Drug lord Escobar, pioneering artist Picasso or great poet Neruda? Kanye West’s seventh album ‘The Life Of Pablo’ sounds like all three. Dangerous, sparse, surreal, disjointed, hyper-realistic, cokey and constantly second-guessing its audience, it’s a carnival of self-portrait that accurately depicts the psychic confusion of its author simply by being, itself, slightly confused.
West’s last album ‘Yeezus’ sold less than the one before that, 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, and there’s been talk that part of the reason for ‘…Pablo’’s fraught gestation was that Ye was looking for some commercial Miracle-Gro to sprinkle on it. That both the Paul McCartney team-ups ‘Only One’ and ‘FourFiveSeconds’ have been scrapped suggest otherwise. If anything, ‘…Pablo’ is the sound of an artist going even more cubist in a two-dimensional pop world.
It’s an album on which, at a moment’s notice, Kanye veers from futuristic beats on the likes of ‘Feedback’ to bog-standard modern trap – as when Atlanta rapper Young Thug turns up on ‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2’ – to vintage soul on ‘Ultra Light Beam’. And as befits an album whose tracklisting was publicly rejigged 24 hours before it finally launched, there’s not much internal logic to connect these baubles.
When he’s not offering sex to Taylor Swift on ‘Famous’, he’s writing light sabres of familial devotion on ‘Wolves’ (“I impregnate your mind, let’s have a baby without fucking, yo”). On ‘30 Hours’, he pulls off the most masterful of these high-low art juxtapositions by taking a sample of cult New York oddball Arthur Russell’s ‘Answer Me’ to get nostalgic about his own frailties (“I hit the gym, all chest no legs”).
It’s the sort of introspection ‘The Life Of Pablo’ could do with more of. On ‘Real Friends’, for instance, he names something very adult about the passage of time and the inevitable parting of ways that fatherhood brings: “I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was/Couldn’t tell you how old your son is /I got my own junior on the way, dawg”. Neither bitter nor blithe, it shows a novelist’s eye.
Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense of a man so immersed in his talents he thinks his very shit is golden. The genuinely brilliant and the merely good sip the same sizzurp at this LA party, and the postmodern LOLs of ‘I Love Kanye’, the tedious skit ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’, the needless Nike throwdown of ‘Facts’, the heaving guest-list that leaves our protagonist waiting in the wings too often and the head-scratch of mid-90s commercial house that closes things out on ‘Dare’ are all unwelcome guests.
More an obscure self-portrait than a Picasso masterpiece, ‘The Life Of Pablo’ retains its author’s status as the most interesting man in music. But he makes it seem like harder work than the effortlessness we’re used to.
- Record label: GOOD, Def Jam