Do you ever think about an album’s soul?
Let me rephrase that: do you ever think about an album’s essence; what’s conveyed by all the album’s parts–vocals, lyrics, instruments, sounds, textures, emotions said and unsaid–and how that resonates (or doesn’t) with you? I don’t normally think of it in these terms, but the subject stays on my mind because there is nothing more important about an album than how and what it communicates with a listener, and how that registers with them. This is something anyone can do, and I’m not saying has to be some deep, analytical breakdown of every note; if you can–I don’t know–describe Beauty Behind the Madness as being “kinda fucked up”, or 25 as “all the feelings,” and can take the first step in explaining why you think that, you’re already there.
I’m thinking about this soul stuff because The Life of Pablo is an album fixated on the well-being of its soul. It’s an album that begins with “WE DON’T WANT NO DEVILS IN THE HOUSE!” and means that in the most serious way possible. While its predecessor Yeezus was all rampaging id, this album is about getting saved, y’all. Kanye described The Life of Pablo as “a gospel album with lots of swearing”, and while much has been made regarding the duality of soul cleansing enlightenment and vulgar content, this album’s soul goes deeper than that. It’s not just the oscillation between “This is a God dream” and “Sometimes I’m wishin’ my dick had a GoPro” or the musical double-take of Metro Boomin producing on a track with gospel. The Life of Pablo is so obsessed with its spiritual health because the album knows its very soul is corroded.
Let’s stay on the “gospel album” track for a moment. Choirs and choir samples litter The Life of Pablo, but they always sound off. There’s a wonky chord in the progression for “Ultralight Beam” that means that gigantic choir is never quite as fluid or as free as you’re expecting, and Kanye himself sounds damaged with a soft slur during his verse. For as radiant as the song is (and with a stellar Chance the Rapper feature straight out of Surf, that’s saying something), the song’s ultimately a prayer for salvation it doesn’t believe itself worthy of. Likewise, when an AutoTune-drenched Kanye sings “I just want to be liberated” during “Father Stretch My Hands”, the choir sample beneath him is deformed and frayed, like it’s trying to attain uplift through sheer exertion, but slipping. The somber piano chords on testimony track “Low Lights” are straight from church, but have this surreal touch (mostly through a ton of reverb on the vocals) that smokescreens just how serious we’re supposed to take the whole enterprise. The main synth on “Waves” sounds like a heavily processed choir, and just once the gospel of ‘Ye sounds like it might actually reach happiness, albeit with serious alterations.
The Life of Pablo writ large is a demonstration of exertion while slipping. Kanye’s previous albums–yes, even the abrasive drill of Yeezus–arrived fully formed. Be it the electro-pop glitz of Graduation, frozen synths of 808s & Heartbreak, or symphonic flourishes of Late Registration, Kanye’s albums have always excelled at getting from A to B musically. You can’t say the same for The Life of Pablo, where there are recurring musical ideas, i.e. fluidity in song progression, interplay between new takes and samples, and a lack of reliance on verse-hook-verse structure, but as part of the album’s corrosion, these ideas aren’t fully realized. Instead, these songs are almost all slapdash creations where each beat, verse, sample, or hook is put together with just enough sturdiness to get you to the next one. Sometimes, like on the massive sound of “Famous” or aggro synth and drum punches of “Feedback”, that slipshod energy can be charming.
But it only goes so far. I went back and relistened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy after spinning The Life of Pablo a few times, and I was reminded of how precise the former is. The entire album has impeccable pacing, and it’s so deliberate in execution that I’m surprised it doesn’t come with a stage manager. TLOP‘s loose charm only works if it’s built on solid foundation, and when you hit the album’s underdeveloped midsection (roughly “Feedback” to “FML”), it sags immensely. You get the feeling “Lowlights”/”Highlights” together are supposed to be a centerpiece about faith, family, fame, and achievement, but thanks to the rough execution and weak lyricism, it feels again, corroded and inert.
A large part of what renders “Highlights” airless is that there’s no real getting around “I bet me and Ray J could be friends/If we ain’t love the same bitch/Yeah, he might have hit it first/Only problem is I’m rich” as the first lyric to a verse. It wouldn’t matter if the rest of the song was “Lost in the World”, “I Wonder”, and “Never Let Me Down” in one, that line’s just going to be a lightning rod. More so, all the Rihanna hooks, Nina Simone, ebullient dancehall samples, and Swizz Beats ad libs in the world aren’t going to keep my enjoyment of “Famous” from being torpedoed by “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” TLOP pushes Kanye’s possessive misogyny to the front, and coupled with a handful of ugly tweets lately (his “you let a stripper trap you” shot at Amber Rose care of Wiz Khalifa and “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!” if we’re getting specific), I’ve put a bit distance between me and him. The misogyny is more damning here than it was on, say, Yeezus because the worst bits of The Life of Pablo and its promotion are disparaging toward specific women; you can wince all day at “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” but at least it (probably?) didn’t happen.
And I could understand saying shit like this if there was a larger point, but The Life of Pablo is underwritten just enough that any lyrical cohesion gets lost. See “FML”, for example, where the idea of staying of faithful in a room full of hoes leads to a near breakdown, but outside “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than/this n**ga when he off his Lexapro“ it doesn’t quite land. But, combined with “Real Friends” and “Wolves”, “FML” forms its own act that’s stayed together through the album’s numerous renames and rewrites, and hints at a Yeezus meets 808s isolationist record. It’s not one that believes in the power of gospel or explicitly thinking about its soul, but one painfully aware of the consequences fame has had on well-being and relationships of all types. Who knows how much of that album was actually made, but between these songs’ musical clarity and narrative cohesion–plus “Wolves” existing in some form or another for a year–I’m given to believe this arc is the many different forms of The Life of Pablo‘s genesis.
Hell, I’m not even technically reviewing the album in its full form. The way this review’s been written so far, you’d think the album ends with “Wolves”, but it actually has an interlude and four more songs. I’d argue, though, that these are bonus tracks. “No More Parties in L.A.” isn’t just the best of these, but one of the album’s best songs: like “Otis” with Jay-Z, it’s just a blast to hear Kanye and another great (here it’s Kendrick Lamar) go on and on over a breezy sample. “30 Hours” is okay mostly for the beat and Andre 3000’s zen backing vocals, and “Fade” is more inconsequential than anything else. Then there’s the previously released “Facts”, which is a low point for the album even with beefed up production. The Life of Pablo‘s already been an experiment in what an album looks like these days, so if you want to cut and paste these songs into the record proper, you have that choice.
The Life of Pablo itself is about choice and want. The album’s aware of the twisted state of its soul, and wants to give in to redemption and uplift, but as we see with “FML” and “Freestyle 4”, the temptation of earthly pleasures can be too much. The alternate album cover depicts the madness over this choice perfectly: inside the cover’s peach-orange square are an older looking photograph of a black family posing for a wedding, a filtered Instagram-esque booty shot of model Sheniz Halil, and “WHICH/ONE” typed like a mantra. When The Life of Pablo engages with this choice–like on “Ultra Lightbeam”, “Father Stretch My Hands”, “Feedback”, “Real Friends”, and “No More Parties in LA”, it’s thrilling and occasionally breath-taking. At other times, you can almost see what the album wants to be, but it loses against itself and Kanye’s misogyny. The Life of Pablo models itself after Paul the Apostle, fitting as Kanye, Saul of Tarsus, and anyone whose followed Kanye for this last month have inevitably cried out the same thing during frustration at their choices: so help me God.