Kanye has always been obsessed with contrast. His best work draws its power from strong polarities, whether inherent or situational: gospel‘s piety paired with rap’s sacrilege, reverence of college alongside the pride of finding success without a degree, gripping soul music distorted into cartoonish whining, true romance with a porn star, niggas in Paris. Kanye is intrigued by the beauty and ugliness of unthinkable unions and strives to show why these opposites attract his attention.
The most fundamental contrast of Kanye’s career has been his career itself. “When did I become A-List? I wasn’t even on a list,” he raps on “No More Parties in LA.” Somehow, a producer-turned-backpack rapper became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. And he did it on his terms: plastering teddy bears onto his album covers, accosting presidents, declaring himself a deity, all while being black. It’s been quite a journey.
Around the time he recorded and released Yeezus, Kanye’s journey was encountering some major obstructions. Nike wasn’t supporting his foray into shoe design, the fashion world wasn’t supporting his venture into clothing design, and tabloids were vigorously documenting his designs on Kim Kardashian. Yeezus vocalized these antagonisms, harshly, and sometimes movingly, but it didn’t solve them. In 2015, finding himself further entrenched in these multiple skirmishes, on Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” Kanye rapped, “I think they finally got me where they want me at,” and he seemed to mean it. The Life of Pablo expands that sense of confinement into a battle royale against all of the people and forces that he sees as preventing him from ascending to further heights. Where previous albums largely confronted ideas, The Life of Pablo is deeply personal, confronting specific people and experiences.
This approach often comes across as deeply petty. Women have always had limited roles in Kanye’s music, but on The Life of Pablo, the limits are grating. The first verse of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” begins in pornographic detail: “Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my t-shirt/I’m a feel like an asshole.” He goes on to describe the woman as someone he met in Tribeca, vaguely humanizing her by mentioning that she knows how to get under his skin.
“Famous” features him crassly insulting Taylor Swift, his perpetual frenemy. And on “FML” he alludes to an argument with another woman that took place at a Giuseppe store in Mexico, boasting “I’mma have the last laugh in dee end, cause I’m from a tribe called “Check-a-ho,” the stupidest and most insensitive line of his entire career, including his tweets. While Nike gets a weirdly fun takedown on “Facts” and Kanye deconstructs himself on “I Love Kanye,” the fact that women receive the bulk of Kanye’s ire is hard to miss. Kanye’s never been above punching down and it’s never been easy to stomach, but this time around it feels like he’s reaching, actively seeking to cause harm rather than just elevate himself.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are striking moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Album opener “Ultralight Beam” is a beautifully earnest appeal to the heavens, Kanye desperately prostrate before his god. Bowing his head, he asks for deliverance, his voice unfiltered, pleading. The composition is exuberant: thumping percussion, a slow, droning organ, the loneliest little trumpet, an ascendant choir. Kanye has always taken cues from gospel ( “Jesus Walks,” “Dark Fantasy,” “Good Friday”) but this is the first time he’s fully given in, allowing his seemingly bottomless faith to take the wheel. Although Chance the Rapper steals the show, the song still belongs to Kanye, channeling his unique worries, his particular need for salvation.
Family seems to worry Kanye the most. “I’m a deadbeat cousin,” he admits on “Real Friends,” chastising himself for forgetting birthdays and openly hating family reunions. “I got my own junior on the way, dog, plus I already got one kid” he declares later, his verse ending abruptly as if he’s just then fathoming the gravity of being a family man. Toward the end of the song he condemns another deadbeat cousin who once stole his laptop and held it for ransom, but Kanye’s still guilty: he’d been using the laptop to cheat.
“Wolves” is equally as condemning. Kanye starts the song by positioning himself on a precipice, using his dead mother to shame himself. “If mama knew now/ How you turned out, you too wild/ You too wild,” he chides, his auto-tuned voice surrounded by a shrill howl and sickly, bottom-scraping bass. At some points his words become completely garbled, a literal loss for words, his shame too deep. In the context of the album, it’s clear that infidelity is the cause of his shame, but there’s also a sense of visceral dissatisfaction with who he’s become in general, with the position he’s placed in his family in. The song ends with Kanye proposing an alternative history of the meeting of Mary and Joseph, one in which their first encounter foreshadows impending doom instead of joy.
The specter of Christianity looms over the album, but to call this gospel would be a stretch. Though Kanye yearns for redemption and salvation, he seems to be most ecstatic when he’s recalling or detailing wicked, roiling sex. “Freestyle 4” is a dark carnal romp, Kanye at his most base, dick out, ready to fuck, whether on a dinner table or in the middle of a Vogue party. Although the title of the album references Paul of Tarsus (Pablo is Paul in Spanish), Kanye has more in common with Augustine of Hippo, the saint who was a profligate before he was a priest. The Life of Pablo doesn’t quite show Kanye on the road to Damascus. It’s more an account of his guilt-ridden escapades at some brothels in Jericho. This is Kanye’s blues record.
Despite being the centerpiece of the album, in many ways this supposed schism between Kanye’s Christian leanings and his love of sin just doesn’t work. Throughout the album Kanye tries to strike this contrast, but in a world with Spotlight and Creflo Dollar and Donald Trump, situational contradiction by itself isn’t compelling, especially when Kanye doesn’t explore the texture of the contradictions.
Much of the production is richly textured, but the bulk of the songs feel incomplete and hurried. “30 Hours” should be the album’s closer, but its melancholy groove peters out with Kanye practicing potential flows and answering a phone call. “This a bonus track,” he offers, apologetically. “Feedback” is driven by a warped siren that crashes between bloated troughs of acid house bass, but it haphazardly lacerates the ear, striking wildly instead of tactically, like a perpetually pissy housecat. Album-closer “Fade ”is just as incomplete, its various samples swirling around in the beaker, but never quite forming a solution. It’s easy to interpret this mad whorl of unfinished thoughts and ideas and beats as some kind of stroke of genius, but I think the more empirical response is to just admit that the album’s sloppy. And that’s not a dismissal or an invalidation of Kanye’s art or ideas. It’s just an acknowledgment that the radiating-light-beam hotness of a hot mess doesn’t resolve the mess.
On “I Love Kanye,” Kanye’s acapella take on his origin story and his polite dismissal of it, Kanye raps “I miss the old Kanye.” The song is deeply self-deprecating, but it’s also Kanye displaying his core strengths: self-awareness, openness, refinement. Kanye’s anger and refusal to smile all while having the time of his life (i.e. so-called “new” Kanye) have always been subversive, but ultimately contrast relies on the power of juxtaposition, the spectacular waves emitted when poles collide.
The collisions on The Life of Pablo just aren’t as productive as they’ve been in the past; the impacts are predictable, the trajectories are worn. The Life of Pablo is too deluged in the ghosts of Kanye’s past: his ego, his narrative, his expectations of himself. It’s Robert De Niro in the mirror at the end of Raging Bull. And that’s okay. The man who brought us Barry Bonds has to walk sometimes, whether with Jesus or with his latest not-so-secret lover or through his own ailing mind. But that doesn’t mean his run is over. Waves actually do die, but their energy never fades.