I am not an art critic. Having read a few reviews of “The Life of Pablo” it’s difficult for a lay person to understand just what the fuck they are trying to say sometimes. Throwing around words like “bricolage” is all well and good, but applying the rules of one world (art) cannot always translate perfectly to another (hip-hop). I go to museums. I like art. I see that shit and nod in appreciation. But as far as I can see, this is still a hip-hop album that Kanye West has delivered, even if the package is half-open and partially unfinished (clearly this is meant to be part of the fun/journey).
The roots of “T.L.O.P.” are more “Madvillainy” than Picasso (and West himself said that the “Pablo” refers to the Apostle Paul). In the original version played at his boldly brilliant Madison Square Garden listening party, it was difficult to differentiate which track belonged to which song, as two minute snippets bled into other ones, almost like a highly kinetic old school DJ turntablist mixtape (the twenty second “How can I find you?” outro to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2” is the kind of genial inclusion that few could master). If you unstitched every track separately, and listed them all out, it would look rather similar to that Madvillain masterpiece released just a month after “The College Dropout” – a similar length too before the second batch of tracks (which frankly all feel like bonus cuts, with “No More Parties in LA” produced by MADLIB HIMSELF) were added.
Kanye West is a genius – but at this point, it isn’t entirely clear where it actually lies. He was entering national art competitions at the age of 14, he was chopping up beats at the age of 19, he’s got 21 Grammy awards but is truly obsessed with fashion, and he’s a master manipulator of the media. He knows how to create a feeding frenzy better than almost anyone else. He’s realized that you can play the world like a violin, and all you need is someone editing your pre-planned Twitter rants (what a contrast to my review of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” which seems comparatively quaint, now).
It’s funny that a few years back, people started calling him Puff Daddy 2.0 – and now, he openly says that Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs “is the most important cultural figure in my life. His influence means everything to me.” Yeah, we figured that like 8 years ago. The thing is none of this is particularly new – this piece by piece scrapbook is essentially “The Collage Dropout” in format, and the album rollout which seemed botched was actually the hot sauce to the whole damn thing (again, call me cynical but perhaps it was partially planned this way).
As for the album itself, it’s mostly an act of self-sabotage: this COULD have been a 9.0 scoring, easily. There is a loosely interesting narrative (if you look hard enough) and when it hits, it hits hard. But the lyrics are a real letdown at times, with plenty of lines comfortably settling into the Top 10 Clunkers of West’s career – truly, a litany of abysmal attempts at humor making what could have been a joyous return into the unbelievably cringe worthy (the transition from jaw-dropping opener “Ultralight Beam” to Kid Cudi’s glorious chorus in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1” is ruined by West’s opening bars about the rear grooming regime of a model).
Yes there are glimpses of personal details and some solid flows – plus some moments of genuine charm (“I Love Kanye”). But too much of it detracts from the soulfulness, the excitement and the meaning – and that’s me being LENIENT on West. Again, on “Wolves” there is some glorious imagery, be it the “Mary in the club” theme or his children covered in lambswool, and it’s ruined by the admittedly “corny… swallow/unfollow” nonsense.
You have interludes to rectify situations such as the “Wavy” PR disaster – and now it turns out that French Montana had to explain to Kanye just who Max B is… Well, can he tell me too? Cos fuck knows who he is, what “Wavy” even means and why the song “Waves” was subsequently included anyway (it’s a fish out of water, not a bridge, and disrupts the flow of TLOP). A fan favorite such as “Fade” is like a happy catwalk model – taken from front and centre, and shoved right to the back, just to be contrary and fit in something like “30 Hours” which is barely worth a Good Fridays release. The aforementioned “No More Parties in LA” is also tacked on, and while it’s a perfectly good song, it doesn’t fit the remit and West should have stuck to his guns – TLOP was fine just the way it was before he started tinkering.
The evidence lies in the vast majority of the ‘original’ album: there are wonderful moments like “Real Friends” and “FML” (the breakdown on the latter is just perfect); “Feedback” is a fun motivational anthem, and contrasts well with much darker fare like “Freestyle 4”; “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2” is a surprisingly dope ripping of an extremely recent breakout hit (“Panda”) that West co-opts with intelligence. A song like “Ultralight Beam” is one of the best the Ye has ever put to wax, shit could get an atheist going to church, even if his own part is actually fairly limited (with Chance the Rapper doing a sterling job). The musical choices are also deceptively impressive, with so many tiny BRUSHSTROKES (there’s my fucking art reference) that only reveal themselves on repeated listening. And yet, this seems as far from a gospel album as one could imagine – at least in the traditional sense. With tighter lyrics, less stupidity, and sticking to the original tracklisting, “The Life of Pablo” could well have been one of his Top 3 albums.
But it’s not. No amount of hype will change that. No tweet will convince me that this is a 30 out of 10 album. The fact is that West lost his nerve, and it snowballed from there. “The Life of Pablo” is incredibly interesting, yes – but it’s just not what it could/should have been. There is a reason that editing takes place in private, and a truly finished product is then released to the public: “Real artists ship” as Steve Jobs said. Do you know what would have been the best course of action? The dopest, realest thing would have been to have a final version, then play it in full at the album launch, and release THAT on Tidal, complete with the crowd noise.
Watching on or listening back to the rips from that Madison Square Garden launch, West missed a trick. There was a moment at the end of “Ultralight Beam” when the beat stops and the choir suddenly screams. Well, the mix was turned back up to capture the audience, and their reaction was spine-tingling, and models were crying and shit, my mind was already blown at that point… That would have captured the lightning in a bottle, and given the transitory a true permanence. But in the end (assuming this is the end, and there are no final revisions), the truth of the matter is that another botched album launch by Tidal just two weeks earlier still resulted in a superior album.
Rihanna’s “ANTI” is risky, contrary and had a similar gestation period, not to mention a troubled release. Kanye West was even the Executive Producer for most of the time, until Rihanna probably had enough and did it herself. Well, she shipped a fully formed album that I vastly prefer. It’s not perfect, but she gave all of her love and attention to it, with the results speaking for themselves. “The Life of Pablo” has a lot going for it, but sometimes, even with all the best intentions, you can mess up a good thing just by virtue of being yourself.