Kanye West’s avantground new album The Life Of Pablo (TLOP) is conspicuously free of David Bowie covers – so, chillax, irate petitioners, there will be no tirades at Nike mid-Rebel Rebel. Yet, befitting a postmodern pop auteur, West’s roll-out for TLOP – which he’s trumpeted as “not album of the year” but “album of the life” – has been bizarrely Dadaist.
Yeezy has aired successive singles – 2014’s arcadian hit Only One with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney since shed. And then he’s circulated multiple album titles: So Help Me God, SWISH, Waves and, last, TLOP.
The MC/producer/fashion designer premiered his eighth outing by playing it off laptop as the soundtrack to the Adidas Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. West jumped around while models stood motionless as part of an epic still life installation by controversial conceptual artist Vanessa Beecroft. It was all streamed online via Jay Z’s TIDAL (West is a stakeholder) and into cinemas globally. Now, following Rihanna with ANTI, Ye is utilising the divisive Tidal to share TLOP.
TLOP mirrors its chaotic creation – it’s an album refracted through digital culture. West virtually invented the producer/curator – and, here, he directs a cast on the scale of Beecroft’s. Even now TLOP is in flux, West updating the world through Twitter. There could be a dark aspect to the spectacle.
West’s former ghostwriter Rhymefest (Meek Mill alert!) has questioned his mental health. Ye appears indecisive. But, as underscored by the meta acappella I Love Kanye, a flashback to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this “genius” understands public perceptions. Is TLOP a masterpiece? Being fragmentary, it’s not easily discerned. Mind, it is an event.
Sonically, TLOP takes more cues from 2013’s Yeezus than anticipated – only it’s less electro-punk and more drill and coldwave. TLOP is hyper-textural. West deploys samples discordantly – deconstructing the soulful paradigm of 2004’s The College Dropout.
Freestyle 4, for which Hudson Mohawke has a studio credit, lifts its sinister strings from Goldfrapp’s early Human. Elsewhere, West, proud Chi-towner, dusts off old house classics (awesomely, Larry Heard’s Mystery Of Love on Fade). He’s even rediscovered auto-tune.
West has proclaimed TLOP a gospel album – ‘Pablo’ named for the apostle St Paul, in Spanish, but also a nod to drug lord (and Mafioso rap hero) Pablo Escobar and genius touchstone Pablo Picasso. But, like Jesus Walks, it’s profane – and tormented rather than joyful.
TLOP opens with the strangely seraphic Ultralight Beam – one of a trinity of songs with input from Yeezus‘ exec producer Rick Rubin. Kirk Franklin, urban contemporary gospel star, Kelly Price, and The-Dream form a choir over warped, drone church music. Nevertheless, Chance The Rapper (heard, too, on the restored track Waves) seizes the pulpit. The refrain, “This is a God dream”, is so Ye.
TLOP centres on fame, money and family. In the two-part Father Stretch My Hands, West worries that he’s emulating his dad, subsuming himself in work to the detriment of his relationships. With The Weeknd cameo-ing, FML (For My Lady) deals with West’s high-profile marriage to Kim Kardashian: he’s anxious to maintain fidelity – and sanctity from gossip-mongers. The ambitious hip-hopper occasionally sounds wistful, missing the ignominious life.
West has always been honest about his contradictions. Increasingly, he revels in polarising the public. West can be pedantic – and petty. Often it’s comic, but other times it’s invidious – as when he again targets Taylor Swift, despite the pair ostensibly having put 2009’s way-overblown MTV Video Music Awards incident behind them.
On the braggadocios Famous West raps, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” Far from a “joke”, it echoes Eminem’s sexist bullying. Unwittingly complicit, Rihanna sings Jimmy Webb’s Do What You Gotta Do, segueing into Nina Simone’s original.
West’s art hinges on the nexus of success and race – and his asserting creative freedom – but he’s rarely overtly political. However, the post-trap banger Feedback, on which West extols wealth maximisation and scorns those obstructionists and saboteurs known as haters, contains the ominous line, “Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us” – a reference to the killing of Ferguson’s Michael Brown.
The current incarnation of TLOP entails tracks West previously uploaded on SoundCloud for his reactivated GOOD Fridays program, including No More Parties In LA – Madlib’s authentic boom-bap with Ye and Kendrick Lamar swapping notes on fake people.
But, for West to make a ‘Greatest Of All Time’ album, he might learn something about temporality from, if not Bowie, then Lamar – whose To Pimp A Butterfly not only encapsulated the spirit of a reinvigorated Civil Rights movement but transcended it. With his missives at Swift and corporate foes Nike (FACTS) and gimmicky lines like Highlights’ “Blac Chyna fuckin’ Rob, help him with the weight”, West reveals how captive he is to fashion, trends and the media – that defined as ephemeral.
TLOP is a GOAT album with, paradoxically, a planned obsolescence. Hot – for today. Still, by conjuring such a phenom, West may be the greatest prophet and iconoclast of all.
Stream The Life Of Pablo here. (Tidal subscription required for full listen… ugh)