There’s a lot of noise right now surrounding Kanye West, which seems to be the case whenever the man drops a new album. West is a master of the “any publicity is good publicity” promotion technique as we all know, even if it isn’t always intentional. Hatred of this rapper has magnified over the years, perhaps originating particularly with the Taylor Swift-Grammy’s incident of 2008. That’s been covered elsewhere so I’ll refrain from discussing in depth here. But since then, Kanye fans have had to increasingly find ways to defend their idol, with most months bringing another scandal or ludicrous (but quotable) remark. The press, and social media opinion are divided – there’s enough hatred in the comments thread of any Kanye related Facebook post to suggest that many people think West is not as groundbreaking, trendsetting or influential as he thinks he is. But his albums continue to sell well and garner near unanimous positive reviews – which can’t be said for many artists seven (or eight if you include Watch The Throne), into their solo careers.
Even if piracy has caused enormous effect to the actual physical sales of The Life Of Pablo – or rather, Tidal subscriptions it was intended to generate, being exclusively released in this platform – just the breaking of piracy records speaks of the interest in West’s music. So is it really deserving of all the positive reviews, or has Kanye’s creative ambitions begun to outweigh his actual musical output? Having now listened to it for over a week, I’m able to somewhat have an informed opinion. I attended the theater streaming of the TLOP album release at Madison Square Garden, and at that first listening I was pleased with what I heard. The solid but perhaps short album of the MSG premiere, that seemed to echo Yeezus’ sequencing, was satisfying but did not appear classic in the way Dark Fantasy nearly immediately did. It was hard to say at this stage whether it was really one of the greatest albums of all time, as West had tweeted. Now that the album has been released for real, it’s probably clear the claim is indeed a stretch to far. The actual release is a longer, denser and more unfocused product. The additions since MSG (Facts, 30 Hours, the return of No Party’s In L.A.) were welcome, as these are good songs, but they’re messily placed at the end of the album breaking from West’s usual skillful sequencing ability. They could be bonus tracks – perhaps the album truly ends with the haunting Wolves. But this is left unclear.
So while the sequencing could me Kanye’s most sprawling and mixtape-esque yet, this is not in-of-itself a sign that West has jumped the shark. Looking at the songs themselves, there is still a great deal of inspired moments, up there with Kanye’s previous best. Ultralight Beam continues his run of brilliant opening tracks, and is as startling a beginning as On Sight’s harsh electronics three years ago. Beam could be Kanye’s most obvious gospel moment yet, a tribute to his faith, but still heavy and experimental in production. The space between the choir vocals makes each lyric hit harder, and there is a haunting quality added by the backwards synths. Kanye introduces the track, but then lets Chance The Rapper spit the longest verse. It could be the best verse on the album, which perhaps speaks of Kanye’s somewhat diminishing lyrical ability – even though his productions still shine.
Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 reunites West with previous collaborator Kid Cudi over a brilliant soul beat that could have featured on The Collage Dropout. Kanye’s opening lyrics are unfortunate (rhyming asshole with asshole), yet speak of a continued theme from Yeezus – that of a man torn between the sex-party bachelor life of old and the responsibilities of being a parent. Other controversial lyrics through-out the album, such as the much discussed – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why? I made that bitch famous” – on Famous, adhere to this theme (albeit in that case, loosely). It is easy on the basis of these lyrics to state that Kanye’s wit has declined somewhat, but an argument could be made that he is still as comic and witty as ever – his comedic skills are now just being overlooked (justifiably due to his ego). One of my favorite moments is in the aptly titled Highlights, which incidentally is one of the catchiest on the album and features the best use of ‘gopro’ in a rhyme I could possible imagine. Even the interlude Freestyle 4 works. It’s another musing on sex in a club, but manages humour and darkness in equal terms. These moments seem casual – although the album has
Other musical highlights include Feedback, a great beat perhaps not backed up by as strong lyrics and Waves, where a Chris Brown hook is used in a surprisingly not so nauseating way. When the album goes dark, in remains effective, as on the introspective Real Friends, one of the albums most sincere lyrical moments, analyzing the difficulty of staying a true friend even when we try. FML, featuring The Weeknd returns to the theme of draw of lust and it’s negative effects, which shares more sonic and lyrical similarities with Yeezus moments like Hold My Liquor. Perhaps not as successfully though.
The album is in parts a sequel to the dark and sparse introspection of Yeezus and in parts a return to the more upbeat and sprawling early albums. Kanye acknowledges his own transformation between these eras on the I Love Kanye acapella (which once had beat – the leaked OG version of the album revealed) – another apparently controversial moment that’s being discussed more than the actual music. TLOP is not as focused as Yeezus, and the songwriting and lyrics not to the standard of what I consider to be his best album and artistic peak, My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. But there are enough great moments on the album to prove that Kanye hasn’t yet lost his midus touch, even if this is an album to pick and chose from, rather than play from start to finish. So if the detractors want another reason why the fans stick to their hero in spite of any shortcomings – TLOP proves, the music remains enough.