Mr. West finally drops
So Help Me God… SWISH… WAVES… his new album.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it, I was majorly conflicted about what I wanted from Chicago South side-rapper/fashion designer/all-round narcissist Kanye West and his new project. The changes to both the album’s name and its track list, as well as the frustrating release method (as I write only TIDAL hold the rights to it), made me kind of want this album to be a flop. That way, all of the man’s twitter rants to market this thing would be for nothing and maybe Kanye could take a step back and try not to haul himself at a million industries at the same time. In a way then ‘The Life of Pablo‘ has frustrated me even more, because amid the controversy and craziness, he’s delivered a pretty solid project.
Kanye himself proclaimed that this album was in fact a “gospel album” and “the album of life” on his twitter, a bold claim for anyone else to make but nothing new for someone with the kind of ego that he has. Surprisingly enough, the first track ‘Ultra Light Beams‘ fits the gospel/hip-hop description perfectly, with a sample from a video of a young girl shouting that she only wants the lord in this house (and no devils) fading into a soft, slow melody. As Kanye’s vocals begin, saying that “this is a God’s dream” the drums and gospel choir take hold and we’re treated to a fantastic prayer-like verse that demands God delivers us love. This then crescendos into some female vocals and an out-of-nowhere verse from Chance The Rapper, who perfectly encompasses the songs mood while throwing in some sweet lines referring to meeting (and now working with) his hero; “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell, I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail“. For an opening to a Kanye album, it has very little Kanye in it. It was refreshing to see him allow the beautiful instrumental absorb the listener and recruit another rapper that fits on it like a glove. The thing is, the further you go on listening to ‘The Life of Pablo‘, the more you realise that this is actually the most ‘gospel’ it gets.
Despite a sample from an older gospel tune in the following track ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1‘, using Pastor T.L. Barrett’s song of the same name (brilliantly mixed with Metro Boomin’s trap-like percussion and a soul piano), there really isn’t anymore of these type of instrumentals found on the rest of the album. We soon come to realise that this wasn’t an introduction to your standard church, but in fact to Kanye’s church, one certainly full of sin and temptations but also of regret and deep thought. We can see the sinful side of Kanye’s own life within some of the tracks here, both through production and lyrics. For example on the track ‘Famous‘ he throws down the infamous lines; “For all my Southside niggas that know me best, I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why? I made that bitch famous, I made that bitch famous” on top of some maniacal organs and a drum loop full of heavy kicks. On ‘Waves‘, written and fought for by Chance The Rapper to make the cut, Kanye still manages to spit lines about how he can abuse his fame for sex “And she grabbin’ on my dick like, she wanna see if it’ll fit right, that’s just the wave” even over the up-beat and bass heavy production.
The 7th studio album from the Chicago-born rapper also delves into the many personal issues that Kanye faces thanks to his fame, money and power over the rap game. On the dark, grimy melodies of ‘FML‘ he explores the difficulty of staying faithful to his wife, Kim Kardashian with an impressive and rather emotional hook from guest feature The Weeknd.
Despite his constant bragging and self-obsessive lyrics, Kanye manages to find the time to criticise his own ways and become self-conscious in a way that you wouldn’t expect from someone who literally had a song entitled ‘I Am A God‘ on his last LP. He finds a nice balance however, epitomizing in the (still) wonderful ‘Real Friends‘ towards the back end of the project, by far the best track on the entire cut. He even pokes fun at himself in the acapella skit ‘I Love Kanye‘, where he speaks from the point of view from one of those old-school Yeezy fans that wants the “old-Kanye” back, addressing the overly-used meme; “And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”. The whole journey through the mind of Mr. West is a thoroughly enjoyable one, with insightful lyrics blended with the typical braggadocio that Ye has adopted since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s wrong to say that Kanye hasn’t lost his competent flow and delivery over long verses either, as ‘No more Parties In LA‘ fully demonstrates. With an opening verse from hip-hop’s golden boy Kendrick Lamar actually OVERSHADOWED by Kanye going ham for almost 4 minutes of rapping. Among the barrage of lyrics he then explains the story behind the albums final (and fourth) name; “I feel like Pablo when I’m workin’ on my shoes, I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news, I feel like Pablo when I’m workin’ on my house“. In short, the high points of the album are very high, where the instrumentals and the MC come together perfectly to create tracks that will hailed by many a hip-hop head as ‘signature Kanye‘, showing he may still not be past his prime.
However, the albums short-comings are mostly found in its variation of beats, which unlike the previously mentioned My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy doesn’t make for a consistence in quality. You have your instrumentals that fit the gospel promise and Kanye gives these their due reverence (pun intended) such as the track ‘Low Lights‘ which features only a piano, DJ Mustard-esque synth bass and no sign of the man himself. It’s unfortunate that these instrumentals last only two to three minutes, giving way to the less like-able beats to be strung out to the same length, therefore making the more ‘soulful’ moments feel redundant. The track ‘30 Hours‘ features an initially interesting beat from Arthur Russell with a synthesised bassline and a writhing drum loop, but it grinds on you as Kanye uses it as a front just to give bland, ad-libbed monologue in the final third.
Some of the cuts just aren’t given the justice they deserve, like the final track on the album ‘Fade’; the biggest disappointment here. It’s pulsating beat and dark synth sounds sampled from Fingers Inc.’s “Mystery of Love (Club Mix)” set up what could be a gritty 808’s-type track, but instead Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign mumble their way through auto-tune until up and coming artist Post Malone is given about 10 seconds of song time. This is the case also with ‘Wolves‘, which has one of the most interesting beats of the entire project with it’s hypnotic sub-bass and falsetto melodies. Kanye puts a little more effort into this track, as he explores the difficult task of keeping his children North and Saint from the wolves (whether that be the paparazzi, the thugs or the police), but ultimately it isn’t used to its full potential.
At least we know Frank Ocean is still alive now.
After so many rumours, so many changes and so much waiting, Mr. West has given us an album that can hold its own; not just within his own library but I’m sure within whatever the rest of 2016 will have to offer. It isn’t consistent, not enough so for people to begin arguing whether its better than what ‘the old Kanye’ gave us, but it has some fantastic moments that bask in his musical talent. It’s a look into the mind of a mad man in his pursuit to conquer the world, and his creativity (while it might not pay off all of the time) is still staggering nonetheless.
Highlights: Real Friends, Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1, Ultra Light Beam, No More Parties in LA