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On Kanye West’s “I Love Kanye,” Kanye West name-checks a small army of Kanye Wests. There’s the old Kanye and the new Kanye, the soul one and the rude one, the bad-mood one and the pink-polo one… and so forth. The flow finally ends with, “I love you like Kanye love Kanye.”
So Kanye West knows what we think of Kanye West. But the track works as more than just a reflexive act of spoofing (and critic-proofing) himself. It doubles almost as an outline for The Life of Pablo, an ambitious album that finds the rapper struggling to compact his many identities into one weird, uncomfortable, glorious whole.
That description may sound like 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while the two albums share a lot of DNA, Pablo is no sequel to the opulent, complex masterpiece that put West on a higher plane. Nor is it a natural game-changer, like 808s and Heartbreak or Yeezus. Aesthetically, it’s as if the album isn’t in West’s discography as much it is above it, hovering just apart from his previous works like a halo. In the best sense, Pablo is, as the rapper himself might say, not regular.
Some of the album’s most striking moments come when West meditates on faith, family, and his own place within those schemes. “This is a God dream,” he Auto-Tune croons on “Ultralight Beam,” the powerful and (thanks to Chance the Rapper’s bonkers verse) electric opening track. Gospel singers swirl in and out, and West asks us to “Pray for the parents.” His religion and relatives continue to loom large throughout Pablo: “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” not only references the death of his mother Donda, a frequent topic in West’s music, but also the changing role his father Ray has played in his life. The moody “Wolves” paints a biblical picture of West and his wife as Mary and Joseph, swaddling their young children in a manger surrounded by wolves.
His wife is, of course, the very famous Kim Kardashian, which adds all sorts of new wrinkles for an introverted rapper who’s never had an easy time relating to the outside world. That vulnerability translates on the gloomy, doomy songs “FML” and “Real Friends,” where West raps about Lexapro and trust issues. “I hate family reunions/F— the church up by drinkin’ after communion,” he laments, before recalling getting blackmailed by a cousin. West slips even further into darkness on “Freestyle 4,” which features an eerie Goldfrapp sample and the refrain “What the f— right now?” Imagine a druggy, hellish videogame level where the big boss is your own reflection in a broken mirror.
But Pablo frequently (some might say abruptly) toggles between Sad Kanye and the bombastic and celebratory Kanye, the one who used to unleash triumphant excesses like “We Major” and Graduation on the reg. The most obvious example of this is, yes, “Famous,” a.k.a. The One With the Taylor Swift Reference Heard ‘Round the World. But that line is a feature, not a bug: It’s funny, outrageous, provocative, clickable, insecure, and even a touch corny. In other words, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from Kanye, a man renowned for reveling in his DGAFness.
“Famous” also has a strong cameo from Rihanna on its side, making it an instant banger. West stays on that tip for the fiery “Feedback,” in which he claps back at his critics (“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”) and posits that he’s the Dennis Rodman to Jay Z’s Michael Jordan. If that’s true, then “Father Stetch My Hands, Pt. 1” is West going full Rodman as he sings about getting a model’s anal bleach all over his T-shirt. There’s even a song on the album whose sole purpose is, basically, to diss Nike. “Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman,” he booms, asserting his fashion-designer aspirations against the industry doubters (Adidas excluded) who he fears will never accept him.
If all that sounds like peak Kanye, it’s worth noting that there are long stretches of Pablo where he cedes the spotlight. In addition to Chance’s feats on “Ultralight Beam,” there’s Kendrick Lamar on the old-school “No More Parties in L.A.” — Lamar’s dazzling verse eggs West on to prove he can still rap with the best of them. There’s The-Dream, Andre 3000, Ty Dolla $ign, Kid Cudi, Max B (via voicemail), and a pew full of gospel singers. Even Frank Ocean, who everyone worried had completely ghosted from the scene, shows up to bless “Wolves.” However deep into himself West delves, he still has friends there to keep his head on straight.
One day after giving us the album, West actually took it back from us — to keep working on “Wolves,” he said. Given his recent track record (missed deadlines, last-minute title changes, etc), it’s seems that Kanye views T.L.O.P. as a living, breathing document open to amendment. So it’s possible there could be more changes by the time he re-releases the album. There could be extra songs, or fewer of them — who knows. But it’s a clue as to how we should interpret The Life of Pablo: a right-now snapshot of a restless, neurotic artist’s ever-evolving psyche. Like the man himself, the album is emotional, explosive, unpredictable, and undeniably thrilling.