To say Kanye West is a divisive figure is an understatement, he is a man who brings forth equal measures of both passion and hatred amongst millions. But also one who sells millions of records and has created some of the most unique and incredible hip hop records of the past 15 years. In my view Kanye West is a man who has knowingly turned his life into art, created a character and to some extent become that character. His life is a vortex of meta-narrative swirling ever faster and tighter with the distinctions between reality and story line growing ever more lost like Dorothy being whisked from Kansas to Oz.
As far as album launches go Kanye certainly played the showman: a fashion show, an album launch, twitter melt-downs, two days of delays and eventual exclusive release on Tidal. Mr West has been the ultimate hype man, but beneath and away from this how does the record hold up.
The Life of Pablo starts off slow and dark and introspective, words you often associate with Kanye West and not an unexpected start to a Yeezy album. Ultra Light Beam is the stand out of the first three tracks with soulful vocals, stretched bassy sythns and the repeated refrain of: “This is a God Dream” Chance the Rapper also contributes a stand out verse. It’s a great start and not that uncoventional, which given Kanye’s last two albums is a surprise. However, from here things get very weird.
Famous starts off as a traditional hip-pop song with Rihanna vocals and heavy bass kicking-in around the two min mark this is coupled with a Kanye rap .As soon Kanye has shouted his bars, the track breaks down with a sample of Bam Bam by Nina Simone taking up the remainder of the track in a thrilling way as grime style shout outs pop over the top.
Feedback starts unexpectedly with feedback before experimental beats kick in, the beats are some of the strongest on the album and feature a Sandy Rivera sample. This sample isn’t the first or last from a house legend on the album and it is very clear that Kanye has been taking in the history of Detroit and Chicago’s electronic music scenes prior to the release of the Life of Pablo. The track ends with West making his political statement on recent police shootings in the USA through a chant of: “The Police taught us hands up” which is repeated till close.
Lowlights and Highlights oddly feel incomplete both feature soulful samples but as soon as things get started on each track they are quickly closed out. Here in lies one of the downsides of the album, there are some great ideas on show but Kanye doesn’t allow all of them to fully develop. Much of this you feel is intentional to create an aggressive, jarring and confrontational experience for the listener, this is achieved much to the annoyance of some critics.
Freestyle 4 features dark strings, experimental beats and some of Kanye’s best rapping in a long time. Waves follows and is one of the tracks that has courted most controversy on the album seeing Kanye and Wiz Khalifa publicly fall out, this distraction is a shame because it is a strong track with brilliant production from Hudson Mohawke.
FML and Real Friends see a return to dark introspection with Yeezy looking into his own failings and also to those who have hurt him in the past. As tracks they provide insights into the character of Kanye although how much of that you can believe and distinguish as the truth is now almost impossible to know.
Wolves is one of the few tracks here to have already been released although the Life of Pablo version differs from that of the single and features and a guest spot from the increasingly illusive Frank Ocean it’s great stuff and Frank’s voice is as alluring as ever.
30 hours and No More Parties in L.A have been up on Kanye’s soundcloud for awhile now as part of his Good Friday music project. The latter is the stronger and features some great verses from Kendrick Lamar who puts in perhaps the strongest rap performance on the record.
Facts again has previosuly appeared with its bizzare Bill Crosby reference, however look beyond this and the beats are stellar, head nodding and built to be blasted at full volume. There is real anger locked in Kanye’s flow as well and it is one of the most aggressive tracks on the album.
The clsoing track Fade however for me is the real stand out with brilliant house samples from Robert Owens and Louis Vega much of the feel of the track echoes the warehouse rave scenes of the 80s and 90s including samples, basslines and vocals, all of this produces a strong close to the album.
The Life of Pablo is a fractured sounding album which intentionally sets out to challenge and confront the listener. However, you are rewarded with repeated listening as samples, broken beats and vocal snaps become clearer. The list of samples, producers and guest vocalists is endless and one suspects will be a list that attracts much analysis over the next few months. Suffice to say on the producer front Hudson Mohawke, Cashmere Cat and DJ Dodger Stadium put in strong turns though you get the feeling that despite all the features and samples it is Kanye’s hand that guides and directs everything. This leves the impression that The Life of Pablo like the Life of Kanye is really his own personal art project. However with such strong and intriguing material this is no bad thing.