Love him or hate, you cannot deny the artistic impact of Kanye West.
Since his debut album, The College Dropout, came out in 2004, West has managed to influence and sculpt the hip-hop world, whether is through the speed-up soul sampling of his early days to his avant-garde, auto tune-heavy sound of his recent releases. Since the release of his last album, Yeezus, we have seen Kanye divert his attention from music to focus on his clothing ventures and his new family with Kim Kardashian. During this time, rumors of a new album included everything from a collaboration with Beatles legend Paul McCartney to what Kanye himself described as “BBQ summer music.” As the hype train continued, Kanye released several singles, including "Only One" and "All Day," both tracks were received well but not as much as previous releases. After hearing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kanye announced that he was scrapping his album and starting over. Three album titles (So Help Me God, Swish, Waves), several months of dormancy and three seasons of Kanye’s clothing later, Kanye finally delivered with the polarizing album The Life of Pablo.
The release surrounding this album has been a strange one. In fact, technically speaking, the album isn’t even out yet. Kanye debuted the album during the debut of his “Season 3” clothing line at Madison Square Garden, which involved a live stream through TIDAL. To much dismay of his loyal fans, to this day the seventh project from the Chicago native remains available only as a stream through the Jay-Z helmed music service. Kanye himself stated that the album would never be released to iTunes, and he seems to be holding to that. This caused this album to be illegally downloaded over 500,000 times in a little under a week. However, the move seemed to pay off as TIDAL saw an increase of 1.5 million subscribers and is slated to make a revenue of 15 million dollars.
Leading up to the release, Kanye went through multiple names changes for the project. The album was originally slated to be titled So Help Me God, then was later changed to SWISH. Only a couple of weeks before his Season 3 fashion event, Kanye announced that he was changing the album title to Waves. This caused quite a backlash, as many associate the “Wave” movement to imprisoned rapper, Max B. This led to the likes of Wiz Khalifha attacking Kanye for the use of the name. After shots were fired back and forth, the Twitter beef was squashed. Kanye declared that he would change the name again and waited until the last possible minute before he announced the final title, The Life of Pablo.
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So after three long years and a sea of controversy, is The Life of Pablo any good? While Kanye called it the “greatest album of all time,” the actual answer is more complicated than that. Kanye manages to deliver some of his best and worst material, sometimes on the same song. On the flip side, West enlists an all-star cast of producers and writers to construct some of the most potent music of his career. With veteran producers like Rick Rubin, Havoc of Mobb Deep and Madlib combined with up and comers like Metro Boomin’, Charlie Heat and Velious to create one of the most robust and impressive soundscapes in Kanye’s catalog. The production on TLOP feels like a dark gospel of sorts. Tracks like "Ultra Light Beam," "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1," and "Highlights" feature rich layers of synths, strings and chopped up vocal and soul samples, while other songs like "FML," "Feedback," "Freestyle 4," and "Famous" are wrapped in a darker, hard hitting tone that remind a listener of his Yeezus or 808s & Heartbreak sound.
While the production manages to soar, the lyrical content is hit or miss. Kanye opens up "Father, Stretch My Hands" with a line involving bleached assholes. On "Famous" and "Highlights," Kanye wastes precious bars on sending shots at Taylor Swift and his wife’s former flame, Ray-J. On Facts, Kanye spends a lot of his energy on the song dissing Nike and other fashion rivals. To be honest, these bars, as well a few others sprinkled throughout the project, reek of laziness and attempts at shock value. They feel sort of reminiscent of Eminem in his early days when he would attack celebrities and pop stars. While Kanye’s shots are definitely more personal than Eminem, they still feel forced and out of place over the pristine production of the project. Another shortsighted move by Kanye was to remove Sia and Vic Mensa from the album version of his widely acclaimed song, "Wolves," which was original performed over a year ago on Saturday Night Live. While the change does bring a reclusive Frank Ocean out of hiding, the added rap verse from Kanye manages to turn a brilliant song into an average one. The backlash from the changes to Wolves was so strong that Kanye tweeted that he planned on “fixing” the track.
When Kanye does manage to focus on delivering heartfelt and insightful lyrics, he knocks it out the park. Songs like "Real Friends," "No Parties in L.A.," and "30 Hours" feature some of the best rapping that Kanye has done in years. On "Real Friends," Kanye attempts to decipher past friendships to understand where and why they fell apart, while on "30 Hours," Kanye tells a tale of a failed romantic relationship. Both songs offer the raw, vulnerable, rapping Kanye that many fans have longed to hear for years now. "Pt. 2," a reworking of new New York-based rapper Desiigner’s Future-ish sounding song, "Panda," showcases some of West’s most revealing lyrics of his career as he talks about his father, the death of his mother and losing his soul. Lyrics like these and the ones on "FML" featuring The Weeknd are particularly telling of Kanye’s current mindset, as "FML" hints that Kanye may possibly be taking Lexapro, the popular anti-anxiety medication. Despite Kanye’s efforts, it is the guest verse from Chance the Rapper on "Ultra Light Beam” that is the crowning achievement of The Life of Pablo. On the slow paced, gospel tinged track, Chance spits an incredible verse littered with biblical double entendres with the passion of a rising star destined to make it. Chance also helped with some of the stronger songs on the album, including the Chris Brown-assisted "Waves."
All in all, West was able to put together a solid project, and while it might not “change the game” like his previous efforts, it definitely quenches the three-year drought that Yeezus left behind. With The Life of Pablo still not available for retail at the time that this was written, it is very possible that Kanye might make major changes to the project before it hit stores, if it ever does. Kanye has already announced, via Twitter, that he plans on releasing another album this summer, so it is possible that the version of TLOP that is out on TIDAL now might be the only official rendition we will ever get.