Whether or not you particularly like the guy, it can’t be denied that Kanye West has been one of the most influential artists of all time, releasing 4 unanimous classics (6 to those who might favour 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus). Meaning, if Kanye was never to drop an album again, he would still hold legendary status. These albums attained this status by critics and fans alike by directly influencing the genre of Hip-Hop. The College Dropout was a triumphant pink-polo-wearing rebellion against the gun-toting-cocaine-slanging era that was getting progressively stale, Late Registration was the next step of a humble, shockingly introspective artist that was beginning to make a name for himself as outspoken as he was talented. Graduation marked the climax of Mr. West’s career as a project that was refreshingly glorious and an evolution from his brutal honesty to a sober confidence depicting a romantic Hip-Hop story of the underdog coming out on top.
Throughout this process, Kanye was able to transform a genre that was once fixated on only including an underrepresented population in America, to something that was relatable to anyone – white, black, brown, rich and poor alike, without compromising its integrity. Mainstream Hip-hop was no longer about machoism and violence, it was about being a human.
But as the cliché saying goes: “all good things come to an end”, and it did in the worst way possible for Ye. Soon after Graduation was released, Kanye’s mom died and he seemed to spiral out control, from apparently being on suicide watch to the infamous Taylor Swift incident. The fickleness of fans proved to be insurmountable. Despite his repertoire, he was now nothing more than an arrogant fool, the kind of celebrity everyone loved to mock.
And then Kanye did the impossible. For the second time in his career, he was the underdog that came on top, dropping another classic. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy presented itself as an in-your-face masterpiece honing this arrogance that everyone came to despise. But perhaps the woes of Hubris can’t be avoided forever, and Kanye soon found himself in a slump. His cockiness became almost tedious at this point, lashing out in interviews (most notably, “You don’t know the answer Sway!”), while blatantly doing anything he could to get attention.
And then Yeezus dropped – a polarizing album that split his fans. While some supported it as a satiric criticism of consumer culture and the racism and classicism prevalent in the United States, others took it to be a bust, nothing more than a megalomaniac screaming subpar lyrics over mediocre beats with the exception of a few of the songs.
However, despite what was going on, I had a feeling all of this nonsense was going to come to an end soon and Ye would come out on top, and I was right – well, partially.
The release of his most recent album was a complete mess, as Kanye changed the name and track listing constantly, eventually settling on “The Life of Pablo” and chose to only drop it on Tidal, that app Jay-Z owns that nobody really understands. Whether intentional or not, the process of the release parallels the theme of the album (or lack of).
Basically, this album is a disorienting mess of everything we’ve seen from Kanye ever since the College Dropout. At its best, it sounds like a disturbed patient eloquently explaining their sorrows to a therapist. On the tracks “FML” and “Real Friends” for example, songs that might be among his most profound to date, Kanye opens up about the struggle of balancing relationships and the destructive lifestyle that inevitably comes with fame. At its worst, the tedious arrogance comes in a storm. On “Facts” for example, Kanye attempts to insult Nike for sponsoring Lebron James instead of him, but ends up sounding like a jealous ex lashing out after seeing their former partner with another girl. The album begins to take a nose dive into the realm of batshit-craziness on “Freestyle 4”, in which we hear Kanye manically trying to convince his significant other to have sex in the middle of a dinner party.
And if you’re looking for a cohesive theme, well that’s a fool’s errand.
After the first song, “Ultralight Beam”, you might be optimistic of a soulful journey of redemption, only to hit a brick wall of incoherence once you hear the first line of Ye’s verse on the next track (a reference to feeling like an “asshole” if a model he’s intimate with gets bleach on his shirt).
While most of the tracks are sonically pleasing, any kind of clear message seems to be absent. Is Kanye expressing his own confusion, or maybe portraying the dichotomy of trying to maintain a stable family and the insanity of superstardom?
And what about the title? Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar, both?
Once again, this album seems to be splitting fans: ones who say that the dysfunction is some intentional by-product of his genius and what not, while others who think he was just as perplexed with the album as we were.
But whether positive or negative, there seems to be an almost obsessive necessity for listeners of nailing down what Kanye is trying to do. The question then is, if there is no clear message, what’s the point of looking for one?
It seems this obsessive pursuit may revolve around a shared connection we have to this man, namely that Kanye West is like that absentee father that you keep coming back to. He takes care of you by dropping classics and meaningful music, but just when he has your full attention, you’re abandoned and left with an obnoxious stranger ranting about nothing.
But the ostensible hate from fans looks a lot more like a cry for attention, while his unconditional support seems like a denial of a role model doing wrong, both coming from betrayed Millennials who grew up in the Kanye era more than anything else.
For those of us who have endured this turbulent journey, The Life of Pablo marks a bittersweet detour.
While it’s nice to see our pink-polo hero releasing good music, it also abruptly marks his limitations. I don’t think Kanye has the answers we desperately seek as he did on his past projects, but that doesn’t mean we should love him any less.