Kanye West’s long-gestating, and perhaps still unfinished The Life of Pablo is a beautiful, heartfelt mess. Yeezy is perhaps more aesthetically indulgent than ever, and the conduct is essentially disorderly throughout. Thematically, Ye believes this album to be an unbridled, honest outpouring in service to his followers, detractors and to god. To anyone with an objective bone in their body, maybe it’s best to just sit back and enjoy listening to an eminent madman produce big, novel sounds again.
From the moment it emanated down from heaven into Madison Square Garden last week, “Ultralight Beam” marked a genuine moment of exaltation in the Kanye canon. What first feels like a sort of glitch-gospel whisper expands into an immaculate hymn delivered in verses with as much earnest faith as beautiful musicality. An unselfish Kanye thankfully sets the stage for Chance The Rapper to deftly accept his mantle as spiritual healer of the ravaged Chicago South Side, while Kelly Price sings a verse that’s exquisitely controlled and spiritually elevated. The choir in the mix is to an acoustic choir what a 12-string guitar is to a six string. Divine stuff for sure.
It doesn’t take long after “Light Beam’s” communion for Kanye to ask again for justification for his lust and excess from his detractors, fans and god. The two-part “Father Stretch My Hands” marks a less than reluctant glide back down from the pearly gates up high. Part one welcomes back Kid Cudi with a sweeping Twisted Fantasy-esque production that’s reminiscent of “All of the Lights.” Part two, produced by no-name newcomer Menace, plays on Atlanta juggernaut Metro Boomin’s southern gothic style. The track is a slapper, and it features new G.O.O.D. Music talent Desiigner who gives an airy, downtown-chic rendition of Atlanta’s trap-triplet flow to good if not unfamiliar effect.
“Famous” is an unapologetic, fantastic monument to Ye’s public spectacle. Bad girl RiRi is the toxic, yet sweet cinderella (ella ella) in Kanye’s royal court and her syrupy song from the highest tower elicits chills. Kanye’s verse conveys paranoia, claustrophobia, disrespect, and is as propulsive as his famed crash on Mulholland Drive. But the tears of jubilation don’t come until Swizz Beatz brings in a jaw dropping resynthesis of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” as if he’s master of ceremonies at some Jamaican dance hall reverie in the sky.
“Feedback” is a nice callback to Yeezus’ ugliness, albeit one with far more earthy sounds and textures. Where the former’s songs existed most naturally in art galleries and down fashion runways, the latter will sound the most crack at a dusty festival set, with its reverb gone delightfully haywire and its Aboriginal didgeridoo-backed synth thump. The other Yeezus stray, “Freestyle 4” echoes “I’m In It” in subject matter and delivery, but its sound adopts a far more creeping, shtetl strings type of sinister than that song’s bizarro Shabba Ranks kink-pocalypse.
“FML” and “Waves” work well together as light and dark vibes on the same theme. Both feature our best low-life falsettos in Chris Brown and the Weeknd, each living up to their distinct promises. Brown was born to deface beautiful melodies with his beautifully concealed depravity while the Weeknd treats us to his icy late night brood in trademark cherub key.
Speaking of collaborators, in the weeks before TLOP’s release, much of the intrigue came from Ye’s snapshots of its tentative tracklist, a living and changing document which doubled as a sort of studio collaborator sign-in board. Each update of the working list brought in a more eclectic group of famous friends and collaborators, but raised more sonic and structural questions about the album than it gave answers. Early renditions included as few as 10 tracks, suggesting a Yeezus-like aesthetic austerity. The final pre-release version ballooned to 17, leading on a grandiose scope potentially more along the lines of Late Registration’s maximalism.
The final cut of the album is unlike anything Kanye has ever put together. Beyond “Silver Surfer Intermission,” Kanye gives us a separate suite of bonus tracks, two of which are bona fide jams. The Kendrick-featured “No More Parties in LA” was a certified classic as soon as it arrived. The new Arthur Russell sampling, Andre 3000 harmonizing “30 hours” is an idyllic cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway with the roof missing. “Fade” is a cool reference to the sound and spirit of Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles but at the end of TLOP, it feels like the music played during the end credits of a movie.
As far as sounds, raps and themes go, the most coherent end to the album comes after the one-two punch of “Real Friends” and “Wolves”. “Friends” signals Ye’s detachment from those who were once close to him. Kanye has little need for energy suckers in his life. A resounding beauty, the song sounds as if it’s slowly unfurled from a majestic seaside cliff. “Wolves” is Ye’s injured beast bracing itself against the wall of its den and letting the world know that he’s ready to die for this way of life. It signals an end to the violence of an extended spurt of post-Yeezus turbulence and uncertainty in Kanye’s personal and professional life.
2015 was a weird year overall for Kanye. Apart from working at raising a young family, he was still honing in on the creative balance between his patronage of G.O.O.D Music artists, endeavors in the fashion industry and lastly, his music. TLOP ushers in a long overdue opening of the sonic floodgates from West, and yes, it does manifest itself as a work of gospel. Sure, the jagged, uneven structure of it all does sway in the winds of so many disparate pieces of music jostling for shine, but it stands as a monument to the current culmination of his life’s artifice. What is truly sacred to Kanye, this beautiful dark twisted fantasy he’s unfolded before our eyes, is often vulgar to us. So how productive is it to take his glorious ego trip so personally? Who are we to reject gifts from a man who is so totally willing to lay everything on the line, in total tribute to his vibrant, unique perspective on beauty in the world?