Look, I understand that sometimes it can be difficult to separate an artist’s personality from his work. Especially in today’s society where the former is emphasized just as much as the latter (if not more so), with celebrities’ private lives constantly put under a microscope. But I do believe that the art, especially when powerful, can become the be-all, end-all for both the creator and the consumer. Kanye may have said and done things that I don’t personally agree with, but he’s only human and who am I to judge anyway? I don’t know him, and discussing his scandals and controversies makes about as much sense to me as being concerned with your microwave manufacturer’s backstory. Sure, you can read into it for purely informational purposes, but the product working well for you is the only thing that should matter in the end.
And Kanye’s been putting albums that I’ve enjoyed for more than 10 years now. It helped to know that 808s & Heartbreak was written while he was going through a break-up as well as dealing with the death of his mother, but I enjoyed that album first and foremost because the music itself was good. Same with The College Dropout. Same with Yeezus. Now I would love to say that The Life of Pablo continues what looked like this unstoppable spree of successful albums, but unfortunately I feel it rather puts a stop to it. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just that a lot of the material feels unfinished and directionless – and most of it is situated right in the middle of the album. The 6-song stretch from Feedback to Waves passes without making an impact of any sorts – often Kanye seems to be going for that in-the-moment delivery and vibe that characterized Yeezus, but whereas a song like New Slaves felt both spontaneous and well-constructed, Freestyle 4 and Feedback just sound underdeveloped. And the piano-driven sermon of Low Lights would’ve worked much better as part of a bigger song.
Things get a lot better in the album’s longer numbers. A song like Ultralight Beam may not break any new ground, but it shows that Kanye is still capable of mixing hip-hop beats with gospel choirs and lyrics, as well as choosing the perfect guest collaborator in Chance the Rapper. The results are just as spiritual as Jesus Walks or Never Let Me Down. In terms of samples, Wolves contains perhaps the most haunting and eerie of his whole career, while in terms of flow nothing really comes close to No More Parties in L.A. – Kendrick racing Kanye back-to-back over a Madlib-produced beat, with the winner still uncertain. “I know some fans thought I wouldn’t rap like this again / But the writer’s block is over, emcees cancel your plans” indeed. And way too many people focus on the Taylor Swift line in Famous when the real attraction is in fact that bumpin’ groove that eventually culminates in the dancehall sample.
In retrospect, all the hype around the album built up by the delaying of its release, the re-releases, the altering of the track-list and so on seems a bit silly. What we eventually got was far from a masterpiece, in fact, it was the first time a Kanye album felt like he hasn’t much left to say. And I mean that both lyrically (more lines stick in your mind because of their shock value rather than their cleverness) and musically (the beats lack a unified vision in the way The College Dropout had the chipmunk-soul thing and Yeezus was all about its abrasiveness). The Life of Pablo was still better than most of its contemporary hip-hop records, but within Kanye’s career it counted as a first worrying sign for things to come.
Categories: Album Reviews