece of performance art?
If we were to simply isolate The Life of Pablo and focus on purely the music contained within it, we find an erratic set of tracks that vary wildly in quality across various metrics (production, composition, lyrics, etc.). For every ‘No Parties in LA’, with its typically brilliant production by Madlib, there is a limp and uninspired ‘Fade’ and its plodding house-inspired beat. Kanye’s classically outrageous and funny lyrical turns are also largely absent from the album; instead, Kanye takes a more (but far from completely) sentimental approach, in line with his perception of the album as a ‘gospel album’.
It is when this ‘sentimental’ approach succeeds that the album reaches its high points. ‘Real Friends’ is a stunning introspective, musically and lyrically, on Kanye’s hectic personal life and troubled relationships, while ‘Ultralight Beam’ excels as a soulful gospel track about God and Christianity. Both tracks clearly connect to visceral and genuine emotions within Kanye’s life, and it is when this bracing sincerity is coupled with excellent production that Kanye produces his best work on The Life of Pablo. Kanye is clearly to some degree troubled by his fame, noting the using of anti-depressants in ‘FML’ and his psychiatrist in ‘No More Parties in LA’, and Pablo is at its strongest and most resonant when these troubles are honestly and creatively dealt with.
This potential is, however, largely not met by the tracklist. The album’s rushed completion and Kanye’s ongoing tinkering are clearly reflected within the songs here, as well as by the album’s messy, almost neurotic cover. If Yeezus’ brilliantly executed theme was abrasive, outlandish confidence (with a soft heart underneath), Pablo either lacks a consistent theme at all, or is defined by its inconsistency. Either way, the album’s lack of coherence or sustained quality does not end up complimenting it as some sort of abstract artistic statement. Rather, Kanye’s troubled and erratic lifestyle are best illustrated by the good tracks on this album, as detailed above, and the existence of more lacking tracks such as ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’ or ‘Wolves’ surrounding them does not add to this.
Ultimately, therefore, The Life of Pablo is not one of Kanye’s best works, despite some stand-out tracks. Kanye’s hubris and fame are not just poorly musically explored on Pablo, but also show signs of wear and tear, no longer the magnetic spectacles they used to be. The more personal and sentimental tracks on Pablo also vary wildly in quality, with many being sublime but others empty and dull.
The Life of Pablo can thus either be approached as a decent but not great hip-hop album, or an extension of Kanye West as an outspoken celebrity figure. As the former, it is a disappointing record from a potentially brilliant artist – as the latter, it is merely a tool that tells us more about Kanye West. As either, therefore, The Life of Pablo could be better.
Text by Jake Roberts, illustration by Montserrat Fernandez.