Trying to review The Life of Pablo feels like commenting on a cultural movement that has just begun. In April 2006, Kanye came to Boston College. The Heights memorialized the concert with a front- and back-page poster-like spread and an editorial—“Kanye even better than expected.” The secondary headline for the article is rife with the attitude that must have permeated Conte Forum that fateful night, back when I was 11 and had no idea BC existed, let alone that my favorite rapper was there. It reads “Energy level ‘touches the sky,’” a reference to Late Registration stand-out “Touch the Sky.”
The obsessive fervor that infected that issue of The Heights is what the build-up for this album has felt like. Just over a month ago, Kanye announced that the album would drop Feb. 11. At first, it was called #SWISH. Then it was WAVES. After that, 10 days before the album was set to be released, Kim Kardashian West, his wife, tweeted a poll that suggested the album wasn’t done, let alone named. The anticipation has been extraordinarily, aptly, manufactured. Feb. 11 came. I missed half the livestream—I was in class—and the parts I saw were spotty (thanks, Tidal). But I heard enough to get excited. Feb. 11 passed. Feb. 12 came. That night, at least around me, people buzzed with anticipation. Where is it? Is he pulling a Frank Ocean? He has to drop it by midnight, right? Goddamn it, Kanye, don’t do this to us. Then Feb. 13, and the album still wasn’t out. A friend sent me a link to illegally downloaded files from the Madison Square Garden show. That made things okay—temporarily. Thankfully, Saturday night, The Life of Pablo was finally released.
This time, I don’t know if we would write the same editorial—“Kanye even better than expected.” That implies that he blew past some sort of imposed level of expectation. Instead, he maneuvered around any expectations people had—for him to be contrite, for him to release the album when expected—and dropped 58 minutes of gospel choir, nasty beats, and Kanye being himself. When My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, we immediately knew it was important. The build-up for this album has meant that we immediately get how important Kanye thinks it is. But the album itself doesn’t have the same immediate thud of universal critical acclaim that Fantasy did. In that way, it’s closer to Yeezus—with each listen, I feel closer to getting it. It doesn’t hit you in the face like “All of the Lights” or “Power.” He’s more vulnerable here than he has been since 808s & Heartbreaks, and more honest than he was on Yeezus, even. The album is rife with guest stars, from Rihanna to The Weeknd, and their spots stick with Kanye’s emotional theme.
One of the most immediately evocative verses from The Life of Pablo is from Chance the Rapper in “Ultralight Beam,” one of the best songs on the album. The verse is sandwiched between a gospel choir and Kanye’s verse, and features reminiscences of an earlier time: the rhythm behind “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail” is directly lifted from “Otis:” “I made Jesus walk, I’m never going to hell.” There’s a lot of that here, Kanye in-jokes, references to how people see him, to current events, to his family.
Kanye isn’t self-aware, exactly, but he’s aware of how un-self-aware people think he is. That makes the 44-second “I Love Kanye” one of the critical moments on this album. He raps about pink polos—a throwback to his College Dropout days—and how people miss the old Kanye, and hate “the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye.” I mean, it’s true. Kanye used to be fun. Now he’s political. On this song (it’s not even a song, really) he acknowledges how people miss his straightforward rap days and how he actually doesn’t care. There’s a meme that’s been floating around the Internet since Kanye first got cocky that says “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.” I have a Valentine’s Day version of it stuck on the door of my room, courtesy of UGBC (#thanksUGBC). And now, in this song, we have Kanye saying it. He knows.
More than awareness of common Kanye culture, The Life of Pablo shows that Kanye gets what’s going on in the corporate world, the social world. In “Highlights,” another standout, he raps “I need every bad bitch up at Equinox.” Almost immediately after this lyric rang out to Madison Square Garden, Equinox had tweeted an appropriately themed advertisement. Kanye knows what he’s doing here, and I don’t know if he’s trying to be funny, or what. We can reasonably assume that he’s being ironic. Actually, that’s a lie. We can’t really assume anything.
For all the smack talk Kanye is guilty of, he really loves his family. In “No More Parties in L.A.,” he raps “I be worried ’bout my daughter, I be worried ’bout Kim, but Saint is baby Ye, I ain’t worried ’bout him.” The line is mildly misogynistic, but also genuinely sweet. Baby Ye! What a concept. That moment, along with some of the best raps on the album, make that song the closest thing The Life of Pablo has to a party hit. “FML” is a vulnerable plea to Kim about their relationship problems. It closes with Kanye plaintively asking her, “Don’t stop your loving.” Happy Valentine’s Day, Kim.
There is so much to say about this album, from the album cover that was definitely made in Microsoft Paint, to Kanye’s string of baffling tweets, to the “F—k Nike” chant he started at Yeezy Season 3. There is so much to say about his models at Madison Square Garden, ordered to stand stock-still, who wore rags and raised their fist in a Black power stance. It all feels so big. With all of those trappings—not garish, exactly, but definitely dramatic—it’s hard to focus on the music. Kanye, better than expected? Nope, he just blew away whatever preconceptions anyone had. Back when this was still #SWISH, I tried to extrapolate what this album was going to be based on “Real Friends” and “Wolves.” And those two songs are still standouts, definitely, but there is so much more Kanye is doing here. The most accessible way to explain the album is that it’s a combination of Yeezus and 808s & Heartbreaks, two albums that I immediately disliked, then grew to love. He’s definitely not the old Kanye, and he expresses that in the 44-second diss track to those who haven’t grown with him.
Twelve years ago, Kanye rapped, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” Now, he’s the first to do something else. And what that is, I’m still not exactly sure. The music is great, but none of the songs are bangers, exactly. There isn’t an instant crowdpleaser like the poppy beat of “Bound 2” or the fierce verses of “Monster.” Instead, he’s focused on the artistic value of the album. Kanye doesn’t care if you don’t like it. But he knows you will.
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At *first* first, it was called “So Help Me God”