I can’t remember the last time I was excited for something as much as I was for The Life of Pablo. It was the day of the Madison Square Garden YEEZY 3 album/fashion line release event, and the record, whose name could change at any second, whose tracklist could change at any second, whose release date was still a mystery, utterly and completely compelled me. The TIDAL live stream started a whole hour and fifteen minutes before Kanye even walked out to the microphone. They fed on the anticipation. The hype was real.
An arguable statement but one I chose to make and believe nonetheless, Kanye West has changed the game with every album release, inspiring the next generation of “Kanye’s,” and those heavily influenced by his music. Graduation bridged the rap & pop worlds closer together, 808’s & Heartbreak paved the way for all of the rap-singing artists of today, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may just be one of the greatest rap albums of all time, most rap right after its release definitely stemmed from Watch the Throne with Jay-Z, and no other album on the planet sounds like Yeezus (unless you count Tyler, the Creator’s Cherry Bomb). Either way, if you agree with my comment or not, Kanye is, as he says, one of “the most influential artists of our generation.”
Perhaps there is no one more inspired by Mr. West’s work than fellow Chicago rapper of the next generation, Chancelor Bennett, a.k.a. Chance the Rapper. Known very well in today’s rap world, he started as humbly as all the rest, purchasing his first record, The College Dropout, then 12 years later featuring on that artist’s new record. “This is my part, nobody else speak,” he says twice on the opener, “Ultralight Beam,” as if to convince himself that it’s actually happening – “This is my part, nobody else speak.” “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” Chance jests, “Ugh, I’m just having fun with it / you know that a nigga was lost / I laugh in my head ’cause I bet that my ex looking back like a pillar of salt… / you cannot mess with the light / look at lil Chano from 79th!” He’s ecstatic, as he should be, he got on a Kanye West album, and he has a whole verse feature on the intro. “Ultralight Beam” is everything. While Chance may be my personal favorite and most heart-warming of Kanye’s influence examples, it also points out another interesting aspect of The Life of Pablo – how little of the record is of Kanye West.
This time around, Kanye isn’t as racially charged and fueled to speak as he was on Yeezus, or as fighting to get his voice heard as he was way back on The College Dropout. On The Life of Pablo, Kanye basks in the warmth of his influence and success and gives others, his “disciples,” the spotlight and power to speak for him. Like Watch the Throne, The Life of Pablo is an album of celebration, with the latter record’s themes of celebrity and fame now touched with family and religion. “This is actually a gospel album,” he had said of The Life of Pablo, and while genre-wise Kirk Franklin & Kelly Price’s part on “Ultralight Beam” may be the only gospel representation, the gospel themes are definitely rampant, right down to a sample of a four year-old girl screaming, “we don’t want no devils in the house, we want the lord, Jesus Christ have mercy, hallelujah!” It’s a real sight to see if you haven’t seen the video. It’s the juxtaposition of family & religious values against the ridiculous and seemingly insane – it’s The Life of Pablo.
For all the musical genius that Kanye is, he’s not devoid of flaw. He’s still a human being, but one with an ego big enough to be shared by all of us. Not to harp on the various times that Kanye West declared his greatness to the world without fear or hesitation, but his knack to take it just a little too far has been taking it a little too far a little too often recently. From declaring “Bill Cosby Innocent!!!” on twitter, to asking Zuckerberg to fund his aspirations, the Wiz Khalifa/Amber Rose twitter war, and the new-yet-old Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift flame, Kanye has never been afraid to speak his mind no matter how insane or just outright horrible the thought may be.
“I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye / The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye,” he raps on “I Love Kanye,” the most humorous track on the record. Yeezus was like Walk Hard’s “Dewey Cox’s self-proclaimed ‘dark fucking period,'” says Al Shipley of Noisey, “and The Life of Pablo is the product of countless hours at the mixing board, demanding more Aboriginal percussionists and an army of digeridoos.” But Kanye has seemed a little more frantic as of late, like he’s being pulled in all directions from his music to his fashion line, his sneakers, his family, his upcoming video game, and his crazy thoughts. “There’s something distinctly preoccupied about the whole project,” remarked Jayson Greene of Pitckfork, “it feels wry, hurried, mostly good-natured, and somewhat sloppy – feels like Kanye ran across town to deliver a half-wrapped gift to a group birthday party to which he was 10 minutes late.”
Rhymefest, a longtime collaborator of Mr. West and co-songwriter on “Jesus Walks” and “New Slaves” pulled himself off of The Life of Pablo last month because he was worried for Kanye’s mental health. “My brother needs help, in the form of counseling,” he tweeted before the album’s release, “He should step away from the public and yes men and heal.” “His mind and spirit aren’t right,” he continued, adding, “I love my brother. I pray for his health, not our entertainment.” And these dark fears come through on the record into tracks like “FML” where he & The Weeknd sing of manic depressive episodes and a mention of Lexapro, the anti-depressant. Concerning family on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” where he apologizes for family issues: “up in the morning, miss you bad / Sorry I ain’t called you back / Same problem my father had,” or “Real Friends,” which plays out like 2016 Kanye’s version of “Welcome to Heartbreak” off of 808’s, sounding just as lonely and isolated as he did back then. “Name me one genius who ain’t crazy,” he asks of us in “Feedback.”
As much as that may be true for most of the quote-on-quote geniuses we’ve universally given the title to, it foreshadows a dark fate that happens to crazy geniuses, especially ones like Pablo Picasso, of whom the album is partially named after. I say partially, because “Pablo” also stands for St. Paul the Apostle (“Pablo” in Spanish), of whom Kanye took to twitter to specify the title about. While falling in nicely with his “gospel album” declaration, he’s still comparing himself to Christ-like figures. Is he blind to his own actions, or is he self aware? Is The Life of Pablo, with all its religious themes, super-celebrity egotistical chest pounding, mental stress, and family fears, all just a plea that he needs help, and that right now his faith is all that holds him together?
Sometimes I do really “miss the old Kanye.” I wore a grey suit and pink bowtie to prom like 808’s era Kanye because “I thought I was Kanye.” No joke. I wore it. “I used to love Kanye,” and I still do, but today’s Kanye is a very different Kanye than The College Dropout. It’s even a different Kanye since Yeezus. Though, even with all of this, in the end we still love Kanye, and Kanye still does what he always does. The light shines brighter than the darkness, and the record fuckin’ bumps. He delivers.