Just in-case you’ve been living under a rock for the last week or so, Yeezy season is well and truly upon us, and with fanfare and social media silliness, we get a tour of the mind of one of the most unique and fascinating recording artists of the 21st century. Kanye West is a man who confounds explanation and exists in a world of contradiction to his own making. On 2013’s Blood on the Leaves, he samples Nina Simone’s version of the ’30s black protest song Strange Fruit about the lynching of African-Americans (the strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees) and uses it as the backdrop to his own lyrics about gold-diggers, alimony and partying on ecstasy. It’s blasphemy, but the song is undeniably brilliant. This one Kanye track is worthy of its own essay, never-mind the length and breadth of his career in the public eye.
On The Life of Pablo, his mood seems to have improved somewhat since the ice-cold fury of Yeezus, but the behemoth ego that produced it has not gone away. Ultralight Beam begins the album with a staggering affirmation of faith. The gospel choir thunders praise to the Heavens, Kanye quietly prays for Paris and peaces out to let his spiritual successor, Chance the Rapper, take the stage and bear his soul to God and everyone else. What could possibly follow this, you might ask…
‘Now if I f**k this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my t-shirt, Imma feel like an asshole’
Oh Kanye. It’s laughable really. Like a lovably earnest five-year-old who just disappointed his parents, the rest of the lyrics desperately seek forgiveness;
‘I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I, if I ever instigated I’m sorry’
Before cutting abruptly to Pt. 2, a tribute to his father.
This emotional and thematic schizophrenia is hardly new for Kanye but this album takes it to a standard never seen before. On the one hand, the quality of the majority of this 18-track album suggests an artist consciously pushing the envelope with comfortable mastery of his creative faculties. On the other, it points to the man who appears to be going through a mental breakdown on Twitter. There’s something ‘off’ about the Taylor Swift controversy that feels staged for the benefit of both parties, but aside from all the nonsense, the song in question is Kanye at his happiest (not to mention mischievous). The sample of Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam is the most joy on a Kanye record since his college trilogy a decade ago.
The appropriately titled Highlights, stands tall above the tracks surrounding it; Waves is a slow and predictable R&B crowd-pleaser to my ears and sounds radio-friendly enough to be a hit single. The generally much stronger back nine commences with a low-key segment of three powerful numbers that hearken back to the underrated 808s & Heartbreaks, Real Friends the best of them. Unfortunately the hypnotising verse by Sia from the SNL performance of Wolves has been cut from the final version and it just falls short of greatness as a result. The album peaks with the one-two punch of 30 Hours followed by Kanye’s master-stroke in No More Parties in LA. The latter is produced by Madlib and features Kendrick Lamar, marrying three unrivalled talents in modern rap/hip-hop on a track that goes back to the basics that made the hip-hop golden age so great (complete with a sample from Ghostface Killah’s classic Supreme Clientelle). Madlib’s unparalleled ear for song structure and understated lo-fi texture allows Lamar and West’s rhyme and flow to become part of the hook and overlay the percussion. It is one of Kanye’s greatest moments.
Fans of house will not be disappointed by the album closer Fade as Kanye traces his roots of influence back to 1980s Chicago house. Nevertheless it feels like a jarring and abrupt end, reflecting the album’s generally disorganised structure. Right up to its belated release, the track-list had undergone several changes that were made public. The Life of Pablo is the last of four possible album titles. Some of the songs appear bare and unfinished, cutting short just as they really get going. A tighter, cleaner and more focused finished product could well have been Kanye’s best record. Whilst it doesn’t break any new ground, it synthesises much of the best of his back catalogue, and the return of the skit is a nice touch. I Love Kanye is a self-reflexive bit acknowledging all the criticisms laid at his feet but reminding us that there are so many Kanye clones around right now that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to just be your honest and authentic self, warts and all the inflated ego and narcissism that entails.