by Jon Hunt
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
I have never felt more useless as I do right now. Because honest to god: you don’t care. You’ve already made your mind up about Kanye West — most of you have, anyway. I see it on my Facebook feed every day: Kanye’s an idiot. Kanye needs to shut his god-damn yap. Kanye’s the most untalented hack who ever lived. What a joke that Beatle Paul would work with Kanye because Paul’s a real musician and Kanye ain’t. Kanye doesn’t even write his own rhymes. He doesn’t even sing. What does he even do? What’s the point? This is the worst album ever. Worst album ever. Mind made up, mind shut tight.
(Never mind that some of that is rooted in a rockist “rap isn’t real music” throwback attitude that has more than a hint of racism in it. Never mind that someone’s personality does not determine whether that person’s music is worthy, not even one jot. Never mind that Kanye, as a black man, isn’t cut the kind of slack for his behavior that most white musicians are — and believe me, there’s been some serious idiocy from the white side over the years (why does Republican douchebag Steven Tyler still have a career?). Never mind that the word that comes to mind when I see people bitching about what he’s saying (or bragging about) is “uppity n—-.” Never mind that most of you haven’t spent more than one fucking minute with Kanye’s music, but you’re all experts somehow.)
This album was judged, prejudged and re-judged fifty times before it even came out, before anybody’d heard a note. This was the moment Kanye’s career was going to finally end. This was his failure. This album couldn’t possibly be as good as he said it was, because hubris, because Karma. At least that’s what people were hoping. And when even the slightest chink appeared in the armor — oh, it’s not selling as well as it should on Tidal, oh it’s not the biggest album of all time right out the gate — you could, and still can, hear the fucking clapping coming from everybody, from the entire music-listening (well: white music listening) world. And yeah, I’m well aware that many black people hate him too. Probably for different reasons, but definitely related reasons. Can’t presume to speak for them; won’t.
And yeah, Kanye’s an asshole, or can be. I don’t know what he’s like when he’s with his kid and wife or his friends, but when he’s in public he says stupid, regrettable things. He writes misogynistic, shitty lyrics that are the very definition of “problematic.” He brags like a sonofabitch — he makes Noel Gallagher look humble, fergodsake. He’s obviously a guy who suffers from some kind of serious mental illness — Narcissism, people say, or Borderline Personality Disorder — that makes him say this shit, or act like this. His friends are worried about him.
None of this — none of it — has any bearing on The Life Of Pablo, the album. Or any of his other music.
You guys know I loved Yeezus, his last album — me and Lou Reed both thought it was remarkable, a groundbreaking and incendiary album that sounded like the craziest punk album ever merged with the craziest trap-soul rap album ever. I’ll go so far as to say My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is maybe the best rap album of all time, or one of ’em anyway; it’s at least the genre’s baroque Sgt. Pepper moment and a watershed for the kind of wildly creative, inventive, political albums rappers have been doing. No To Pimp A Butterfly without Kanye. I think the man’s brilliant — even if he has help writing his lyrics or his music, he knows how to stitch together albums — ALBUMS — that are inventive, crazy, smart, unified statements. Don’t care what that talent’s called, that’s real fucking talent. And if Paul McCartney sees it, you should fucking see it too.
So all that said: Life of Pablo isn’t as good as Yeezus or My Beautiful Dark, but it is still a very fine album — one in which the cracks in Kanye’s personality are beginning to show, but still a remarkably confident and very, very listenable album, maybe the most accessible album he’s made since Graduation a million years ago. He sounds vulnerable in places, brash in others, deeply troubled in others, and by no means is this a unified statement like Yeezus was — it’s a scattershot album with many diverse sounds, from minimalist trap soul to maximalist gospel, deliberately everywhere at one time. It’s not an attempt at a big flag-waving statement so much as it’s kind of a document of a slightly disturbed mind still operating under the illusion of full function, if that makes sense. It reminds me a little of Big Star Third, and no, I’m not kidding — it has that album’s underlying sadness and paranoia, like everything’s about to fall apart. That tension makes it damn interesting. It’s probably not a great time to be inside Kanye’s head, but man, is he still making good art.
And yeah, this is good art — the album’s closer, “Fade,” sounds every bit as amazing as something off Curtis Mayfield’s first album, slamming and percolating with tons of soulful tension. The opener, “Ultralight Beam,” draws on the gospel traditions Kanye loves to dip into to make his Big Statements and sounds every bit as churchy as “Jesus Walks” without that song’s easy answers. The two-part “Father Stretch My Hands” is autobiographical and sad, with Kanye’s autotuned voice sounding desperate and weird. The dark “FML” is so minimalist it almost doesn’t exist — and it’s full of desperate sentiments about fucking your life up (and a bit of us-against-the-world sentiment with Kim, whom you also hate for no real reason), propelled by a gorgeous Weeknd hook. And “No More Parties In LA” is a collab with Kendrick Lamar, who runs rings around Ye flow-wise, but man, philosophically the air of desperate, tired begging is all Kanye. I think he’s sick of that shit — honestly. Or maybe not — maybe he feels the need to have that pose to seem more human? Who knows. S’interesting, though.
(Not to overlook the album’s problematic moment: Yeah, he does say he and Taylor are gonna have sex and that he made “that bitch” famous. This is shitty on several levels, and let’s not excuse it — but neither should we ignore the rest of the record due to one stupid problematic moment. Yeah?)
But I just checked Facebook again, and yeah, according to an article on Gizmodo or Jezebel written by a white person, white people have collectively agreed that this is the Worst Album Of All Time, so you probably didn’t even read any of this, and I bet you’re not gonna give this album its fair shakes — so you get my frustration. I wanna feel like my enthusiasm has some influence, and in this case, I know it won’t. Can’t. Mm. Might have to just rely on history to redeem this sucker and in the meantime, just sit back and dig and hope Kanye gets the help he apparently really badly needs. If you do listen, there’s a lot to reward you — it’s a dark, uneasy record, but it’s enormously listenable, and as complex and fascinating as everything the man’s done. Yeah, he’s an artist, and a damn brilliant one, and don’t you forget it, even for a second.