Kanye West has preached the gospel many times. On occasion in a literal sense, but mostly he’s preached a gospel that speaks of himself as the good news. When he declared that his next album would be a gospel album, back in January, a newfound anticipation fueled the imagination of his followers, and probably of his most devout detractors too. While it was hard to gauge this statement for its truthfulness, it certainly created a framework to fantasize about what eventually would become The Life Of Pablo. In the timeline of Kanye’s career, the good news is that we aren’t witnessing the return of the canonized “old Kanye”. Not because his former self isn’t worthy of our admiration, but because it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Just like it wouldn’t make sense to call The Life Of Pablo a work of piety.
Artistry after all, requires a healthy dose of delusion, and it’d be hard to argue that Kanye West lacks in this regard. More interesting is the sense of unresolved conflict that is found throughout all of his albums. A conflict that transmutes every time, to appear again in a new form, and underline a number of cruxes in his life. On The Life Of Pablo, Kanye doesn’t try to resolve the restlessness that is imbued in each and every leap of faith. Instead, he fully embraces the fatalism of his persona, which then transpires in his lyrics. The gratuitous line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” from “Famous” is just one example that embodies this bleak outlook. Fully aware of the tidbits that will resonate in the public sphere, his self-disclosure disregards both himself and others around him. The result is an album that pulls in different directions and varies in its achievements.
Perhaps this is why a distinct aura permeates “Ultralight Beam”. The first track on the album conjures the common quest for (divine) grace in the chaos of life: “Deliver us serenity, deliver us peace, deliver us loving,” sings Kanye after the intro. The message is simple but poignant. It’s the same resolve found in “Jesus Walks” that runs through this song and its ceremonious gospel arrangements. Here, it’s the star power of R&B singer Kelly Price and Chance the Rapper, aided by a church choir that elevates this song to its godly status.
“Father Stretch My Hands,” a two-part affair deals with both hedonistic and personal subject matters. The song derives its title and candor from a song by Pastor T.L. Barrett’s, another controversial personality from Chicago. A cunning choice that perfectly befits the track in question. What’s more is that The Life Of Pablo continuously affirms this contrast between sacredness and debauchery. On this particular track, Kanye switches from crude passages (“Now if I fuck this model/ And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my T-shirt/ I’mma feel like an asshole.”) to a whole verse about some family history.
The Life Of Pablo truly shines when Kanye shows himself somewhat vulnerable and confesses about his life as a father and husband. “FML” and “Wolves” come to mind. Two tracks that are drowned in gloom, but where Kanye lets his guard down to narrate his fear of losing himself and his loved ones. The former is a co-op with The Weeknd, who takes his role at heart with a clinical but effective hook. On “Wolves”, Kanye continues his streak of biblical references by comparing his marriage with the matrimony between Mary and Joseph. Sure, the image is silly, but it doesn’t sound out of place in-context and when you consider our obsession with celebrity culture.
If there’s one quality that defines Kanye West as an artist it’s his ability to “chop up the soul”, and turn his songs into something much more delicate. It is impossible to not appreciate the care that went into curating the samples that ended up on the album. Consider “30 Hours,” a track that strings together a bunch of dispassionate verses on a sample from “Answers Me,” a song by avant-garde artist Arthur Russell. On “30 hours,” the original lyrics sung by Russell at the beginning of the original song are distorted, just enough in order to match with Kanye’s narrative about driving many miles to see an ex-lover. It’s a small touch that adds colour to an otherwise sparse track. “Fade,” a collaboration with Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign, and the album’s last track, is an even more ingenious exercise in patchwork. The song’s disco house groove is carried by the combined strength of Larry Heard “Mystery of love” and Little Louie Vega’s “Deep Inside”, slid under vocal clips from Rare Earth’s cover of The Temptations “(I know) I’m Losing You” The match is impeccable.
The nifty orchestration of layered sounds is just one stepping stone in the creative process of Kanye’s oeuvre. The other is maximizing collaboration, and allowing guest artists to leave their imprint on his (their) work. It’s how Nicki Minaj’s verse on”Monster” went on the become one of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s gnarliest moments. On The Life of Pablo, the Madlib-produced “No More Parties in L.A.” is as much emblematic of Kendrick’s skill as Kanye’s, with the latter delivering one of his most potent efforts on the album. Similarly, “Waves” is carried by Chris Brown crooning, and “Highlights” juggles with the respective qualities of Young Thug, El Debarge and The Dream. “Wolves” eventually got a refit, with guest vocals from Vic Mensa and Sia and a separate track for Frank Ocean’s part. Essentially, each track flourishes in its own way thanks to whoever is on the credits (that isn’t Kanye).
The Life of Pablo is less opaque than Yeezus and not as focused as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s not a very coherent work. It’s a record with occasional moments of clarity that are scattered around, sometimes hidden behind messier passages. This is a bit unusual in Kanye’s body of work, that up until now, showed laser-eyed focus and a desire to engineer a distinct sound and feel for each new entry. In our understanding of Kanye West, this mode of consumption is verbalized when we reminisce about “the backpack Kanye” or any other era in his career. It’s possible that this work requests that we move forward and forego our safest assumptions about Kanye West and start to open up for all sorts of outlandish Kanye varieties.