Give It A Spin: Kanye West’s THE LIFE OF PABLO

As a fan of Kanye West I first listened to The Life of Pablo wanting to like it and I continue to receive it with a readiness to enjoy my listening experience. We’ve talked about expectations before and what they can do to how one receives a film, and in this case the general negative perception of Kanye West carries with it apprehension from many to give The Life of Pablo even a minute of their time, but that’s part of the point of this and all my other posts.

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Considering just this year would be Kanye West haters have so much ammunition; from his Twitter antics, to his continued fashion interests, to the album’s numerous name changes, even the not-not weird album art, and, biggest annoyance of all, once the album was “finished” Kanye made it a Tidal exclusive and said it would never be for sale — which it already had been and is now (and is the subject of a class action lawsuit). However, after an extra month and a few changes (which we’ll get into), The Life of Pablo is now available on all of the major streaming platforms, and hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts many weeks after its “debut,” so there’s less of an excuse for one to not give it a spin and many people have.

I said all that to say this: I don’t know how someone who actively dislikes Kanye (the person) or maybe just misses the old Kanye (the musician) expected to feel, or what they expected to hear on this album, but there are many aspects of The Life of Pablo — frustrating as its rollout was — that are highly enjoyable, downright spiritual, and worth the wait.

“Ultralight Beam”
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what better place to begin our close listening discussion of the actual music of The Life of Pablo (which is Spanish for Paul, possibly a reference to St Paul the Apostle) than at the beginning with the amazing in every sense of the word “Ultralight Beam”. It’s in the debate for best song on the album and was once the last song on the album but I’m so glad it’s the first track because it’s so disarming. Even I was insanely curious and at worst dubiously worried, like many others, as to what this album would sound like in the days leading up to its release. When Kanye said “this album is actually a gospel album” I was like yeah, sure. But when you first hit play on “Ultralight Beam”, and many times thereafter, you find yourself at a Sunday service of sorts. Whereas his previous album Yeezus was a brash declaration, a public notice that Kanye West now sees himself as ascended to a God level; The Life of Pablo is a more accessible, occasionally uplifting effort that’s socially and culturally rooted in the moment, ever changing as the moment may be, for better or worse. He still refers to himself as Yeezus, but this service is conducted by a man who maybe now sees himself as slightly less than a God having become a father twice over, yet still sees himself as some sort of patron saint of creative expression.

“Ultralight Beam”, and by extension the entirety of Pablo, starts with the voice of a little girl praying her big-little heart out like she’s leading devotional from atop the altar. The beat broods and builds as The Dream croons the beginnings of a hymnal confession, “I’m trying to keep my faith,” then Kanye enters with “we on a Ultralight Beam / we on a Ultralight Beam / this is a God dream / this is a God dream / this is everything / this is everything, ” and we’re off. This sound becomes the album’s general sentiment, this repetition becomes the album’s constant refrain, this first wave of positivity should be enough to wash away the hate from most non-believers and inspire confessions from followers like myself who began to have their doubts.

If it’s not that’s okay because Kanye ups the gospel with a choir here and there. Then R&B/soul mainstay Kelly Price comes out of nowhere and finds a way to take us higher by bringing the Holy Spirit to a track and through the listener via such a pure, unfiltered, unabashed gospel verse that hasn’t ever been heard on a Kanye album, or any mainstream rap album, in such a way before it.

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Shortly thereafter Chance the Rapper enters. Somehow he manages to come in with the lightest touch of anyone on the track to this point and then proceeds to deliver the rap equivalent of the Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Lifted by the beat and punctuated by the glorious horns of his friend Donnie Trumpet, Chance the Rapper’s gear-shifting verse starts with the most pleasant of images over a low sparse beat. Things escalate quickly with references to Pangea, Chicago, Zambia, and the 90s TV classics Martin and Arthur; flexing pop culture relevance and social wokeness at the same damn time. Chance picks up the tempo with a history line that one-ups Pangea: “Tubman of the underground come and follow the trail,” into arguably his best lines ever on a guest verse: “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail,” then references doing a “good ass job” (the would be 4th album in Kanye’s “college series”) with “Chance 3” (the highly anticipated follow up to Chance’s 2nd mixtape, Acid Rap), I could go on, and on… His bars are so crazily referential and brazenly declarative, the beat hits just as hard as the lyrics, and the choir hits their peak in lock step with everything so naturally. Last, but most certainly not least, Pastor Kirk Franklin delivers a final benediction and the choir takes us home.

Some have suggested this song could be the beginning of a passing of the torch, that is if Kanye has any particular torch to pass that Chance isn’t already on pace to run past. But the mere existence of this song and the collaborations it could spark immediately cleansed the animosity I had toward Mr. West for completely screwing up the release. Chance the Rapper also produced “Waves”, the other best song on The Life of Pablo, so I’m excited by the rumors that Mr. The Rapper could release Chance 3 later this month.

“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
In case you didn’t believe Kanye after “Ultralight Beam” he doubles down on the gospel with “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” (and “Pt .2”). Many things happen within the first minute here. First, you get a gospel sample which repeats “You’re the only power,” “Lord,” and “Father,” among other things stretched to their sonic limits and you’re not sure what to expect. It all sounds like it was recorded in someone’s living room in the 80s but they did a clever thing by choosing a gospel song made in 2012 that only sounds like it was made 40 years ago already. Then a very Yeezus-y synth drops in with a fully exalting choir, then Future’s voice comes out of nowhere with “if young Metro don’t trust you I’m gon shoot you,” signaling the real genius behind the vibe on this is wonderkid producer Metro Boomin. Then the rest of the beat drops followed by the words “Beautiful morning,” sung by Kid Cudi no less, who had to talk it out with Kanye beforehand because he felt some kind of way about how Kanye used his vocals on Yeezus. The first we words hear from Kanye here are his repeated “I just want to feel liberated,” then apologizing with “If I ever instigated I’m sorry,” then asking if he can get a witness, the apology being a thing he doesn’t often do.

Kanye’s verse that follows is where some people who were hardly on board, or had just recently been converted, kinda get lost again and I don’t blame them. Matters of bleached assholes, crisp, clean designer t-shirts, and feeling like an asshole for worrying about mixing those things aren’t really relevant to many of us, but it’s not hard to believe that those are the actual, hilariously silly insecurities of Kanye West. Being too high to remember names and past encounters, being worried people will someday just the same not care about said encounters with him, wanting to be honest about said insecurities and wanting feel liberated are much more relatable and inexplicably exist on same track. Not giving much time to dwell Kanye transitions into the pumped up “Pt. 2”, the first verse of which Kanye says made him cry when he wrote it, the energy of which is inspired by and carried on via Desiigner and his now international sensation of a song “Panda” (panda… panda, panda, panda, panda, panda).

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“Famous”
A few big things happen in the first minute of “Famous” as well, but we’ll pause to acknowledge the real power of Kanye West at this point in time. “Famous” is the third track and adds Rihanna and Swizz Beatz (for better or worse) to a list of guests that has introduced two gospel legends in Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin, as well as indie rappers Chance the Rapper and Desiigner (now signed to GOOD Music) to those who may have been unaware. And it’s not just that Kanye pulls these people (and other great producers) in to make great music, he’s able to use them in a way that most effectively highlights their strengths. You could also make the argument he’s syphoning the youth and popularity from many of the aforementioned, but what else is new in art…

Unfortunately, the first words out of Kanye’s mouth on this track are about Taylor Swift and this very line is why tons of people weren’t on board with Pablo before it came out. “Famous” is a track that has undergone a few notable changes, including changes to the Taylor Swift line. There’s one version where everyone’s vocals are clearer, more pronounced, while the backing track has been reduced/muted so much that it’s hard to the the guitar licking. There’s more time/empty space between when the beat Kanye raps over and the beat backing the chorus picks up or drops off, there’s more time for the various sections of the song to transition into/out of each other… these are not improvements. Currently, in what I can only guess is the finished version, Rihanna and the track start at the same time, Kanye comes crashing in with Swizz, the beat drops… it’s lit. Or, I should say, the vocals are on the same level with the beat and Swizz, when he enters, is layered on top of the beat as opposed to on a worse version where Swizz sort of had his own sound space when he spoke up.

Elsewhere Kanye has added, edited, or removed lines from many songs. Depending on which version of “Famous” you’re listening to you may hear: “I be Puerto Rican Day Parade floatin’ / that Benz, Marina Del Rey coastin / she be Puerto Rican Day Parade wavin’ / last month I helped her with the car payment,” or you might hear: “she in school to be a real estate agent” as the 3rd line… which is much weaker. I thought, did our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters disapprove? It’s one of my favorite lines and is important to the tropical vibe of the song, and it still exists, it just depends on which track you get.

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On another, later version of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, Kanye adds a higher pitched, more angelic “I want to wake up with you” when the chorus returns for the second time, which I like. “Pt. 2” had some early edits to make it the solid track it is now; Kanye’s flow off the top sounds better paced, more spaced, the whole beat really when compared to a Janurary version. What kind of sucks and is kind of weird is that I could go over to a friend’s place and he can put on The Life of Pablo via Google Play and it may be a different version than the one I was listening to earlier in the same day on Spotify. I could even be listening to one version of certain tracks on Spotify on my laptop, leave the house and hear different versions on Spotify on my phone. I can’t tell if the different platforms have different versions, or if you could have one version saved locally but an updated version is streaming, or if Kanye is still pushing out updates like its a piece of software.

Recently, Drake announced his forthcoming Views From the 6 will be an Apple Music exclusive. People panicked until Buzzfeed clarified that Views will be an Apple Music exclusive for the first week only. Similarly, Beyonce’s “visual album” Lemonade will be a Tidal exclusive, for now at least, after premiering on HBO. I’ve already burned my trial for Apple Music and Tidal so I guess I’ll have to acquire them otherwise for the time being because I don’t mind subscribing to a music service, but I can’t foresee any album causing me to change the service I’m subscribed to. Spotify just happened to hit the unlimited commercial free scene first and now I’m in too deep.

My point is, streaming exclusivity is wack. It’s extra strange when one has a different experience with the same album depending on how or when they’re listening. I don’t think Drake or Beyonce will have the same problem, and I don’t know if that is Kanye’s intention, but he’s opened a Pandora’s box that results in a strange cognitive trickery that occurs in my brain when I don’t hear a part of a song I expected to hear or vice versa. It’s more likely this is just a side effect of Kanye’s indecisiveness, neither of which is very good because he runs the risk of completely ruining the pace or flow of a song people have already grown to love as he does on one late version of “30 Hours” — you’ll know it when you hear it by the off-beat ad-lib section featuring Andre 3000.

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I can’t go deep on every track so I’ll just say “Feedback” is alright, the most rap-feeling song on the album to that point but not without its weirdness. “Low Lights” could have at one time been on the same track as “Highlights”, but I’m glad it stands alone as an interlude as it is among the most inspirational/moving Kanye songs and Kanye doesn’t say anything on it. “Highlights” acts as the lead single, if there is one, featuring Young Thug, who Kanye loves, but whose popularity is just an illusion. Shouts to El DeBarge tho. “Freestyle 4” is harsh by design; it’s closest to a sound that wouldn’t be out of place on Yeezus, but overall The Life of Pablo represents a settling into some amalgam that’s not a full return to his roots but is at least a slight departure from his modern metallic experiments. This album has a tangible feeling to it gifted by the early presence of gospel which gives way to more expected popular rap and R&B collaborations on tracks like “No More Parties in LA” featuring Kendrick Lamar and “FML” featuring The Weekend, each doing what they do best and nothing more. Whereas, on the other, hand Yeezus sounds like the score from a lonely, emotional rap-opera that takes place in outer space.

As I mentioned earlier “Waves” is produced by Chance the Rapper and was almost left on the cutting room floor, but it is so important to the culture. It’s probably the best possible version of an uplifting, modern trap-rap song. So uplifting it overcomes the presence of Chris Brown.

“Wolves” / “Frank’s Track”
If you’ve made it this far thank you and I don’t want to keep you too long (said every Baptist pastor ever), but I can’t let you go without talking about “Wolves”. This may come as a hot take but “Wolves featuring Frank Ocean” from the first Tidal version is the best version of this song. What I like most is that there’s no wasted time. Beat drops, angels sing, then Kanye’s chorus,] followed by Kanye’s verse at 1:37, then wolves and super nice reverb at 2:55, then Frank for the last 40 seconds for a very tight 3:58.

The current version of “Wolves featuring Vic Mensa and Sia” clocks in at 5:01 and completely outros for 30 seconds before you get “Frank’s Track”, which is the same verse Frank Ocean delivers on the first Tidal version but this is Kanye’s idea of “fixing” it. Vic Mensa and Sia return from “Wolves Original CDQ” version (as it was titled while floating around the internet in 2014), and the main problem I have is that I find overly percussive in a Yeezus-like way, especially compared to the first Tidal version, and goes on too long before bringing Frank in.

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A concession would be editing it all into one track and cutting the excess but as it stands “Frank’s Track” is feels way out in the wilderness somewhere beyond this particular land of wolves. And while I’m making suggestions: I’d rather “Wolves featuring Frank Ocean” go straight into “30 Hours”, and I wish “Fade” was higher, like behind “Feedback” as it is on the first final tracklist; it would be a better album.

But I digress, here on “Wolves” and briefly on “Famous” and numerous other times worth a post in and of themselves Kanye is a victim to not knowing when a thing is finished. That may not be when you’re ready to be done with the thing, but is when the thing is in its best form, or the thing is the best it will be and you should focus your creative energy elsewhere. He is the master of his creative domain, he can do whatever he wants, but it can also be true that he can’t tell when he’s made one creative choice too many.

It’s really a thin line between 808s and Heartbreak and Yeezus and, depending on who you ask, that could either mean nothing since neither are very good, or a lot because 808s is underrated but Yeezus is just barely listenable. Or both. “Wolves featuring Frank Ocean” wouldn’t be out of place on 808s, and as a whole The Life of Pablo finds itself just above 808s — which is mostly Kanye emoting behind auto-tune over heavy beats and thus lacks a diversity of feeling — but behind the “college series” in whatever order you’d like to put them (all of which are under My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).

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I forget who said it first but as the days go by it is harder and harder to be a Kanye West fan. It’s more difficult to be a fan of the music, more difficult to be a fan of the person, and more difficult to discuss either with other people, but I’m here for it.

The music, the artistic medium through which we primarily got to know and understand Kanye West, which we once could count on receiving as a finished, polished product, is more random than ever. I will readily admit that though I love “Ultralight Beam” it’s maybe not ideal for the Uber trip to the bar, and I didn’t expect “FML” to be the first track I’d hear thrown on by a DJ at 1:30AM, but I turned the hell up for everyone who didn’t know the words anyway. The motivations of Kanye the creator as whole and Kanye the son/husband/father are constantly evolving. Of course Kanye the person is far from a finished product, just as none of us are, and he’s expressing feeling that more, but we could at least count on Kanye the musician to be there and the music to be right once it was ready.

There’s a lot to dislike about Kanye West but he’s no monster, he’s not actually a bad person like other artists making art on a large, public scale. There are things even I dislike about The Life of Pablo as an album. It’s far from perfect or his best, but the individual efforts on most tracks are the best from those artists. The album is generally positive, disarmingly and relentlessly so for the first three tracks, and that’s sure to help people who are going through things. It’s a grab bag of the various versions of Kanye West; aged, yet still funny, still soulful, still angry, still sad. It’s a gospel album. It’s a God dream. It’s also a bit deflating when songs kick off with bars on bleached assholes or are overtly misogynistic, but those things are also part of everyday Kanye, probably without him even realizing it at times. Oddly, Kanye West tells us everything we need to know about Kanye West through his music — including illuminating his own financial and emotional shortcomings. The Life of Pablo is good, but is it ready? Still? Even today? Like, right now? There’s no way to tell. Does a more honest Kanye with a slightly reduced God complex mean a less confident one? Seems like it.

On “Feedback” Kanye raps: “I been out of my mind a long time / I been out of my mind a long time / I been saying how I feel at the wrong time / Might not come when you want but I’m on time.” Does that mean he’s admitting that over the last 3 years he hasn’t been quite right but the good news is he’s back to rap and making soul beats? Or is he just, maybe, about to? All things considered The Life of Pablo didn’t come correct when I wanted but I feel as if Kanye has done it to a satisfactory level. I don’t think satisfactory is what his aim was (he called it the greatest album of the time), but it’ll do for now. However, I do wonder, if Turbo Grafx 16 does materialize this year, how will it affect the staying power of The Life of Pablo?

 

[Photos via Kanye West, Pitchfork, FuseCoS]
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