Part I: The Background
The Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s 7th studio album, not counting Watch the Throne (his collaboration album with mentor Jay-Z) and Cruel Summer (a compilation album featuring the roster of Kanye’s GOOD Music label). The era accompanying this album officially kicked off with the release of the single Only One, a soulful, melodic collaboration with Beatle Paul McCartney. 2015 saw the release of two other tracks resulting from the collaboration between two of music’s most talented innovators: the acoustic ballad FourFiveSeconds (which was, for the most part, a Rihanna track) and the trap-influenced banger All Day. After the release of these singles, however, Kanye went silent. The actual album wouldn’t be released until 2016–and its release would be chaotic, unprecedented, and altogether legendary.
Kanye premiered the album during a live event at Madison Square Garden, during which he also unveiled his latest fashion offerings. The premiere was a bit of a mess and left many fans scratching their heads. At this point, the album was unfinished (Kanye had been frequently posting updates to the album’s title and tracklist on Twitter prior to the event), and made for a less than satisfactory listen. The absolute nadir of this event was when it devolved into Kanye passing around an aux cable to allow his collaborators to show off their own tracks. Still, fans eagerly anticipated an official release following the premiere… but nothing came.
Two days later, after a performance on Saturday Night Live, Kanye finally released the album as a Tidal exclusive. Even then, the album was unfinished. Over the next couple months, Kanye proceeded to tweak the album, changing components of the instrumentals, altering or adding a new line here or there, and adding background vocals and additional instrumentation. The various iterations of the album had many likening it to a video game or software release, with each update being the equivalent of a patch. And of course, the existence of alternate versions of the album (as well as tracks like Only One, All Day, and Feel Like That, which were left off the album), led fans to rearrange the album themselves in order to come up with an ideal tracklist that suited their personal preferences. The idea of fans rearranging the bits and pieces of an album isn’t a new one; Beach Boys fans have been doing this for years with the legendary SMiLE album. But what this goes to show is that if the album could be summed up in a single word, that word is incohesive.
Part II: The Music
Ultralight Beam: The album kicks off with one of its strongest tracks. “Ultralight Beam” captures the gospel theme better than any other song on the album; not only are Kanye’s and Chance the Rapper’s verses highly spiritual, but the song also features immaculate choir vocals, a soulful verse sung by Kelly Price, and a spoken word sermon by Kirk Franklin. Kanye’s vocals on this track are understated–he provides a simple yet effective melody to capture the mood of the song. Chance steals the spotlight here with what may go down as one of the greatest verses of all time; he has wordplay, he has flow, and he has dynamics (the verse builds to an explosive climax as he remarks “I laugh in my head ’cause I bet that my ex lookin’ back like a pillar of salt”). The reversed chords that drive the song are both solemn and haunting, evoking spirituality while also being ominous. The only blemish on this otherwise perfect track is Mike Dean’s mastering. The choir vocals distort–heavily. This decision was intentional, but it sounds terrible on headphones nevertheless. But that’s best left to the aesthetic portion of the review. RATING: 10/10
Father Stretch My Hands Part 1: While Ultralight Beam may best represent the intended theme of the album, “FSMH Part 1” best represents the actual theme of the album. The song jarringly contrasts spirituality with debauchery. The backing vocals, sample, and chorus (beautifully sung by Kid Cudi in one of his best vocal performances to date) are altogether uplifting and positive. This is contrasted with Kanye’s autotuned verse, which he kicks off with one of his most laughed at lyrics to date: “Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-Shirt / I’ma feel like an asshole.” But that’s precisely what makes this song so incredible. Kanye’s previous album, Yeezus, was a musical joke that, if you understood Kanye and the intention behind his vulgar irreverence, you were in on. The Life of Pablo, particularly on songs like this one, captures that same irreverence while adding an element of musicality. Instead of being bolstered by dissonant industrial screeches, Kanye’s careless arrogance is laid on top of some of the most melodic, accessible tracks he’s put together to date. RATING: 10/10
Father Stretch My Hands Part 2: The aforementioned irreverence carries over to Part 2. Here, Kanye hits us with an emotional verse where he touches on subjects such as his neglectful father, his near-fatal car crash, and his mother’s untimely death. This is, logically, followed by Desiigner’s incoherent mumbling about “broads in Atlanta” and Black X6s (Phantom!). And yet… it works. Kanye is a master at pulling off this kind of contrast; the song manages to be an energetic banger while simultaneously being a moody, introspective piece. At the end of the track, Kanye takes a modular approach, abruptly splicing in the sample used in Part 1. Sandwiched in between that, is a processed vocal by Caroline Shaw, which blends in perfectly despite having nothing to do with the track so far. Of course, the song does lose some points for the fact that Kanye essentially just took Desiigner’s hit “Panda” and slapped his verse on top of it, but the song really does feel at home on this album despite its jarring nature. RATING: 9.5/10
Famous: “For all my southside niggas that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous!” The radio-friendly and yet not-so-radio-friendly masterpiece of the album. The song features a straightforward yet catchy drum beat, laid down by Havoc of Mobb Deep. Splice in a Nina Simone sample (the reason the song was initially titled Nina Chop), an interpolation of that sample by Rihanna, and ad-libs by hype man Swizz Beats, throw one of Kanye’s most scathing and irreverent verses on top of it (the Taylor Swift line in particular netting him quite a bit of controversy), and you have “Famous”. This track is another perfect example of disparate elements blending together to form a perfect whole; the chorus is catchy and emotionally resonant, the verses are bizarre and vulgar, the beat is banging, and the chopped up sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” that concludes the song is one of the best moments of Kanye’s entire career. RATING: 10/10
Feedback: The most Yeezus-esque song on the album. The track is punctuated by a blaring siren backed by industrial drums (and in the updated version, a thumping bass synth). One of the more lyrically satisfying cuts on the album, “Feedback” is a hype track that manages to accomplish exactly what it sets out to. It doesn’t really fit into the album’s overarching theme, but it is probably the most fun you’re going to have listening to a song from this album (this reviewer still has yet to grow tired of the comical “Ghetto Oprah” segment). Unfortunately, the updated version of this track cuts back on some of the synths, making for a much less engaging listen. RATING: 7.5/10
Lowlights: An interlude that sets the mood for the next track. The piano chords, backed by a thumping bassline, create an intense, suspenseful atmosphere that is resolved only when this song ends and the next begins. The vocal sample, lifted from a eurodance track, relates back to the gospel theme of the album; the female vocalist delivers a heartfelt ode to God, albeit one which drags on for a little too long. The song perfectly sets the mood for the following track, and thus functions well as a transition, but is a little lacking due to the fact that it meanders for over two minutes. RATING: 2/3
Highlights: A standout track for 3 reasons: 1) Kanye delivers one of his greatest melodies during the chorus, the robotic tone of the processed vocals contributing to the futuristic atmosphere created by the track. He takes full advantage of the Autotune here, using the effect to accentuate and punctuate his vocals rather than simply to correct his pitch. 2) Contrast the chorus with Kanye’s lazy use of autotune during the verse, where he simply slaps the effect over a vaguely melodic rap–this is exactly how NOT to use the effect. But it’s that comedic irreverence from Yeezus coming into play yet again. The GoPro lyric is so obscene and ill-suited to the overall mood of the song that you just have to laugh. Ditto for Kanye’s rap verse, during which he takes shots at Ray J for his song Hit It First. 3) Those synths. When the chorus kicks in for the second time, it’s accompanied by some of the most beautiful, soaring synths I’ve ever heard—the soundscape evokes an image of an urban metropolis, a futuristic city floating above the clouds. The sound hearkens back to Kanye’s production on Graduation. RATING: 10/10
Freestlye 4: Here’s an example of a song made better in later iterations. Another explicit song about sex, Freestlye 4 is lacking both in lyrical content and in production value. In fact, the whole song pretty much revolves around a haunting, ominous Goldfrapp sample. Still, there’s a primal quality to Kanye’s vocals that add a perhaps contrived depth to the song; Kanye is questioning the way we perceive sexuality as unnatural, just as Paul McCartney did so many years ago with “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. Or, you know, maybe it’s just a terrible freestyle. Desiigners autotuned tag isn’t exactly pleasant, though it does ramp up the tension towards the end of the song. The eerie piano parts and backwards samples added in the updated version do contribute to the atmosphere of the track, making for a somewhat more involving listen. RATING: 7/10
I Love Kanye: Kanye getting meta. An ode to everyone who thinks he peaked with The College Dropout, or Late Registration, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. When I first heard this track during the MSG premier, I couldn’t help but smile. This track is, as the lyrics state, so Kanye. RATING: 3/3
Waves: A last-minute addition to the album. We have Chance to thank for this song’s inclusion, and thank him we must. The chopped up choir sample creates a heavenly atmosphere, used as the backdrop for this gorgeous, uplifting track. Chris Brown delivers one of the best vocal performances on a Kanye album–the soaring chorus alone makes this track worthwhile. Kanye’s verse, penned by Chance, I believe, is heartfelt and resonant, as is the overall message of the song: Waves don’t die (we live on in the memories and feelings of those we made an impression on). Of course, Kanye starts the track by rapping about his favourite subject: his genitals. Seriously. I defend his irreverence and humour a lot on this album, but in this case, his introductory verse simply mars an otherwise excellent track. There’s also the fact that the instrumental drags on for a little long, with nothing but Kid Cudi’s humming and Chris Brown’s vocal freestyling to sustain it, but there’s a distinct charm to the incomplete nature of the tune. RATING: 9/10
FML: Kanye concludes the album with a trio of melancholic, introspective tracks. If we’re tying this one back into the main theme of the album, this track represents confession. Kanye opens up about his infidelity, his mental issues, and most importantly, his vulnerability. His insecurity is accentuated by The Weeknd’s lament-like chorus, which twists this insecurity into something empowering. “Even though I always fuck my life up / Only I can mention me.” Even if he’s a materialistic sinner, only Kanye is able to judge Kanye. The raw emotionality of the tag, sung by Kanye over a pitched-up sample of Section 25’s “Hit” serves as the breathtaking climax of the song—you hear his voice cracking and his cries becoming unintelligible as he pours out his soul. RATING: 10/10
Real Friends: Another somewhat confessional song. The drums on this track echo those on Famous, but this time they’re overlaid with sombre, subdued piano chords. This also happens to be one of the most relatable and emotionally moving tracks in Kanye’s ouvre; on “Real Friends”, Kanye laments the shallow and fickle nature of relationships between so-called friends and how those relationships tend to dissolve over time. Anyone’s who’s ever had a friend that suddenly became “too busy” to make time to hang out or even just chat or anyone who’s ever had a friend call them up only to ask for a favour can relate. The harmonies on the chorus, sung by Ty Dolla $ign, are immensely satisfying. But most importantly, the haunting vocals that conclude the track perfectly segue into the album closer. RATING: 9/10
Wolves: WHICH / ONE? The Wolves Kanye “fixed”? For those not in the know, “Wolves” was premiered months before the album release and featured verses by Vic Mensa and Sia. When TLOP dropped on Tidal, the guest verses (and the marching-band-like drums at the end of Kanye’s verse) were dropped in favour of a rapped verse by Kanye where he spits lyrical gold such as “You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich” and “I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow / I know it’s corny niggas you wish you could unswallow.” It’s understandable why some people would be upset with the verse, which kills the mood of this otherwise heartfelt expression of pain. Kanye expresses disappointment in himself, wondering what his mother would think were she around to see how he turned out. Kanye’s rap verse, in this reviewers opinion, treads that thin line between humorous and obnoxious; while some may find it off-putting, I actually loved its abrasiveness. Now, the updated version adds back Vic Mensa’s and Sia’s verses (albeit truncated versions) and (for no good reason) removes Frank Ocean’s tag (this became its own song entitled “Frank’s Track”). It’s a powerful, melodic song that’s in line with some of the Paul McCartney material and hints at what the album might have been had Kanye not shifted gears after All Day didn`t get that warm of a reception. RATING: 10/10
Frank’s Track: Now its own track, the original ending to Wolves once again serves as the perfect outro to the album. It`s great to hear from Frank, even if the reverberation suggests that he recorded his verse in the bathroom. RATING: 3/3
Bonus Tracks: Then there are the bonus tracks. I consider Frank’s Track to be the end of the album proper (Kanye clearly states in 30 Hours that the rest of the tracks on the album are bonus tracks), and so I wasn’t going to factor them into the album’s score… BUT Kanye had to upset me by not releasing a physical (which could’ve clarified the situation by clearly labelling the remainder of the album as bonus material). So I’m going to make these songs count… to a degree. The album proper will comprise 75% of the “Music” mark, while the bonus tracks will comprise the remaining 5%.
Silver Surfer Interlude: Yeezy, Yeezy, what’s good? This is basically a Wiz Khalifa diss–Wiz called Kanye out for considering naming his album “Waves”, since rapper Max B apparently has a monopoly on that word. Lo and behold, Kanye decided to include a recorded phone call in which Max B expresses his support for Kanye; he’s a “wavy dude” who knows how to “keep it loopy”. This track is so stupid and pointless that it became a meme among Kanye fans. And if you happen to be one, the comedic factor alone makes this track a highlight. RATING: 3/3
30 Hours: Some solid verses from Kanye reflecting on old relationships. Kanye uses one of his trademark tactics here of twisting a vocal sample to make it sound like the singer is saying something other than what they’re actually saying. This song is also the album’s biggest tease; Andre 3000 provides backing vocals but doesn’t actually spit a verse. The ad libs at the end of the track are reminiscent of the track “Last Call” from The College Dropout, except for the fact that they’re, you know, terrible. RATING: 7.5/10
No More Parties In L.A.: Kanye’s best track lyrically in years. No, really. He OUTSHINES KENDRICK LAMAR on this track. Madlib delivers as usual with the beat, which revolves around a sample from the song “Suzie Thundertussy”. This is a bit of Old Kanye for the fans. We get an explanation for the album title here: “I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my shoes / I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news / I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my house.” There are 3 Pablos in question: Pablo Picasso (the artist), Pablo Escobar (the criminal), and just plain old Pablo (the Latin American stereotype). According to Kanye, Pablo also refers to Saint Paul. So Kanye is all of those things at once: an artist, a notorious person, a saint, but also just a regular human being. RATING: 9/10
FACTS: A throwaway that got tacked onto the end of the album for no logical reason. The updated beat, however, salvages the track (the original Soundcloud release isn’t as engaging), in which Kanye calls out Nike and brags about Kimoji making “a million a minute”. RATING: 4/10
Fade: This song would be a great album closer if it weren’t so… bare. Even more bizarre is the fact that this song was released as a single. The updated version was even more underproduced, dropping the hi-hats that originally livened up the instrumental during the verses and abruptly cutting off the vocal sample mid-word. I say was because we’ve since reverted back to the first version. Post Malone’s autotuned verse alone makes this song worthy of inclusion, though. RATING: 7.5/10
Saint Pablo: The latest addition to the album. This is one of Kanye’s meta tracks, where he raps about everything from his debt, to how many people torrented the album. I’m not really a fan of the chorus, sung by Sampha, and the lyrics kind of come with an expiration date. This isn’t that great a song, to be honest, but some do consider it to be a return to form lyrically (personally, I don’t think it comes anywhere near No More Parties in L.A.). RATING: 7/10
Part III: The Album
Aesthetic: I’m a little split here. On the one hand, the album art doesn’t have much appeal. It doesn’t capture the mood of the album at all… unless we consider that comedic irreverence that I mentioned. In that case, the album cover PERFECTLY encapsulates the album: it’s a jarring, random, incohesive, abstract mess. Either that, or it was thrown together at the last second just like everything else. The production is solid and perfectly fits with the tone of the album. The mastering is a little on the loud end and leaves something to be desired (see my complaints about “Ultralight Beam”). SCORE: 4/5
Artistic Merit: Another tough one. How much of the artistic merit of this album is based on my subjective interpretation verses Kanye’s intent (i.e. am I giving him too much credit for the album’s sloppiness)? But then again, can that not be said for any piece of art? This album doesn’t really innovate musically; it takes the abrasiveness of Yeezus and adds melody to it. But there is the whole “living, breathing work of art” thing–the concept of “album patches” is pretty revolutionary. The gospel theme kind of falls apart if you place it under too much scrutiny, but it does hold together much better than you might think (and certainly a lot better than Sgt. Pepper’s “concept”, which is abruptly dropped after 2 songs). This does, however, represent the next stage in Kanye’s evolution, and it does represent Kanye taking a new and exciting direction with his music. Yeah, you know what, this is peak Kanye. SCORE: 5/5
Flow: Okay, I started this review by calling the album incohesive. BUT, as I’ve stated numerous times, that’s kind of the point. Actually, it works as an album quite well as long as you consider “Wolves” to be the actual ending. Which I did… until Saint Pablo was tacked onto the end of the album. Now I’m not so sure. So I’ll have to deduct a few points for lack of cohesion. SCORE: 8/10
CLOSING REMARKS: The Life of Pablo is sure to be polarizing like 808s and Yeezus before it. It isn’t really as much of an artistic statement as those two albums. But nevertheless, there’s something addicting about it. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but it pretty much perfectly encapsulates the phenomenon that is Kanye West. The songs are catchy and experimental at the same time, and so the album has an incredibly high replay value. So while my score may not reflect it, know that in my eyes, this album is a perfect 30/10.
FINAL SCORE: 90/100