Kanye West is a star of a different class. Between hosting a fashion show, making bizarre posts on Twitter, performing on Saturday Night Live, and (supposedly) finishing an album 36 hours before releasing it, his persona has had quite a week.
His latest major release, The Life of Pablo, was released for sale on the Tidal music app for a short time before being reduced to streaming-only on Sunday, February 14th.
In its DNA, this album stands a lot closer to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than Kanye’s last release, 2013’s Yeezus.
The opening track, “Ultralight Beam,” features a chorus of soul samples and soft, timid synths set to an obvious drum machine. The abrasiveness of “On Sight” and the rest of Yeezus is not present. That’s not to say this album is a total rejection of what Kanye released three years ago, but that kind of instrumentation is few and far between here. Either way, I listened time and again for the song that was going to be playing on the pop stations the next day, and I couldn’t find one that fits their format of simple, catchy beats and hooks.
Despite Kanye’s devolvement from his usual persona to the Twitter sideshow we’ve seen, The Life of Pablo retains his signature style. While the tracklist is covered with “Feat.” and “Prod. by,” it is still very identifiable as a Kanye album–not exactly in the vein of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but something relatively close.
You can hear traces of autotune in Kanye’s voice. He balances pure singing with rapping. The production on every track is nothing short of exemplary. He uses samples all over the place in his trademark fashion (much like the now-iconic “Big action! Big action!” there’s a sample of a man yelling “Turn it up!” that repeats itself every few beats on “Waves”).
That being said, the tracklist reads like a who’s who in hip-hop, with performances by Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Young Thug, Chris Brown, The Weeknd, Andre 3000, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar, as well as many others. Kanye excellently employs the talent he brings into the album. Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar are nothing short of stellar when they contribute to this album. Kendrick and the legendary Madlib work together on “No More Parties in LA”, a relaxed homage to decadence, which presents itself as the densest, best executed rapping on the album. Only a single track on the album written is produced and performed only by Kanye–a 45 second freestyle featuring Kanye complaining about how some people long for the “Old Kanye”.
Lyrically, the album is all over the place. One track insults Taylor Swift and women in general–two tracks down is a message about the healing power of God. There are a few lines that stand out as being eccentric to the point of causing laughter. Like MBDTF, parts of the album are unsettlingly vulgar. The lyrics being messy and unfocused is a product of the album itself lacking a clear focus or direction. Kanye extensively samples soul music and lyrics about love and juxtaposes it next to lines not polite to repeat at a dinner table. As if Kanye didn’t mind people noticing this, The Life of Pablo was previously titled So Help Me God, Swish, and Waves.
The album can be stopped short of greatness. It’s not nearly enough to be as earth-shattering as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It doesn’t have the personality, but it’s a solidly-produced release nevertheless and deserves to be listened to front-to-back, even if you’re just looking for the tracks you enjoy out of the fluff.
For now, the album is only available for streaming through the Tidal music app or on his website at www.kanyewest.com. The albums sold for a few minutes on Tidal have since been illegally downloaded 500,000 times–the most pirated album ever. In a way, the semi failure-to-launch seems like a fitting product of the bizarre nature of the weeks leading up to the album’s release, and even more fitting when it’s connected back to the album’s scattered tone and mood.
It might be for sale sometime later. Kanye first claimed that it would, then claimed that it would not and that you should download Tidal; granted, he’s also claimed that Bill Cosby is innocent and that he is 53 million dollars in debt. You should probably evaluate his Twitter for yourself and decide whether he’s legitimately gone mad or simply hoping you notice his new album.
Ultimately, what is “real” and what is “fake” about Kanye’s persona is as much your guess is mine. Whether or not this album was being scrambled together in Kanye’s “lab” 2 days before he released it, as his Twitter claimed, will probably never be known. Given this album, that doesn’t seem like a huge stretch.