HALFWAY THROUGH Kanye West’s gloriously shambolic, ridiculously assured seventh album he addresses the many criticisms lobbed at him from fans and foes alike. On “I Love Kanye”, which could serve as an apt subtitle to The Life of Pablo, he airs some common gripes: “I hate the new Kanye, the bad-mood Kanye/ The always-rude Kanye, spaz-in-the-news Kanye/ I miss the sweet Kanye, the chop-up-the-beats Kanye.” West then launches into the second half of the LP, the most impressive string of songs he’s unleashed in an already comically towering career.
The Life of Pablo as a whole isn’t only a devastating rebuke to the avalanche of negativity Kanye actively courts, but it’s also a capitulation to his critics. Like a slobbering Golden Retriever puppy eager for a vigorous scratch behind the ears, Yeezy delivers the goods—rat-a-tat beats; sublime soul samples; fierce rap tirades; pitch-perfect hooks; and, of course, heaps of controversy—over and over again throughout the album’s 18 tracks. Pablo may come just shy of being his greatest achievement (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy holds onto that distinction), but it’s the grandest distillation of West’s world-swallowing artistic vision, a sum of its superlative elder siblings: the hit parade of The College Dropout and Late Registration, the dance-inflected bangers of Graduation, the Auto-Tuned confessions of 808s & Heartbreak, the fever dreams of Twisted Fantasy, the unflinching abrasiveness of Yeezus.
The Life of Pablo arrives, at last, after a painfully drawn-out, and highly public, period of workshopping. It’s been a three-year-plus windup, filled with countless fake outs and misdirections. We were first promised a backyard barbecue soundtrack, West’s own Born in the USA, which would be a sonic contrast to Yeezus, his Nebraska. Then it became an album-length collaboration with Paul McCartney (a narrative corroborated by his 2015 singles “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds”). Then a gospel album (ok, that one kinda sticks). Rinse and repeat. So Help Me God—which was renamed SWISH, and after that Waves—was forever just around the corner (in 2014, he postponed a leg of the Yeezus tour to—ha!—finish the album). Even after Kanye debuted a truncated version of the record during an oddly inert Fashion Week event last week, he continued to make radical overhauls mere hours before its release (“BLAME CHANCE”, indeed). None of this bade well for the final album. West has seemed creatively unmoored, perhaps too steeped in designing boxy, militaristic streetwear; or perhaps a little spooked by the universal acclaim that met Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
All these concerns melt within the blinding glow of “Ultralight Beam”. The Life of Pablo’s gorgeous opener is a church visit, a spirit cleanse, a baptism before we embark on a journey through the purgatory, and at times the personal inferno, of Kanye West’s celebrity. And what a kaleidoscopic tour it is—from vitriol (“Freestyle 4”, “FACTS”) to penance (“Father Stretch My Hands”, “Real Friends”), bluster (“Famous”, “Highlights”) to grace (“Low Lights”, “Wolves”), regret (“FML”, “30 Hours”) to redemption (“Waves”, “Fade”). All the while, we’re treated to a thrilling display of Kanye as the crackerjack producer; the impeccable curator; the golden-eared tunesmith; and—for the first time in a long time—the immensely talented, rapidly firing MC. For all its stylistic fluidity, and in contrast to its three most-recent predecessors, Pablo is foremost a rap album, and a monster of the genre, to boot.
On “No More Parties in L.A.”, West declares that his “writer’s block is over.” The lyric is a rare understatement. Inspiration and creativity spring, geyser-like, across The Life of Pablo. But this isn’t a singular achievement: West’s true stroke of genius here is his role as the album’s maestro and its muse. His bevy of collaborators, with their remarkable assists, are buoyed atop a high tide. The finest—Chance the Rapper’s soaring verse on “Ultralight Beam”, The-Dream’s beguiling hooks on the aforementioned track and “Highlights”, Rihanna’s piercing Nina Simone interpolation on “Famous”, The Weeknd’s sorrowful contribution on “FML”, Kendrick Lamar’s vocal pitter-patter on “No More Parties in L.A.”, Frank Ocean’s metallic outro on “Wolves”—match the excellent guest appearances by Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon on Twisted Fantasy. More surprising are Pablo’s lower-tier helpers, such as Chris Brown (“Waves”), Ty Dolla $ign (“Real Friends”, “Fade”), Kid Cudi (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”), Desiigner (“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2”, “Freestyle 4”), Kelly Price (“Ultralight Beam”), and Young Thug (“Highlights”). Each of them not only rise to the occasion, they improve it.
A loose, but sturdy, conceptual thread keeps The Life of Pablo from unravelling into a pile of yarn. Big aural shocks—the choral exclamations on “Ultralight Beam”, the Sister Nancy sample on “Famous”, the lighthearted verbal vomit of “I Love Kanye”, the suffocating beauty of “FML” and “Real Friends” and “Wolves”, the house-music quakes of “Fade”—elevate it to masterpiece territory. Even a lousy diss track about sneakers (“FACTS”) can’t tarnish this near-classic, West’s Physical Graffiti, his White Album. The Life of Pablo makes the wonderful Yeezus appear minor by comparison. It also marks a dead end for Kanye West’s breathless run as an album artist. He’s synthesized a phenomenal career on a single record. His next task may be insurmountable: Erect a shiny new palace atop Mt. Everest. A