The sense of caution, veering on trepidation, from fans leading up to the release of Kanye West‘s new album ‘The Life Of Pablo’ has been palpable. Despite the rapper’s own very-Kanye-like proclamations of it being “not the best album of all time, but one of them”, there wasn’t much in the build-up to Thursday’s premiere-cum-fashion show at New York’s Madison Square Garden that evoked certainty that everything would turn out alright on the night.
Even in a year where unconventional album roll-outs have become commonplace, when ‘doing a Beyonce’ has been replaced by ‘pulling a Rihanna’, Kanye’s constantly kept fans guessing with endless re-namings, hand-scrawled tracklist redrafts and a dozen singles released and then inexplicably abandoned. Of course, we’ve been here before. In 2013, while putting the finishing touches to his ‘TLOP’ predecessor ‘Yeezus‘, West decided to rework the entire record, taking all the tracks apart and piecing them back together a mere 15 days before the product was due to hit shelves.
Commenting on the new album’s lengthy delay, Kanye explained that his two main responsibilities were now parenthood (quite understandable) and working on his clothing range. “Right now, over 70 percent of my focus is on apparel,” he said in an interview last year. Meanwhile in ‘No More Parties In LA’, a recently released track omitted from the final version of the new record, West raps: “I was uninspired since Lauryn Hill retired”. What should fans take from the rapper launching a new album in conjunction with his latest fashion line? Would this simply be a soundtrack to a catwalk show?
Ultimately what we got to hear was enough to both inspire confidence and discreetly hope that West reflects a little and amends a few niggles before releasing the record officially. A handful of tracks can be counted amongst West’s best (‘Ultra Light Beams’, ‘Fade’, ‘Wolves’), while others drift in and out without ever settling with any clarity (‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1 & 2’, ‘Freestyle 4’, ‘Feedback’). Meanwhile, recent singles ‘All Day’, ‘Only One’, ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and ‘No More Parties In LA’, omitted from the final tracklist, are sorely missed.
The main conundrum facing Kanye ahead of this LP was where he could go from here. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, in West’s own words, “showed people that I understand how to make perfect”, while the brash ‘Yeezus’ was a direct response to this, with Kanye willfully aiming to make those who like him to “unlike” him. Every Kanye record to date has contained its own sonic quality and identity that distinguishes itself from anything else he had released before and produced after. ‘The Life Of Pablo’ appears less cohesive. Instead, West combines the ‘old’ Kanye of his early career (‘Famous’) with the newer, more experimental side of his output. At times, he comes across self-reflecting and self-aware, but then follows up with gaudy punchlines (that Taylor Swift reference is likely to steal all the headlines).
So how does ‘The Life Of Pablo’ stand up next to the rest of West’s back-catalogue? Sadly, on first listen at least, it’s probably more towards the mid tier.
Here’s a rundown of the album track-by-track:
‘Ultra Light Beams’
Kanye’s most pensive and personal track since Paul McCartney collaboration ‘Only One’, as he wrestles with his faith in God and the world’s ills. Downtempo and atmospheric, the song was originally meant to be the closing track on the album but instead functions as a dream-like introduction, culminating in an euphoric choral crescendo.
Guests: Chance The Rapper, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price
“So why send depression not blessings? / Why, oh why’d you do me wrong? / You persecute the weak / Because it makes you feel so strong”
“I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”
“Pray for Paris, pray for the parents”
‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1 & 2’
Autotuned vocals, R&B groove and a skittering trap beat, this two-parter is the first club-ready track on the record. Lyrically, Kanye’s mind wanders between the personal (referencing his mother’s death, his near-fatal car crash and relationship with his father) to the ridiculous (commenting on the hygiene and cosmetic choices of certain models). Kanye drops samples here and there, dipping in and out in a way that ultimately makes the final result seem a little incomplete.
Guests: Future, Kid Cudi, Desiigner
“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”
“Momma pass in Hollywood / If you ask, lost my soul / Driving fast, lost control / Off the road, jaw was broke”
The track’s urgency and atonal bear are the most reminiscent of ‘Yeezus’ that we hear on the LP, as well as pumped-up lines that see Kanye facing up to everyone from crooked cops to animal rights campaigners. Yeezy returning back to his freestyle roots will excite old school fans bewildered by everything he’s done post-808s & Heartbreak.
“I’ve been outta my mind a long time / I’ve be saying how I feel at the wrong time”
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”
“Seem like the more fame, I only got wilder / Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us”
“PETA’s mad cause I made a jacket outta possum / Awesome, Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin / Rich slave in the fabric store picking cotton”
‘Famous’ sees Kanye, both musically and lyrically, harking back to his earlier years. Interloping the ‘Wake Up, Mr West’ skit from his ‘Late Registration’ album and sampling Sister Nancy’s reggae staple ‘Bam Bam’, the rapper also looks back on all that he has changed about the world since his rise to fame. That includes, at least in Kanye’s mind, making Taylor Swift famous. Compared to her previous collaboration with West (‘FourFiveSeconds’), Rihanna’s cameo sadly fails to amount to anything memorable in this one.
Guests: Rihanna, Hudson Mohawke, Swizz Beatz
“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”
“Her man in the store tryna try his best / But he just can’t seem to get Kanye fresh”
Apt given its title, ‘Highlights’ is one of strongest tracks on the record. A bumper-length verse sees Kanye let loose on a record that feels at times restraining. ‘Highlights’ could sit next to anything on West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ but seems to have made it on the record in place of ‘No More Parties In LA’. Did Kanye make the right cut? Jury’s still out on that one.
Guests: Young Thug, The-Dream, Carole King
“I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain’t love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first / Only problem is I’m rich”
“21 Grammys superstar family / We the new Jackson’s and momma ’bout that action”
“I’ma bust a coach’s head open on some Diddy shit / If he ever talk to my son like an idiot”
Sampling Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack, the first half of ‘Feedback’ sounds like a nightmarish sequel to ‘Yeezus’ opener ‘On Sight’ as West repeatedly echoes the refrain “I need you right now”. Like many songs on the album, the track is cut short as Kanye dedicates the latter part of the song to his favourite subject: Kanye.
Guests: Mica Levi, maybe Travis Scott
“What if Kanye made a song about Kanye / Called ‘I miss the old Kanye’ / Man that would be so Kanye, that’s all it was Kanye / We still love Kanye and I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”
Having previously been leaked online, ‘Fade’ is a dancefloor filler with one of West’s best beats – and the most standout sample – on the album. The verses, however, don’t measure up. Post Malone’s guest spot doesn’t reach the heights of his surprise 2015 hit ‘White Iverson’, while Yeezy reels off throwaway lines like: “Roll up, roll up / Hold up, hold up / Po’ up, po’ up”. However, the infectiousness of the warped soul sample still makes it a hit.
Guests: Rare Earth, Post Malone, Ty Dolla $ign
“I love her, I want her / I’m tryna fuck her”
A guest spot from The Weeknd is a sure-fire that you’re releasing an album in 2015/2016. ‘FML’ isn’t one of the most memorable tracks on the record, even if it is the most likely to spawn a single. When a Kanye track is not the best song your guest star has ever featured on then you know something’s gone wrong.
Guests: The Weeknd
“I been waiting for a minute for my lady / So I can’t jeopardise that for one of these hoes”
‘Real Friends’ shows that West’s strength sometimes comes from when he addresses things true and real to him. Gone is the bravado as Kanye digs his nails into such universal themes as awkward family reunions, trust issues and his cousin stealing a laptop off him that had naked pictures on it.
Guests: Ty Dolla $ign, Havoc, Boi-1da, Frank Dukes
“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fuckin’ bitches on / Paid that nigga 250 thousand just to get it from him”
One of the few previously released tracks to find its way onto the record, the song originally featured Sia and Vic Mensa, but both appear to have been dropped from the latest version. Instead we get a stellar surprise guest spot from Frank Ocean, as Kanye compares his offspring to messiahs, with his haters the eponymous ‘wolves’.
Guests: Frank Ocean
“I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow / I know it’s corny niggas you wish you could unswallow”
“You tried to play nice everybody just took advantage / You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich”