By Joey Thyne
Once again, Kanye West ignited controversy through a catastrophe of an album rollout. This came after 2 1/2 years of directionless singles, three prior titles, several different tracklists, a beef with Wiz Khalifa and a string of bizarre Twitter rants. The controversy culminated with the album’s release on Feb. 13, two days late and available only on Tidal.
Kanye’s albums have a great track record for amazing opening songs and “The Life of Pablo” is no exception. “Ultralight Beam” is gorgeous, with lush synths and a powerful gospel choir. This feels like a perfect beat for Chance the Rapper, fellow Chicago native who is influenced by Kanye. This young MC delivers a masterful verse while paying homage to his idol.
“I made Sunday Candy I’m never going to hell, I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail,” reads Chance the Rapper’s lyrics on the track.
What follows is an exhilarating roller coaster. Sounds sporadically shift in a gleefully disorienting way. “Pt. 2” has four separate beats in the span of two minutes and 10 seconds, suddenly making the disarray of the cover make sense.
While the music is good, it is familiar. Instead of the ambition seen in his former albums, he returns to the places he has found success in the past.
There are times when the album is reminiscent of “Yeezus,” his last studio effort. “Feedback” is similar to “On Sight” from his last release because of its glitchy beat and braggadocious lyrics. “Freestyle 4” has dark tones and sexually graphic themes that recall “I’m In It.” Both of these share a minimalist beat spawning from the acid house scene.
Songs like “FML” and “Real Friends” are reminiscent of “808’s & Heartbreak” with looming synths and somber lyrics. However, this time it’s more mature and less maudlin.
The soul-sampled bliss in songs like “No More Parties in LA” is evocative of Kanye’s early work. The lighthearted interludes are also similar to the skits found in “College Dropout” and “Late Registration.”
“Famous” and “Highlights” are radio friendly and will most likely gain popularity in the months to come. Much like “Graduation,” they are extremely accessible.
But the material really succeeds when the music sounds nothing like his previous work, or anyone else’s. His ability to combine older styles with modern innovations creates a sonic palette that is otherworldly and transcends genres — “Father Stretch My Hands,” “Waves,” “Wolves” and “30 Hours” are all great examples.
One component missing from “Yeezus” was guest performances. “The Life of Pablo” compensates, with songs elevated by compelling features from some of music’s most provocative artists, including Young Thug, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. Kanye is proudly exhibiting all the people he’s inspired and helped throughout the years.
However, for the most part his lyrics are characteristically mediocre. It sounds like he meticulously perfected the beats for two years and then hastily scribbled down some lyrics in the final week, like a student who procrastinated on a book report. Although lackluster wordplay is quite prevalent throughout, there is a handful of redeeming songs. In “No More Parties in LA” he out-raps the most prolific MC in the genre, Kendrick Lamar. Unfortunately, these types of verses from Kanye are becoming few and far between; perhaps his success has made him complacent.
While the variety of styles on the album is refreshing, it lacks cohesion overall. At times it feels more like a compilation than a focused album. The record should finish after the climactic “Wolves” like it did when it premiered at his fashion show. Everything subsequent feels like an afterthought. Kanye should have waited a few weeks and released the final four songs on a deluxe edition.
“The Life of Pablo” makes no grand statements, nor does it break down any boundaries, nor is it a flawless album. In vintage Kanye fashion, it is just as frustrating as it is entertaining. But above anything else, “The Life of Pablo” is an incredibly fun listen. If anything, this album helps prove that Kanye is still releasing intriguing music seven albums into his career.
Joey Thyne can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TheSagebrush.