On The Life of Pablo

The Life of Pablo cover art Kanye West
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.

On All About the Beat , Kanye West and Aesthetics

All About the Beat - John McWhorter

Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus has all the elements of hip-hop that John McWhorter rails against in his polemic book All About the Beat: it’s loud, it’s infectious (not in the good way, in my opinion) and despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary, it is very media friendly. Furthermore, it explicitly claims to be radical and revolutionary in terms of content, in terms of form and in terms of production (how it was produced as well as who is was produced by). For John McWhorter these characteristics of hip-hop are precisely what make it politically inert, hence the book’s subtitle and thesis: “Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”

Quite honestly, I agree with this thesis: if Black America is to be saved – economically, socially, politically, existentially – hip-hop seems ill-equipped to be our sole savior. I could certainly see it playing a role, but given who it appeals to (not all Black people like hip-hop and the ones who do aren’t necessarily politically coherent) and how it appeals to us (through highly mediated networks of capital, cultural legibility, availability and taste), it would seem rather naive to attribute to hip-hop as a genre/practice/way-of-life too much revolutionary potential.

But the point of this post isn’t to agree with McWhorter’s thesis. In fact, I want to do exactly the opposite. Of interest to me is how McWhorter goes about building his argument, specifically his use of conservative ideas about the “truth” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “superficiality” of aestheticizing politics. By unveiling his sly conservatism I not only want to show how he misrepresents what hip-hop and its defenders claim to be doing, but I more crucially want to demonstrate that the politics of depth – a common conservative technique – is really just a way of depoliticizing and subsequently dismissing the political nature of surfaces.

Staying on the Surface

The central claim of All About the Beat is clear in the following statement: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake” (18). McWhorter frames this claim as an unveiling of hip-hop’s actual mission, a revealing of its true politics. It’s a clever move because McWhorter knows exactly how most defenders of hip-hop will respond to this statement: “No, hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority!” This outcry would then be followed by proof that hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority in the form of an argument for depth, for meaning. This would entail citing “conscious” artists then dissecting their lyrics to demonstrate a political consciousness. Expecting this move, McWhorter would then either dispute their lyrics if the lyrics are ambiguous/vague or ask “What have they done for the community?” If the artist has undeniably politicized lyrics and a clear history of helping the community, McWhorter resorts to his trump card: “Well, most people don’t listen to that anyway” (75). Finally, if the song is popular, he resorts to his ultimate ace in the hole: “It is just a sequence of words that sounds good, especially when seasoned with rhythm” (67). Translation: music is just music, nothing else, nothing more.

This is the actual structure of the book: Chapter 1 asserts that hip-hop artists don’t practice politics; Chapter 2 then says the ones who think they do (conscious artists) actually don’t; Chapters 3 and 4 then claim that even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because no one listens to them and these politics are incongruous with accepted or successful political practice; finally Chapter 5 says that hip-hop is “just music” and music can’t be political anyway. ”

I’ve outlined this argument because all of its possible moves are solely enabled by its original proposition: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake.” While this statement appears to be just a claim, a provocation to be proved or disproved, it is actually a judgment, a valuation of how politics should be practiced. Depicted with its politics on its face, that judgment would would look like this: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake and that is not an acceptable form of politics because it is aesthetic and aesthetics aren’t political.” McWhorter is not not just dismissing hip-hop’s alleged politics; he’s upholding his own. This technique and the politics it preserves are notoriously conservative, but we can avoid getting duped by remaining on the surface, by not assessing hip-hop in terms of depth.

A Reluctant Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus is an awful album. If my luck persists, I will never have to listen to it again. But beyond how it sounds, I think it’s more interesting to think about what Yeezus was trying to do. As I understand it, Yeezus is Kanye’s polemic against the various forces that have kept him provincialized within hip-hop and “black culture.” According to Kanye, throughout his career and even before it, he has attempted to push into other worlds – visual art, fashion, design, film, rapping, singing – and been met with opposition, disdain, ridicule and the like. We’ll call it “hate” for short.

This has some merit. Since College Dropout, Kanye’s attempts to open new doors have frequently been resisted by bizarrely zealous doormen, despite his artistic versatility and his earnestness. Of course, Kanye isn’t one to make a quiet entrance: he has always been loud and obnoxious. And no doorman likes an unpleasant visitor. But the force of the resistance to Kanye has often not been equivalent to the force he came with: while he’s knocked with only a brash smile and a loud voice, he’s been met with armed guards and German shepherds. Just look at the infamous Taylor Swift incident. What should have been just another silly moment at an already silly award show – the VMAs are such a joke – genuinely became his stigma. It’s strange: people actually despise the guy for possibly his most innocuous statement.

Meta yeezus SummaryAfter a career filled with these obstacles, Kanye finally confronted them headfirst. Forgoing the wit and cynical distance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on Yeezus he simply yelps, summoning a vast collective of producers and writers from within hip-hop and beyond to transform that yelp into a breathless, 40 minute-long scream. Throughout Yeezus we hear Kanye rearticulate why he’s so upset, literally shouting out (at) hate in the form of corporations, racists, classists, sidechicks, clothing companies, critics and so on. No stone is left is unturned: he addresses Haters as a collective.

Kanye tries to connect his screams to historical and ongoing screams for respect, self-dignity and opportunities, but if you listen closely – and I did – the screams don’t overlap too much. In a joke I wrote earlier this summer, I talked about how his song “Blood on the Leaves” uses apartheid as a metaphor for relationship conflicts. This kind of poor interlocking of disparate narratives occurs all across the album. Kanye actually thinks that his inability to push into new markets and new women and new houses in the Hamptons is akin to a Civil Rights struggle. It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Kanye West is a multi-millionaire with profitable stakes in various industries and he enjoys a level of privilege, comfort and luxury that is unmatched by most black people and most people in general. Quite simply, his haters are his haters; his struggle is literally mostly his struggle..

But it is a struggle nonetheless. In his dismissal of hip-hop, John McWhorter doesn’t offer the opportunity to recognize such struggles or even interrogate why people connect them to larger struggles. At the end of Chapter 4, his treatise on “real struggles” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), he writes, “Of course racism is still around. But in deciding what is possible today, black people must do their grandparents the courtesy of remembering what America was like in the old days. In this, black people will also do themselves a courtesy, in working from what is constructive and positive about our times. Smoking out one more indication that racism is still alive in subliminal ways must be less interesting to us than coping, dealing, building ” (139).

McWhorter’s reference to grandparents is telling. In this quote and the previously mentioned quote in which he states the thesis of his book, authority is essential. Because the atrocities that energized the Civil Rights Movement are “over,” black people must quietly “respect” the ones who experienced those atrocities and never make connections. Since nothing can be more unfathomable than the experiences of Black Americans before the 60s, no correlations should ever even be posited. This has a scary logic. Sure, being profiled at Barneys is certainly not akin to being beaten for simply existing and that’s just fact, honestly. But the way McWhorter articulates his point is insidiously programmed to preclude all grievances, even bad ones. To solely focus on the positive, as he asks us to, is to suppress the possibility of rage or a politics of rage that can emerge from it. Stated otherwise: McWhorter is saying, “Stop complaining!” This sounds very familiar to me.

Jacques Ranciere gives us further insight: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.” (Dissenus 38). The call to “stop complaining” is precisely such a denial of recognition. Kanye’s politics is a bad politics because it is self-centered and unreflexive. But it is a politics nonetheless. As bad a song as “New Slaves” is (politically) it is still a political utterance.  McWhorter denies a politics for an entire discourse, an entire field of thought and action. My concern is not just this act of denial and the masses who are affected by it, but how it works. In order to depoliticize hip-hop and subordinate it to a dubious historical narrative (authority), McWhorter must tacitly ignore the politics that hip-hop wears on its surface, the politics that are built into its aesthetics. And it’s bizarre that he constantly brings up the Civil Rights Movement, but he never thinks about its own aesthetics. It is not a coincidence that marchers and demonstrators often wore their “Sunday Best” and chanted church hymns rather than singing Elvis songs and wearing their pajamas.

Resurfacing: Fucking the Police

The phrase “fuck the police” has a cherished position in hip-hop, from N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” to Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” to MellowHype’s “Fuck Tha Police” to B. Dolan’s “Film the Police.” Though the specifics of each song matter, I’m not going to go into them. What I want to point out is how ill-equipped McWhorter’s ideas are for interrogating why “fuck the police” has circulated within hip-hop for so long. Although believers in the Illuminati,  backpackers and label executives probably think otherwise, hip-hop is aggressively decentralized. There is no apparatus keeping “fuck the police” alive. People are saying it for a reason. And I don’t mean that in a deep way; I mentioned “Mrs. Officer” for a reason – It is literally a song about fucking a female police officer.

But there is a reason why “fuck the police” is so bolted to hip-hop in particular. Even if it has become something that hip-hop fans just say willy nilly, without provocation, performing it as police officers dutifully stand by the stage at a mega-concert, there is a reason why hip-hop fans say it, but Taylor Swift fans don’t. Stated differently, there’s a reason why there’s rap songs against stop and frisk and not country songs or indie rock songs or even R&B songs.

And my grand point is that McWhorter could never account for that reason. For him, aesthetics never matter because they can’t matter because he doesn’t want them to matter because if they do matter he’ll actually have to listen to a Kanye album and think beyond his constricted, constricting, conservative definition of politics. For McWhorter music must remain “just” music because if it turns out to be anything else, the world might become a lot less simpler than he pretends it to be.