The Life of Pablo is Kanye West’s eighth studio album (including his co-released Watch the Throne with Jay-Z in 2011). Here is some context. Jay-Z’s eighth solo album was the 2003 failed retirement victory lap The Black Album (an album whose brilliance relied in no small part on Kanye’s early production sounds). Nas’s eighth solo album was the strong but, ultimately, back catalogue Hip Hop is Dead in 2006 (which too has Kanye West finger prints). Tupac only released four solo studio albums before his death. The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in two solo projects and one collaborative (as part of Junior M.A.F.I.A.) before his. Eminem’s eighth solo album was 2013’s The Marshall Mather’s LP 2. Very few in hip hop make it this far. And those who do are wrought by inconsistences, failed retirements, character redefinitions and crises, loss of sound, direction, and consistency. Kanye is not any different in this respect, except he has always placed these inconsistencies, crises, and confusions at the centre of his music. There are those who are still naïvely waiting for Kanye to “mature”, though these critics miss the crucial honesty which punctuates Pablo’s creative brilliance: Kanye has always placed himself at the intersection of brilliance and repulsiveness, his very flaws have always animated his innovations. This is not to relativise or dilute Kanye’s dislikeability. This dislikeability is in fact central to his artistic allure. Album opener “Ultralight Beam” almost appears like a pre-emptive apology for how dislikeable Kanye is about to be. Kelly Price’s beautiful gospel lyrics appear as a direct challenge to Kanye:
You persecute the weak /
Because it makes you feel so strong.
Or again, Kirk Franklin, at this opening song’s close:
For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times /
You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again /
That’s why I need faith, more, safe, war.
Kanye clearly believes redemption is possible – Christianity is omnipresent on Pablo - that admitting his sins in advance can function as a partial absolution. Clearly, Kanye knows that he has a lot of apologies to dish out.
The Life of Pablo is the most multi-dimensional, chaotically layered, and confusing album Kanye has ever released. It might also be his best. The run from 2004’s The College Dropout to 2010’s near-perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the journey through which Kanye went from hip hop outsider status to its focal point: he achieved total mastery of hip hop’s formal elements. Since then, with 2013’s Yeezus and now 2016’s Pablo, Kanye’s schizoid experimentalism instead has set its sights on ripping these formal elements to pieces. Gone are at least semi-predictable song structures and time signatures and gone are comforting refrains: Pablo is a thoroughly destabilising sonic experience.
When Pablo is at its strongest, it feels like Yeezus with lush, atmospheric, and hypnotic melodies (see “Famous”, “Wolves”, and “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”), a seemingly impossible combination given Yeezus’s stark anti-melodic minimalism. It feels like a joyous gospel congregation participating in the divine experience of music (“Ultralight Beam” and “Fade”). He even channels Lil B levels of ad-libbing on the extended outro to “30 Hours” (a song with a surprising Drake writing credit, yes, a Drake writing credit). But Pablo also feels like artistic expression generated on the limit-point of sanity. Kanye drops multiple lyrical hints to this effect:
I can’t let these people play me /
Name one genius that ain’t crazy
You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than /
This nigga when he off his Lexapro
(on “FML” – Lexapro is an SSRI anti-depressant, the same class of anti-depressants as Prozac)
If I knew y’all made plans I wouldn’t have popped the Xans
(on “No More Parties in LA” – Xanax is an anti-anxiety medication, also used as a recreational drug)
Such limit-points are where interesting art, philosophy, and science often operate: pushing the human-as-subject or the ego-as-subject along transformational vectors through which egos are destabilised and so-called “sanity” is often sacrificed. Whether one can be both a creative revolutionary and still operate within the normalised boundaries of social functioning remains as open a question as ever in Kanye. This notion of the limit-experience is expressed quite beautifully by Michel Foucault’s commentary on his own personal work:
On the other hand, in Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot, experience has the function of wrenching the subject from itself, of seeing to it that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its dissolution. This is a project of desubjectivation. The idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself is what was important to me in my reading of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot, and what explains the fact that however boring, however erudite my books may be, I've always conceived of them as direct experiences aimed at pulling myself free of myself, at preventing me from being the same. (pp. 241-242)
As such, then, there is Kanye, the curator. As he expresses on “I Love Kanye”, his work has always been more interesting for what it renders subsequently possible (“See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes / And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes”). Another contradiction: whilst the ego (Kanye’s “artistic intentionality”) some times appears central to Pablo, the curatorial aspect of this album’s creation means that the high points are those in which this ego totally dissolves, where he steps aside and allows others to take control of Pablo’s orbit. In other words, the limit-points. Chance the Rapper’s technically mesmerising verse on “Ultralight Beam” is a case in point. Even Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “No More Parties in LA” operates on a different plane to To Pimp a Butterfly insofar as it is hard to see how Kanye could possibly fit onto a Kendrick album. This is the curatorial brilliance of Pablo. The disgusting and stupid lyricisms about “bleached assholes” and Taylor Swift, for example, feel desperate and petulant: all they do is further cement Kanye’s personal dislikeability and fuel the ever-increasing evidence base that hip hop, in its current state, is intensely misogynistic and heteronormative. This dislikeability, as I noted above, is the paradoxical condition of all of Kanye’s work. Are these lines intentionally abrasive, hateful, and self-destructive, or just stupid? It is honestly difficult to tell.
In early 2015, Kanye gave a speech to the Oxford Guild. In this speech, he noted his Picasso-level ambitions, discussed the blessing and the curse of his ego, and hinted towards the communisation of clothing (is there not a political point to be made about Kanye’s “high fashion” Yeezy Season 3 collection as a controversial and subversive attempt to “dress the rich like the poor”?). Kanye has utopian aims:
We have the resources as a civilisation to find a utopia, but we’re led by the most greedy and the least noble […] We were taught to hide our black fingernail polish and put our head down in the back of the class and not notice out of fear that someone might laugh at one of our ideas – that our idea could become a mockery or a failure in some way […] People say I have a bad reputation. I think I’ve got the best reputation in the building. They want you to have a reputation of tucking your black nail polish into your pockets and sitting in the corner of the class, and not fighting for your ideas out of fear of being ridiculed.
Pablo is a confusing, messy, beautiful, and anything-but-humble expression of utopic imaginative ambitions, ambitions consistently marred and undermined by human and egoic greed, pride, and vanity. The creative utopia it envisages is not one of perpetual peace, but rather one of disruption, dissensus, and for the generation of an environment that involves a collaborative push towards those transformational limit-experiences which, for Kanye at least, are the source of meaning.