THERE’S NO REAL precedent for Kanye West’s evolution from upstart producer to one of the most polarising, puzzling and vainglorious figures of his generation. Yet for a performer whose self-belief has barely buckled since he turned sped-up samples into a genuine art form on 2004’s debut The College Dropout, the run-up to his seventh album has been far from seamless. Having boasted back in 2014 that his next effort would be akin to ‘sonic painting’, West kept fans guessing by announcing, and hastily jettisoning, an album’s worth of red herring singles. It was also christened, alternatively, So Help Me God, Swish and Waves before finally unveiled as The Life Of Pablo via West’s laptop at a globally cinema-streamed launch for Season 3 of his Yeezy fashion label at Madison Square Garden last week (February 11). His blunt confession that “70 per cent of my focus is on apparel” also kept alarm bells sustained.
Thankfully, the final product – initially only available via Tidal, the subscription streaming service overseen by his friend and collaborator Jay Z – is much more than a catwalk soundtrack.
It opens dramatically with Ultralight Beam, a typically classy, slow-building West assemblage that lets a rousing gospel choir and the twitchy tones of Chance The Rapper take centre stage before West wrestles dramatically with his faith and a treated Laurie Anderson-type voices implores: “How do I find you?” Succeeded by the squirty bass and syrupy chords of Father Stretch My Hands Pts. 1 & 2, we’re plunged into unstable, ever-shifting ground thereafter, with a highly unpredictable tour guide determined to veer off-piste. That includes questioning the thin line between genius and insanity over a detuned feedback loop (Freestyle 4) and an ungracious commentary on his own role (in his opinion) in Taylor Swift’s rise on Famous, before it shape-shifts into a delirious sample pillage of Sister Nancy’s dancehall destroyer Bam Bam.
West’s apparent short attention span allows for further generous lifts from Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack (Feedback), Arthur Russell (30 Hours) and ’70s funksters Rare Earth (Fade), even if the navel-gazing wordplay rarely veers far from the wide-eyed man in the mirror. And while DJ Madlib provides a suitably abstract beat to trade verses with Compton boy wonder Kendrick Lamar on No More Parties In L.A., it’s the bleak, bravado-ditching musings of Real Friends that finally allow a seemingly rattled West to unpack his uniquely tortured soul.
For a rapper who has excelled in redefining the artform, The Life Of Pablo is a sprawling, uneven and curiously unfinished sounding affair with a dearth of recognisable bangers. Much less than the sum of its parts when stacked against the grandiloquent orchestral sweep of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or pared-back abrasive aural sculpture of predecessor Yeezus, it suggests West is merely human after all.