Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

I do, in many ways, “miss the old Kanye” – a sentiment that an ever self-aware Kanye expresses on I Love Kanye. It is not necessarily that old Kanye was better, or less problematic, than contemporary Kanye, but his albums did use to arrive without being cloaked in the present cycle of media and Twitter furore. It is the case now that any coverage of his latest creative output is immediately required to address a set of questions that rarely give space to the music itself. Let us then be clear: yes, Kanye West is extremely talented. And no, this does not make his casual sexism or extremes any the more forgivable. Tracks such as Famous, with its now much-publicised pop at Taylor Swift, are engineered for an epoch of constant up-to-the-second, knee-jerk reaction, usually of the 140 character kind, and as consequence it becomes self-serving through the immediate coverage it provokes. In many ways the album feels like it could only exist for the life of controversies it generates, and I Love Kanye is this stripped down to its bare essentials. There’s no beat, just an acapella performance that threatens to eat itself in self-reference. One almost suspects West could have released a spoken word album, or the Taylor Swift line looping ad infinitum, to the same effect – at least in terms of the hollow, polemical debating chamber that passes for Internet discourse.

This initial thought put to one side, momentarily at least, and actually The Life of Pablo does stand up musically as a good album. For every instance that causes one to flinch, or wonder at the purpose of all this “no filter” self-expression, there are some genuinely powerful instances. Real Friends, for example, comes as sobering contemplation on the increasing levels of detachment fame brings. Its beat is melancholy, with its filtered melody loop and drum pattern that is near identical to the earlier and more bombastic track Famous, making the same switch between a muffled bass drum and reverb-heavy snare. The subtle use of echo and auto-tune on the vocal show how masterful West’s production team can be. Likewise, Wolves and No More Parties in L.A. are gems, the latter boosted by Madlib’s snatch and grab beat-making and Kendrick Lamar’s charismatic verse. The discordant keyboard riff of Feedback is another highlight, though the track lacks the dynamic build-up that served to make Power such a killer track.

“One almost suspects West could have released a spoken word album, or the Taylor Swift line looping ad infinitum, to the same effect”

One area where West succeeds, time and time again, is his sense of curatorship. Even the weaker tracks, the sluggish Highlights or Freestyle 4 for example, sit comfortably within the album’s sequence. Considering West is now infamous for assembling and changing tracks in the last minute, it shows just how instinctively good he is at making albums. It may be a format that he seems to be suggesting is dead, not least by his aggravating refusal to put the album out for general release beyond streaming it on Tidal, but it is also a form at which West excels. The weird, mutagenic gospel of Fade, which closes The Life of Pablo, feels entirely right in context, though would probably be forgettable in isolation. He is primarily a great conceptualist, able to pull the disparate parts from numerous guests and collaborators into a whole that remains distinctly his own work.

The weakness in The Life of Pablo is largely the lyrical content which, with the exception of Real Friends, struggles to find anything relatable for the average listener. West appears entirely detached from the trappings of what the majority of us consider daily life, and is preoccupied by a fame-created vacuum that seems to propel the album into self-aggrandising misogyny and ego soothing. Anyone trying to overcome West’s narcissism will find The Life of Pablo a challenge. It is one thing to be an unassailable genius, it is another to reassert it over and over until the listener is left questioning whether it really it is the case. The key problem is West has gone for a series of quick wins, at least in terms of validating the claims he makes around the media’s obsession with him. He is right of course, and a quick Google search will assert it, it is just a pity that this fixation comes at the expense of the depth of character, intelligence and vulnerability that old Kanye was able to demonstrate so ably in the past.

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