By Matt Gundrum —
Last year, I wrote a piece about the growing trend of surprise releases within the music industry. This form of guerilla marketing allows artists to defy traditional conventions by releasing their music on a whim with no prior announcements. Since the piece was written Drake, Future, and Rihanna have all put out projects that were released in a similar fashion.
In the article, I mentioned how Kanye West’s album was likely going to follow suit. Details regarding the album were scarce. It was going to be named So Help Me God and likely include the tracks Only One, All Day, FourFiveSeconds and Wolves featuring Sia and Vic Mensa.
Well, none of that actually happened.
So was it a surprise release like he said it was going to be? It’s hard to say. Think of it this way: a mentally ill savant plans a surprise party. He frantically sets up the affair, forgetting details and adding new elements last minute. He sets a date, misses the date, scrambles to alleviate the situation and ends up throwing the party a few days late. The few guests who’ve decided to put up with him this whole time, his closest friends, decide to stick around. At first, they’re offended by his carelessness, but realize the party isn’t all too bad. They invite a few of their own friends over, those friends invite more, and the not-so-surprise party is a hit.
This scenario is analogous to both the release and sound of Kanye West’s seventh studio album The Life of Pablo, a beautiful, disjointed, offensive, soulful 18-track monolith of megalomania.
The album begins with Ultralight Beam, a gospel infused reflection on West’s faith in God. Its intensity crescendos over time with assistance from an impassioned choir arrangement and stellar performances by The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and Chance the Rapper.
The gospel theme continues with Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1. The track is bright, gorgeous and features Kid Cudi giving the best hook he’s done in years. It’s complete bliss. However, this moment of musical majesty is immediately tarnished at the song’s halfway point when West opens his verse with the ugliest four lines he’s ever delivered. The contrast between this line and the composition’s tone is far too strong. It’s a disappointing moment that hurts a would-be perfect song.
And therein lies the problem with The Life of Pablo. There are so many moments that swell with beauty, but there’s a fair share of moments deeply steeped in unbearable bouts of narcissism and delusional grandeur. It’s a dichotomy that causes cognitive dissonance, making for a difficult listen.
Freestyle 4, I Love Kanye and the astronomically bad Facts are far too self-involved and after listening to the album several times, are tough to bear. Some may insist that these songs portray West as a beacon of true, unhindered artistry by expressing himself with a no-holds-barred approach. Others may claim he’s incredibly self-aware by making satirical commentary on his own persona. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean it makes for an enjoyable music-listening experience. Furthermore, the respective placements of these songs on the album are derailing, which damages the album’s overall cohesion
This lack of cohesion, along with sloppy organization, is exactly where The Life of Pablo meets its second major drawback.
Back in January, Kanye regularly posted notepad updates of the tracklist via Twitter. At one point, when it was still called Waves, the track order seemed calculated and thematic by the presence of three separate acts. When the album name was changed to The Life of Pablo, the tracklist was once again revised, yet still maintaining a similar number of tracks. But where did those acts go?
On the day of release, Kanye added on several more songs, bumping the tracklist to 17. Later on that same day, he added yet another, making it 18. The album was dropped on TIDAL soon after this debacle. The whole process seemed haphazard and, consequently, there’s a consistent theme of disconnection throughout.
Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2 transitions poorly into Famous, Low Lights seems out of place for where it is, 30 Hours drags on for far too long, Waves is missing the original duo of Sia and Vic Mensa and Fade acts as an abysmal closer.
There’s also the Silver Surfer Intermission, an audio clip of Max B, a rapper who coined the term “wavy” in hip-hop, paying his respects to West for naming the album Waves at one point. It’s awkward and unnecessary, as if you’re listening in on a private phone call.
These drawbacks are a shame because The Life of Pablo also contains some of the greatest songs in Kanye West’s musical repertoire.
Real Friends and No More Parties in L.A. are fantastic, both in terms of lyricism and production value. FML, a somber reflection on marital faithfulness, features The Weeknd giving the single greatest hook of his career. Wolves is a haunting expedition throughout West’s emotional matrix, bookended by a cold, isolated performance from the elusive Frank Ocean. Famous showcases West’s signature ear for samples by brilliantly utilizing “Bam Bam” by dancehall artist Sister Nancy and “Do What You Gotta Do” by jazz vocalist icon Nina Simone.
In a way, this album reflects the duality of West’s persona. On one hand, there’s the vulnerable human, desperately navigating his way through the twisting labyrinth of life, only made more complicated by the anxieties of celebrity status. In contrast, there’s the delusional egomaniac, wallowing in a sea of imagined entitlement. We will always get both with Kanye West. And maybe that’s okay, because that’s just who he is.