Sometimes we have to separate the artist from the art they create. This is not an unfamiliar concept in music. Think Michael Jackson, or even David Bowie, who was thought by many to be a Nazi supporter for a number of years, and people still liked his music. Kanye’s The Life of Pablo is objectively a good album, and its breadth of features give it an immediate place in pop culture, but it’s not practical, or even that well thought through. Kanye has said that there are no longer even plans to release the album physically; rather, it will only be available through Jay-Z’s (awful) streaming service Tidal, forever streaming, a somewhat fitting place for an album on which none of the tracks have the replay value needed to become mainstream radio hits. There are, nonetheless, a few standouts. “Famous” is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album, sampling Sister Nancy’s classic “Bam Bam,” though it’s ironic that its also the track that most obviously perpetuates misogyny in the music industry, and it doesn’t give itself much of a chance with the opening lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” The Life of Pablo works better as a concept album of sorts. Is the title an allusion to the Cubist painter Pablo Picasso? Or to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar?
Kanye has often referred to TLOP as a “gospel album,” and he certainly sets that up with the opening track “Ultralight Beam,” which prominently features Chance the Rapper. The Yeezus himself, however, doesn’t appear until the following “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” when he breaks the track’s gospel intro with the awkward lyric “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.” By the time we get to “Pt. 2” there is little left of the gospel theme TLOP sets out with, and Kanye has fully returned to his position of autotune singer and backseat producer. The sheer number of people involved in this album makes it worth the listen, as Kanye used a think tank approach to get a number of people in a room together to create each song.
However, it causes the album to feel somewhat idiosyncratic, and it doesn’t hang together well as a whole. This is perhaps in part because Kanye kept changing it up until the very last minute, adding 5 tracks after “Wolves” that don’t seem to fit in at all. The inclusion of “No More Parties in LA (featuring Kendrick Lamar)” is a saving move, as it’s easily the best hip hop song on the record. “Silver Surfer Intermission,” which directly follows “Wolves” is a call from Max B, the “wavy” rapper who was a major talking point of Kanye and Wiz Khalifa’s Twitter beef back when the album was briefly called Waves. The song “Waves,” which appears in the middle of the album, is itself extremely forgettable.
The day before the album came out, pharmaceutical bad boy Martin Shkreli tried to buy exclusive rights to it for $15,000,000 and then apparently made the transaction through BitCoin but later took to Twitter to express his outrage when the album came out and he didn’t know where his 15 million dollars had gone. One possible explanation for the Tidal exclusive and lack of a physical release is that Kanye actually made the deal with Shkreli (he is in debt $53 million, after all), and that Shkreli’s offer didn’t explicitly stop Kanye from being able to stream the album. It’s also recently been reported that Kanye asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion dollars to support various unspecified projects, but Zuckerberg’s camp has since responded and advised him against making such requests over Twitter.
At one point on “Feedback,” Ye raps “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” It’s a fair assessment of the “Kanye” Kanye recognizes in himself on “Freestyle 4.” And he still thinks he’s Yeezus as well, as is evident on “Low Lights,” in which it’s purposefully made ambiguous whether the female speaker is talking about Kanye or God. While Kanye’s extreme braggadocio and penchant for saying things that make him sound like an asshole cause many people to either love him or hate him, it is undeniable that he has created some of the most challenging music of the past decade, particularly in terms of production styles, and The Life of Pablo is no exception. Will it stand the test of time as an exclusive to a streaming site that not many people are going to be motivated to buy a monthly subscription to? We’ll have to wait and see.