In what was perhaps the most unorthodox album release in music history — complete with name changes, a live-streamed fashion show, last-minute track listing edits and day-of mastering on an ambitious 18-tracks — Kanye West has finally released his seventh album, “The Life Of Pablo.” If there were ever a true “Internet album” encapsulating the mobility and logistics of music releases in the streaming age, certainly this is it.
“The Life of Pablo” is a survey course in West’s life thus far. We’re taken through the artist’s past romantic relationships, musical achievements and PR controversies, with no shortage of bold, crass and, at times, ridiculous statements. All this to say that everything you may have ever felt towards Kanye West is probably evoked somewhere on the album. For perhaps the first time, however, West gives us evidence that he is in on the joke, that he is fully aware of his public persona, going so far as to feature a tongue-in-cheek spoken word interlude detailing the various “Kanyes” we’ve seen across his rap career. Though the “Pablo” referred to in the title is reportedly the Apostle Paul, and there are references to other Pablos such as Escobar and Picasso, the album is above all about the very public, confusing life of Kanye West.
Musically, “The Life of Pablo” continues to set West leaps and bounds ahead of other artists and producers when it comes to samples and production. The collage of sounds on the album is varied and unpredictable but navigable in only a way that a visionary like Kanye can provide. The guest spots are generous and well-cast, with significant creative control given to moguls such as Chance The Rapper, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and Andre 3000, and even some newcomers like Brooklyn rapper Desiigner. It is tempting to say “The Life of Pablo” breaks the trend of West making a new statement with his sound, as different samples, textures and music on the album point to various points in his career, but this is not accurate. “The Life of Pablo,” loose and spread out as it sounds, is the musical showcase of an artist who has invented and reinvented himself — and hip-hop music in general — almost constantly throughout his entire career. It is the summation of every version of Kanye West in one piece. It is every statement he has ever made.
As promised, the album is, in a liberal sense, a gospel album. Throughout the various mindsets, life events, relationships and identities covered on “The Life of Pablo,” West is always reaching for something for support. Sometimes this is family and other times it is God, but through all his success, confusion, selfishness and heartbreak West knows he cannot do this alone. Whereas 2013’s jagged-edged “Yeezus” saw West living in the cloud of his own vices, “The Life of Pablo” is willing to give up sovereignty. The crux of the album sees a person juggling various aspects of personality and identity, ultimately admitting the need for healing.
Overall, “The Life of Pablo” is cemented in reality. It is not an album that seeks to create a new world or even look to the future, but rather puts West’s life under a magnifying glass from his career as a producer all the way to his not-even-month-old beef with Wiz Khalifia. This album is West’s past to present, exploring his mind throughout his highlights and lowlights. It is fitting that this album was revised and delayed until the very last second, for even in its permanent form it is too topical to ever be truly complete. In the midst of revisiting past relationships, mistakes, accolades and even identities, “The Life of Pablo” finds Kanye desperately grasping for God and family to make sense of it all.