Listening to the final product, it’s difficult to confirm or deny whether the ceaseless fanfare was worth it: The Life of Pablo is a bundle of contradictions. It is by turns assured and schizophrenic, self-aware and tone-deaf. In other words, it’s a lot like Kanye West.
The first time we hear West’s voice on this messy, domineering album, he breaks through the sound of a child in religious ecstasy to proclaim, “I’m trynna keep my faith/But I’m looking for more.” While he throws plenty of clutter at us across Pablo’s staggering 18 tracks — Rihanna singing Nina Simone samples, bizarre quips about anal bleaching, an entire song about how Nike was mean to him once — those opening lines remain its mission statement, and his commitment (however loose) to that mission keeps the record’s head above water. There’s nothing as flagrantly Christian here as The College Dropout’s “Jesus Walks,” but even in the most unlikely places, these songs hinge on a captivating struggle between virtue and vice.
Take, for instance, “Freestyle 4.”
On the scratchy, lo-fi track, West spews pure id: sounding drunk, he considers the ideal way to ravish a woman at a seedy party while pitying those who don’t allow themselves similar indulgences. Instead of teeming with the kind of braggadocio that was spread thick on 2013’s Yeezus, the song is shot through with despair.
There are two compelling explanations for this: first, there’s no indication that the song’s subject is Kim Kardashian, which means that “Freestyle 4” could be a psychodrama about an extramarital affair. Second (which ties to and enhances the first) is the track’s haunting string sample from “Human” by Goldfrapp. As Kanye flouts his sins, he reminds us with an intertextual wink that they’re all a part of his mortal imperfection, which gives surprising weight to a moment that would hardly make an impression in lesser hands.
The gospel bent comes through even more forcefully on Pablo’s two best songs: “Ultralight Beam,” which opens the album, and “Wolves,” which closes it.
“Ultralight Beam” features The-Dream, Chance the Rapper, gospel singers Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin, and a massive, ground-shaking choir, with barely any help from Kanye himself. It deals most directly with the idea of faith and the price of salvation: “I’m looking for somewhere I can feel safe/And end this holy war.” The pain in Kanye’s voice, in Price’s, in The-Dream’s, imbues “Ultralight Beam” with a vulnerability that paves the way for Chance’s deliriously joyful verses to dominate its back half. The song is essentially a quilt of slow-paced sonic episodes that melt into one another, which makes it a strange choice for an album opener. Its sewn-together nature lends it a lived-in quality, though, and the listener is left to populate the canyons between its disparate strands. The incompleteness draws us in instead of pushing us out.
“Wolves” imagines West and his wife, Kim Kardashian, as a contemporary Joseph and Mary, swathing their children in lamb’s wool and protecting them from encroaching predators. It also sees him drowning in Christian guilt as he wrestles with his late mother’s disapproval of his decadent lifestyle. While it sounds mildly ridiculous, it completely sticks the landing. “Wolves” rounds out a trio of songs (after “FML” and “Real Friends”) that feature West at his lowest, and his desperation rings true because it stands in such stark contrast to his signature bravado. The song’s chilly soundscape only drives the point home.
“Ultralight Beam” and “Wolves” aside, though, The Life of Pablo is without a doubt the least cohesive work of Kanye’s career. At times, it feels like a college essay written 6 hours before the deadline with the furtive assistance of unprescribed adderall.
Spoken-word interlude “Low Lights” starts in the middle of a chord, and exists on a different planet than “Feedback,” its industrial-edged predecessor. Some of the album’s strongest moments, like the Kendrick Lamar joint “No More Parties in LA,” are bafflingly relegated to bonus track status. The much-maligned “Facts,” an anti-Nike manifesto that West first dropped on his Soundcloud earlier this year, is still feather-light and embarrassingly petty, even with a spiffed up instrumental from Charlie Heat. The mixing in “Waves” sounds like the producer fell asleep at the wheel.
There are also a number of jokes that just don’t land, including that now-infamous Taylor Swift diss (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous”).
From the man who made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record whose canny self-reflection and flawless reconciliation of nearly every major musical genre made it one of the greatest sonic achievements of the 21st century, this sloppiness is a bit of a head-scratcher. Most of Pablo’s songs (save “Facts”) are quite good on their own, but they often feel blindly strung together just so the world can have another Kanye West album.
At the end of the day, though, that’s not such a bad thing. Even when he’s unfocused, Kanye is still Kanye, and his unusual ear is exciting as ever here. Nearly all of the influences he’s accrued over the last decade-plus explode across The Life of Pablo at some point: soul bumps against scuffed dancehall on “Famous,” “30 Hours” boasts the silky smoothness of The College Dropout’s funkier moments. At its best, Pablo is a sonic Being John Malkovich that gives us a direct line to West’s boisterous, overworked mind. We’ve seen polished Kanye — this is Kanye at the drawing board.
Whether we like it or not, it seems we’ll always want to hear the gospel according to ’Ye, even when he’s not operating at his peak or making good on outsized promises to deliver the “album of a life.” As a scratchy sample of rowdy children put it on Yeezus, Pablo’s direct predecessor, “He’ll give us what we need/It may not be what we want.”