Sunday, 28 February 2016

THE LIFE OF PABLO Album Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____
Check it out... if you seek a well-produced, entertaining, laid-back hip-hop record from one of the most consistently impressive artists of the 21st century

Skip it... if you cannot stand tonal inconsistency over the course of an album, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo a myriad of ideas and sounds that sometimes doesn't gel as well as it should
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____

"[The Life of Pablo] is an enjoyable collection of tracks from one of the most creative hip-hop producers and performers to have ever lived."

Kanye West's seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, is an amalgamation of everything that makes him so uniquely influential. The tight samples, that draw inspiration, rhythm and melody from all corners of the musical world; featured performances from both fellow R&B and hip-hop artists, as well as gospel and soul vocalists; production credits which include everyone from Metro Boomin and Madlib, to Charlie Heat and frequent collaborator Rick Rubin. Most importantly, the contradictions and confliction that usually permeate his lyricism return, with more corniness attached than usual. This all makes for a record which serves as a callback to the days of old, yet has a distinctively modern edge that manifests in short bursts all throughout the admittedly unnecessary 58 minute length. The Life of Pablo is not the most concise West album; it's not the most bombastic; it's not the most reflective; and it's most certainly not the best. What it is is an enjoyable collection of tracks from one of the most creative hip-hop producers and performers to have ever lived. Nothing more; but certainly nothing less. 

And for what it is, it's impressive. It's hard to fault an album so rich with detail as The Life of Pablo with regards to instrumentation and arrangement. Kanye and his multitude of associates have constructed a rewarding record that begs for re-listens, to fully appreciate the density of what is available. On opener 'Ultralight Beam', we are treated to a jubilant five and a half minutes of warm organ progressions, chirpy brass, synth bass passages, distorted vocals, sweeping gospel choirs, and a pair of Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin features that will conjure vivid emotion from even the most tainted of hearts. A tapestry of sound this rich is something we've come to demand from Kanye, but the tone of this piece, and how passionately executed all the respective elements are, allow 'Ultralight Beam' to stand out as a bold new direction for the artist. On 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1' and 'Pt. 2', a sample of Pastor T.L Barrett's 'Father Stretch My Hands' has been flipped; the first part incorporating celebratory synths over the original piece; the latter playing Barrett's track alongside Desiigner's boom-bap power-anthem 'Panda'. Both culminate for a rousing five minute package. We have Nina Simone and Sister Nancy samples on the incredibly enjoyable 'Famous'; ultra-joyous electronics, piano and synth bass on 'Highlights'; an old-school Madlib beat for 'No More Parties In LA'. The level of quality evident when examining The Life of Pablo's production is clearly discernible, and it makes it incredibly easy to just let go and jam to the outrageously slick music available. 

In that sense, this record is comparable to Kanye's collaborative album with Jay Z, Watch The Throne; ridiculously expensive samples, complimented by West's melodic sensibilities and capacity for intelligent, detailed instrumental embellishment. The comparison also extends to the lyricism on both projects, many pundits having criticised West and Jay for self-congratulation on Watch The Throne. Here, the issue with The Life of Pablo is the variety of needlessly sexual and semi-misogynistic lines that can be found all throughout the running time. The most heavily rebuked passage, found on 'Famous', references the 2009 Taylor Swift VMA incident, and Kanye stating that he "made that bitch famous". It's instances like these where it is truly difficult to defend West, as despite the intention, the line isn't rendered particularly funny. On the other end of the spectrum, we have excerpts which completely contradict the mood of the production. On 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1', West raps "Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/And I get bleach on my T-shirt/I'mma feel like an asshole", on top of the aforementioned celebratory synths; it offers a stark juxtaposition of mood that doesn't prove justified.                 

That isn't to say that The Life of Pablo is wholly devoid of adept, intelligent lyricism. On '30 Hours', underneath a painfully gorgeous sample of Arthur Russell's 'Answers Me', West discusses driving to St. Louis from Chicago to meet up with his pre-fame girlfriend, Sumeke Rainey. His reflection on the relationship hits close to home, his retrospective take, expressed through lines like "You was the best of all time at the time though/Yeah, you wasn't mine though", serving as a bold contrast to the more lighthearted comedy infused into the track ("My ex says she gave me the best years of her life/I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right"). On 'No More Parties In LA', fellow artist Kendrick Lamar joins West to pen two of the finest verses of the past year. West steals the show, his three minute-long verse featuring boasts, disses, and subtle references that will provide fans with plenty of laughs. On one of the album's most exceptional forays, 'Real Friends', a despondent piano melody serves as the backdrop for an 808s and Heartbreak-esque confessional piece, Kanye criticising his own selfish actions, while simultaneously exploring the defeats and betrayals he has suffered over the course of his career; "When was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasn't in a hurry?" draws comparison to the similarly-themed 'Welcome To Heartbreak', which also scrutinized the lifestyle Kanye leads, and how he has had to sacrifice family for business in the past. Family also happens to play a part in the desolate 'FML'; 'I been feeling all I've given/For my children/I will die for those I love". On this song, he discusses both the temptations that threaten to undermine his relationship with his wife, Kim Kardashian ("I been waiting for a minute/For my lady/So I can't jeopardize that for one of these hoes"), and his desire to fully encapsulate and express his artistic vision ("I been thinking/About my vision/Pour out my feelings/Revealing the layers to my soul"). On the hook, The Weeknd makes an appearance, singing "They wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up/Can't let them get to me", communicating sentiments comparable to those found on 'Runaway', from his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; West refuses to allow the media and their relentless perversions to ruin him. 

On the "closer" (the final track prior to the dreadful 'Silver Surfer Intermission' segment), 'Wolves', Kanye makes a biblical analogy, representing himself as Joseph, and Kim as Mary, and describing his children, North ("Nori") and Saint, as innocents covered in wool. "Cover Nori in lambs' wool/We surrounded by the fuckin' wolves" he spits, drawing parallel to Matthew 7:15, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ferocious wolves". In these instances where Kanye is describing distrust and fear, we can draw a clear link to his previous record, Yeezus. The Kanye West we found on Yeezus was a man filled with contempt and suspicion, his accusations plentiful and insistent. Take into consideration the context for that album; Kim Kardashian was pregnant with their first child whilst writing and recording was taking place. Many of the ideas that populate Yeezus directly correlate to insecurity and fearfulness regarding fatherhood and responsibility; for example, on 'Blood on the Leaves', Kanye raps about a woman he accidentally got pregnant bringing about his downfall ("Then she said she impregnated, that's the night your heart died/Then you gotta go and tell your girl and report that"). This side of Kanye has dissipated in frequency on The Life of Pablo, as the first half of the album would demonstrate clearly, but these small bouts of sporadic anxiety still remain, just in a habitual manner. 

Despite what anyone says, there is a certain level of depth exhibited on The Life of Pablo. Is it as clearly denoted as it has been on his previous three solo records? Absolutely not. But that's what makes this album different to everything else in Kanye's discography, and re-establishes his penchant for reinvention. His inner-turmoil is exposed during short durations, but mostly, the record is West coming to terms with his life now. He is the father of two children, and thus, his outlook has shifted. Pablo is, ultimately, a statement on where he's been, and where he's going. It touches upon familiar ideas, like self-doubt and the culmination of fame, but never really explores these concepts with as much depth as we've seen from him in the past. On the satirical skit, 'I Love Kanye', he makes fun of the detractors who want him to go back to his roots ("I miss the old Kanye, straight from the 'Go Kanye/Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye"), and return to the man he once was ("I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye/The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye"). The point he's making here perfectly summarizes The Life of Pablo as a whole; he is not that man anymore. His contradictions and conflictions remain, but he's been through too much to return to what he once was. The only way is forward. This more laid-back approach to music sounds fresh to the ears of a Kanye fan; it sounds happy. There are dark patches attached, but The Life of Pablo's defining feature is its gaiety. Listening to 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1', it's not hard to imagine a smile adorning Kanye's face as he looks on from behind the mixing desk, during the recording of Kid Cudi's marvellous hook: "Beautiful morning, you're the sun in my morning babe/Nothing unwanted". Its been eight years or so, but I'm glad to have you back, happy Kanye, for your sake at the very least. You can purchase/stream The Life of Pablo on Tidal exclusively, here.

8.4        

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ____

Additional notes about release: there is currently no release slated for Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, or any other services that aren't Tidal. 


Track Listing

1.Ultralight Beam 5:20
2.Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1  2:15
3.Pt. 2 2:09
4.Famous 3:14
5.Feedback 2:35
6.Low Lights 2:11
7.Highlights 3:19
8.Freestyle 4 2:02
9.I Love Kanye 0:44
10.Waves 3:01
11.FML 3:56
12.Real Friends 4:11
13.Wolves 3:59
14.Silver Surfer Intermission 0:56
15.30 Hours 5:25
16.No More Parties In LA 6:14
17.Facts (Charlie Heat Version) 3:19
18.Fade 3:14
Total Album Time:58:04