Who is Pablo? When Kanye West announced the title for The Life of Pablo, the internet was set ablaze with theories as to who it could be. One common suggestion was Pablo Picasso, the famous artist, to whom Kanye has previously compared himself. Also frequently mentioned was Pablo Escobar, the drug lord, who has been a staple in rap lyrics for years. However, Kanye himself insists that Pablo is in fact the Apostle Paul (Pablo in Spanish), the persecutor who became Christianity’s biggest advocate. Listening to the album, it’s apparent that The Life of Pablo is about any and all of these people, as it exhibits wild tonal and sonic shifts, sometimes within a single song. The album is music-as-collage, and whilst overwhelming, it is exhilarating.
The Life of Pablo is particularly notable for being the first Kanye album since Late Registration that isn’t dramatically ahead of its time. After creating entire genres of music through Graduation and 808’s & Heartbreak, this can be initially disappointing, as the album is seeped in the sounds of its guests. However, whilst the sounds themselves may not be the most innovative of his career, the combinations and permutations of them he moulds is propulsive and thrilling, and there is not a single song on the album that doesn’t have a distinctive, outstanding instrumental. In fact, the sound of the album feels quite retrospective, as though he’s making a best-of compilation of his own previous styles, then imbuing them with gospel and trap flavours. Kanye has described the album as “gospel with cursing”, but that’s a reductive statement. Instead, the album is kaleidoscopic in its breadth, from the bombastic club hip-hop of Famous, to the evangelic choral arrangements of Ultralight Beam and Waves.
On the note of Ultralight Beam, it’s easily one of the best songs in Kanye’s discography. As the opener, the gospel choir, and lyrics about faith in the face of temptation, set the tone for the album. It’s nakedly optimistic, and sets up Chance the Rapper as the natural successor to College Dropout-era Kanye. His verse is star-making, as his voice escalates from a relaxed conversational tone to a nasal yelp, before retreating to a whisper as he reaches the climax. His wordplay is intelligent and charming – “my daughter look just like Sia / you can’t see her” – and he manages to drop in a call back to Kanye’s verse on Otis – “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell”. Chance seems utterly star-struck working with Kanye, and his enthusiasm is palpable. His positivity radiates through the song, and it sets up the concept of religion-as-saviour that’s crucial to the darkest moments on the album.
The actual album proper is actually only the first 13 tracks, with the final 4 serving as glorified bonus songs after an interlude. As such, tracks 11-13 are the dark and emotional climax to the main record, and they are phenomenal. FML sees Kanye reflecting on his sins and flaws over a stark, minimal beat – “you ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / this n***a when he off his Lexapro”. It feels like a less celebratory successor to Runaway, tackling similar themes but with the hope removed. The hook from The Weeknd shows him at his best, and his voice exudes dread as he sings “I wish I would go ahead and f**k my life up”. Real Friends, released as a GOOD Fridays teaser before the album released, displays the most naked introspection Kanye has showed since the beginning of his career – “when was the last time I remembered a birthday / when was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?”. When Ty Dolla $ign’s voice fills the sides of the mix in the chorus, singing “I guess I get what I deserved, don’t I?”, the effect is revelatory. Real Friends then transitions into the haunting Wolves, which takes the biblical themes of prior songs and makes them literal. Over shuddering bass and a lone “ooh” vocal, Kanye fashions the story of him and Kim Kardashian as a modern day Mary and Joseph – “what if Mary was in the club/ ‘fore she met Joseph with no love?”. On the coda, Kanye brings a much missed Frank Ocean out from exile to sing about fame-as-parable – “burn out, cave in / blackened to dark out”. It combines love and paranoia, and is a fantastic summation of the album’s complex themes.
Whilst the introspective songs are consistently fantastic, the more outlandish and chest-beating tracks suffer by comparison. Whilst the beats are fantastic, some misjudged lyrics threaten to derail certain songs. Famous is the main culprit, with its already infamous lyric – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / why? I made that b***h famous” – feeling gratuitous. Whilst his flow is leeringly catchy, the line itself sticks out on the otherwise fantastic song, especially since the rest of his verse manages to evoke decadence and ego without being needlessly callous. It’s the only particularly malicious line on the album (although Kanye insists it’s a joke), but there are a few other clunkers. Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 features the line “now if I f**k this model / and she just bleached her a**hole / and I get bleach on my t-shirt / I’mma feel like an a**hole”. It’s potentially the worst gag Kanye has ever published, which is doubly frustrating, given the poetry on display in some of the other songs.
The main part of the album, whilst varied, feels fairly cohesive, but the bonus tracks do not. That’s not to say they’re not outstanding songs individually (except for FACTS), but they don’t meld together well at all. However, given the quality of the tracks, and their function as bonuses, they serve as a nice palette cleanser after the darkness of FML through Wolves. Pre-release single No More Parties in LA is as fantastic as it was when first released, with Kanye competing against Kendrick Lamar for dominance. Kendrick’s verse is intelligent and lascivious, but in a surprising turn, is outmatched by the best verse Kanye has dropped since Clique. His voice is intense and breathless, and some of his lines are whip-smart and funny – “pink fur, got Nori dressing like Cam”. 30 Hours, whilst the ad-lib outro goes on far too long, is a funny and relaxed song, set to an Arthur Russell sampling beat, with cutting lines like “my ex says she gave me the best years of her life / I saw a recent picture, I guess she was right”. Fade revisits the dance-rap of Graduation, but with a dirtier, Chicago-house beat, and makes an excellent case for Kanye delivering a dance album one day.
Given that Kanye has said music is no longer his priority, in the face of his fashion work and fatherhood, it’s entirely possible The Life of Pablo is the last album we’ll see from him for a while. If it is, it’s an excellent full stop on his career, it’s messiness serving as a microcosm of Kanye’s conflicted personality. A self described “38-year-old 8-year-old”, he finds thematic depth in dichotomy, colliding decadence with faith, romance with vapidity, and ego with self awareness. At this point, Kanye is as much a cultural object as he is a musician, and his charm comes from his blatant disregard for any expectations of him. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will always be his masterpiece, and The Life of Pablo isn’t at the same level of quality, but he seemingly has no intention of it being. It’s an enthralling mess of an album, and that’s the point, for he has no plans to re-tread the past, unless it points to the future. As he says on the cuttingly self-aware a Capella track I Love Kanye, “what if Kanye made a song about Kanye / called “I miss the old Kanye”, man that would be so Kanye / that’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye / and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”.