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'The Life Of Pablo': A Gift from a Prodigious Artist

4 Stars

In the Chance the Rapper-induced delay of Kanye West’s release of “The Life of Pablo,” his long-teased seventh album, the media focus turned from the album’s bizarre yet utterly Kanye fashion show premiere to his explicit dissing of Taylor Swift. West does not leave any room for interpretation: Toward the beginning of “Famous,” a track that brilliantly features Rihanna’s considerable vocal talents, he raps, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why, I made that bitch famous.” Were “The Life of Pablo” underwhelming, a standard popular rap album, continued focus on this controversial lyric would be entirely justified. Yes, it is undoubtedly sexist; yes, Kanye should be called out for his poor politics; yes, Taylor Swift has risen to the status of a queen of pop based on her own ability and not on the 2009 Grammy controversy. In the face of the prodigious artistry West and his collaborators display on “The Life of Pablo,” however, these concerns become inconsequential. No one less skilled than West could be simultaneously so consummate a megalomaniac and so revered an artist. “The Life of Pablo,” despite its somewhat plagued release, only further establishes West’s resistance to criticism. “Pablo” is a gift, and one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Perhaps it is so difficult to point fingers at West because of the uncanny way in which he pairs the worst moments on “Pablo” with some of the best. West has, for example, crafted an entirely new version of “Facts,” a track that was both musically and lyrically underwhelming when it first came out this past New Year’s Eve. The new version is still somewhat diminished by its entirely vapid lyrics, but the newly included bold beat and almost dissonant synth instrumentation make for a generally good track. “Famous,” which features the offending Taylor Swift lyric, is similar; even taking the misogynistic rhymes into account, it remains one of the album’s highlights. Rihanna’s inclusion on the track is particularly noteworthy: She twice sings snippets from Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” with aching emotion and precision. West then wisely ends the track with a snippet of Simone’s own rendition—though this moment is not nearly as powerful as his sampling of Simone on 2013’s “Blood on the Leaves,” it does intriguingly emphasize the verse’s emotional import by spotlighting its interpretation by two very different vocalists. The track also includes a third female vocalist: Sister Nancy, whose “Bam Bam” constitutes almost the entire bridge. On paper, this seems a bizarre choice—the dancehall track that includes few words beyond “bam” does not gel a priori with Rihanna’s hook or West’s rap verses. Yet with a simple beat West knits the components together to create a cohesive track.

This juxtaposition of diverse elements characterizes the album as a whole. Where “Yeezus” was tight, “The Life of Pablo” is fast and loose—it could hardly avoid being so, as its 58 minutes contain 18 tracks, many of which were added at the last minute. That the album still functions as a coherent piece of art is its greatest accomplishment. West referred to an immature version of “Pablo” as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing” in an interview with Rolling Stone: While the description is not wrong, per se, it is an inadequate encapsulation of what is ultimately an autobiographical work. “The Life of Pablo” is only “The Life of Pablo” insofar as “Pablo” is West himself. Gospel features prominently and brilliantly on the album simply because West’s Christianity is a core aspect of his life. It is hardly accidental that “Ultralight Beam,” the track that makes the best use of the gospel chorus on the album, begins with, “I’m tryna keep my faith.” And while the track prominently features brilliant contributions from Kelly Price and Chance the Rapper, these inclusions hardly push West into the background: In reference to 2011’s “Otis,” Chance cleverly raps, “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.” Later in the album, in a rare moment of vulnerability, West somehow makes his spectacle of a relationship moving and intimate on “FML,” which here stands for not only “Fuck My Life” but “For My Lady.” In one of the album’s better rap verses, West references his use of antidepressants and describes the highlights and lowlights of his relationship in between hooks movingly performed by The Weeknd. The next track, “Real Friends,” only augments this vulnerability: West’s voice seems to crack as he raps about a cousin who stole his laptop and demanded ransom.

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Of course, “Pablo” could not truly encapsulate who West is without featuring his sense of humor, too often neglected in the face of his parodic megalomania. West entertainingly and cleverly instantiates this parody in the middle of the album with “I Love Kanye,” an unadorned rap from the perspective of a fan that ends with “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.” In the context of the several single-worthy tracks on “Pablo”—among them “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in LA,” as well as “Famous” and “Ultralight Beam”—“I Love Kanye” feels like little more than an entertaining blip. But it is the capacity to create these blips that make West tolerable as a person and hence admirable as an artist. Like West himself, “The Life of Pablo” is a smorgasbord of discrete elements that, incomprehensibly, integrate to make something worthy of praise.

—Staff Writer Grace E. Huckins can be reached at grace.huckins@thecrimson.com.

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