The protracted and tempestuous road to the release of Kanye West’s seventh studio album remains one of the most notorious in rap history. West began working on the record in 2013 under the working title “So Help Me God,” promising a 2014 release date. In 2015, he changed the title to “SWISH,” only to revise it again a year later to “Waves.” These frequent alterations were coupled with numerous iterations of the LP’s tracklist and album art, as well as highly publicized Twitter scandals about West’s sensual feud with ex Amber Rose and his assertion of Bill Cosby’s innocence following copious sexual assault allegations against the comedian. When the record finally dropped under the title “The Life of Pablo” on Feb. 14, 2016, the arduous lead-up proved to be more enticing than exhausting—the album immediately prompted widespread contention, its kaleidoscopic contents mirroring the chaos surrounding its release.
“TLOP” was, at the time, West’s most polarizing album to date, which is no small feat. Kanye is no stranger to experimentation, yet his unparalleled perfectionism made even his boldest risks venerable. Ye proved that he could master, and even invent, genre after genre, from sparse, emotional electronica on “808s & Heartbreak” to lush stadium pop on “Graduation” to abrasive industrial rap on “Yeezus.” While I hold the opinion that no Kanye album is without its flaws—“Graduation” has “Drunk and Hot Girls,” and even magnum opus “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” has the second half of “Blame Game”—these misfires were anomalies in otherwise immaculate artworks.
With this in mind, it’s evident that Kanye could have produced a polished, untainted gospel-rap record, which is the sound that loosely holds “Pablo” together. Instead, he released an album that unabashedly displays all of Ye’s flaws as both a musician and a married father, making “TLOP” the most intimate, maddening and complex album of his career. The messiness of “Pablo” feels less shocking in light of West’s flagrant fall from grace during the summer of 2018, in which his ardent Trumpism, questionable self-diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and egregiously bland eighth record “Ye” led to widespread calls for him to be “cancelled.” However, in 2016, “Pablo” felt monumental in what marked the first time that Kanye’s art became just as combative and complicated as its creator.
“Pablo” was not only sensational for its vulnerability, but also because it effectively revolutionized the concept of the album. A month after the record’s release, Kanye declared that “Life Of Pablo is a living changing creative expression” (Twitter, @kanyewest, 03.15.2016). This effectively means that the initial contents of “TLOP” have since been altered considerably, from enhanced production to the addition of closing track “Saint Pablo.” As of now, it seems as though Ye has put this project behind him; the last update occurred in June of 2016. His unprecedented questioning of the album’s fixed nature, however, endures: artists such as Future and Young Thug have emulated West, allowing their records to evolve with time.
Although “TLOP” will likely always retain its unfinished quality, this does not render it an ineffective work. For example, the sublime opener “Ultralight Beam” is indubitably among the most opulent and poignant pieces of music that Kanye has ever written. The only other track that approaches “Ultralight Beam’s” technical perfection is fan-favorite “Waves,” but while the former is exhilarating, the latter is thoroughly dull. “Waves” feels cookie-cutter in comparison to the more flawed yet infinitely braver ideas that Kanye exhibits throughout the project.
That’s not to say that “Pablo’s” experiments are all, or even mostly, successful. The most glaring fault on this record is the tasteless and crass lyrics throughout, which often seem to ruin otherwise compelling songs. At times, the vulgarity of “Pablo” comes across as hilarious in its blatant stupidity, such as the infamous model/bleach line in the glorious “Father Stretch My Hands” sequence and the iconic Taylor Swift reference in “Famous.” Perhaps these insensitivities are tolerable due to their early placement on the album, because by the time the abysmal seventh track “Highlights” rolls around, Kanye’s middle school-esque lyricism already feels inexcusably excessive. Sexism and insolence are mainstays of West’s discography, but nowhere else is his obscenity this gratuitous and brazen.
West’s hedonistic treatment of sex and materialism is especially jarring given its juxtaposition with profound musings about family, religion, depression and morality, often within the same track. Why should Kanye’s most spiritual, personal, gospel-influenced record also be his most crude? The answer perhaps lies in the record’s album art, which appears shallow, sloppy and visually unappealing. The cover features a peachy orange background overlaid with two photos—one of a demure family on a wedding day, the other of a nude model—as well as dense text that repeats the title “The Life of Pablo” and the phrase “Which/One.” The record, then, can be thought of an exploration of Kanye’s inner conflict as he struggles to decide “Which/One”—righteousness or sin—he wishes to let define him. The ultimate takeaway is that no such dichotomy exists; despite Kanye’s former self-identification as a god, he, like the rest of humanity, is both humble and egotistical, profound and foolish, loving and lustful.
This balance is what makes “Pablo” such a fascinating document. Despite the garishness of “Highlights” and “Freestyle 4,” Ye delivers some of his most sentimental moments ever on album standouts “FML” and “Real Friends,” as well as late addition “Saint Pablo.” On the latter track, West opens up about his financial instability, crippling mental health issues, social media controversies and rocky relationships.
“TLOP” likely retains its reputation as a vapid record because it previously ended with “Fade,” a lively house track that is danceable yet devoid of emotion. The more effective conclusion comes on “Saint Pablo” when Kanye proclaims, “The ultimate Gemini has survived/I wasn’t supposed to make it past 25.” The “past 25” lyric is a reference to the “old Kanye”—it recalls bars from the track “We Don’t Care” from his debut record “The College Dropout.” However, both here and on the derisive freestyle “I Love Kanye,” West demonstrates that he has since evolved from the beloved naivete of his former pink-poloed persona. He now accepts that he is the “ultimate Gemini” in that he, like the zodiac sign, is notoriously multifaceted and unpredictable. Although many fans associate early Kanye with authenticity, on “Pablo,” Ye has finally embraced all that makes him such a captivating and disputed figure.
Of course, the once-admirable candor of “TLOP” is now more unsettling than refreshing. Since 2016, Kanye’s public image has transformed from “asshole genius” to simply “asshole.” What that means for “Pablo” in 2019 is the knowledge that we should view the record as neither a prodigy’s anomalous blunder nor an enlightening opus. Listening to Kanye fat shame his brother-in-law and disparage the looks of his ex-girlfriend makes clear that not everything West releases is a grand, brilliant artistic statement. The value of “The Life of Pablo” instead lies in its glimpse into the real Kanye: wholly problematic, heinously absurd and somehow endlessly alluring.