Whatever you think of the guy, you’ve gotta give Kanye West some credit – he sure knows how to grab himself some publicity.
Mere mortals tend to launch their latest albums via television appearances, media interviews, maybe an exclusive deal with a big-box retailer, or if they’re part of the pop elite, a televised ad campaign and partnership with some major corporation. West has no time for most of that nonsense.
To launch his new effort, “The Life of Pablo,” he rented Madison Square Garden last week and charged humans $160 to watch him play his new music from a laptop, take in a fashion show displaying his new titular line of clothing, (“Yeezy 3”) and deliver speeches that veered between Dadaism and furious ejaculations of bitter ego. Between the stream, the cinema broadcast, and the folks filling MSG, some 20 million people took in West’s star-studded self-ebration.
There’s a reason, as it turns out, that “The Life of Pablo” was only one of the many projects unveiled during Kanyepalooza: The album is a mess, much of it sounding like an afterthought, an audio notebook of incomplete ideas West jotted down in between his various other commitments.
There are precious few glimmers of the West who huddled with producer Jon Brion to craft 2005’s “Late Registration,” his finest work, and the one that his reputation is built upon. In place of that album’s inspired focus is a collection of sounds that seem like strange bedfellows, or awkward dinner guests counting down the minutes until they can go home. “The Life of Pablo” is best when West sounds just plain crazy, like he’s coming unglued, and has decided to document the process.
The rest of the time, he is hoisted on the petard of his own towering ego, apparently convinced that even his most random and unexamined thoughts are examples of unwavering genius worth sharing.
They aren’t. “The Life of Pablo” turns out to be the hip-hop version of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” – an album that lingered like a bad idea for a few years, while its creator attempted to form its raw stone into something resembling a statue. Naturally, due to this process, it’s overcooked in some places, and crawling with Bacillus bacteria in others.
Someone could write a graduate thesis on West’s struggles with religion, as represented throughout “Pablo.” (Does “Pablo” refer to Picasso? Escobar? Cruise? Your guess is as good as mine.) The album opens with a recording of a young child doing his best impression of a gospel preacher, while the child’s mother coos approvingly. “Ultralight Beam” then proceeds with West intoning “This is a God dream,” before an unfocused stream-of-consciousness buoyed by samples of some glorious female gospel singing follows a herky-jerky, stop-start progression.
West posits himself as a fighter in some spiritual battle, but what that battle is being fought over is never revealed. The title of “Father Stretch My Hands” suggests possible elucidation of the spiritual theme, but none is forthcoming: Some sort of father figure is being alluded to here, but the song is such a mess of random sounds, samples and auto-tuned asides that we end up simply waiting for it to stop, no longer concerned with what West is going on and on about.
That stop-start theme is repeated throughout “Pablo,” and lends the album a frustrated sense of flow – groove is a product of repetition plus funk, and surprisingly, “Pablo” lacks both, a fact that suggests West either desired to cram every idea he had into each tune, or simply couldn’t decide what each song was trying to say.
Mr. Kardashian does sound happy, though. “Pablo” is his least bitter collection of diatribes, pokes at Taylor Swift (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, I made that (expletive) famous,” he unforgivably opines during “Famous,” a tune that also features Rihanna and a sample of Nina Simone, and various unprintable claims of sexual supremacy notwithstanding.
He still comes across predominantly as a self-obsessed jerk, but hints of tenderness for his family – Kim Kardashian and the couple’s children – pop up during “FML,” “Father Stretch My Hands” and “Real Friends,” and they make the Kanye persona a bit more bearable. But only a bit – if “FML,” which features a cameo from the Weeknd, benefits from a touch of fatherly tenderness, it ultimately sinks beneath the weight of its own self-pity. I’m not sure it is possible to feel sorry for West, but in between his ridiculous boasting, he clearly expects us all to.
The best tune of this ragged bunch is “Waves,” the only song that really sounds like it knows what it wants to be – a pop tune with electro bursts, looped synths and the closest thing to an actual hook “Pablo” can lay claim to. Interestingly, when West is doing what he does best – being a collage artist assembling found sounds into a new whole – we don’t really care about the lyrics, we care about the sonics, and the way they’ve been arranged. West’s penchant for verbal diarrhea – something he’d probably claim as his greatest talent – tends to get in the way of our enjoyment of the songs.
Even after multiple listenings, “Pablo” doesn’t really come into focus. It’s a mess of an album – sometimes a thrilling one, sometimes an annoying one, but most of the time, a just plain boring one.