The Life of Pablo is nothing if not an album of contradictions. From the moment Kanye debuted it (or at least an early draft of it) at Madison Square Garden during the kickoff of Yeezy Season 3, this was made pretty clear. Kanye will beg for liberation in the chorus of a song and then rap about getting bleach from a model’s asshole on his t-shirt in the verse. There will be a song where a woman gives her testimony of coming to Christ and then in the next song Kanye will rap about wishing his dick had a GoPro on it.
I get that Kanye said that this would be a gospel album with cursing, but during my first listen, the gospel element of it seemed to fall apart pretty quickly. Because yes, there are tinges of gospel music on this album for a good chunk of it, but after “Waves,” it kind of disappears until the very end of “Faded” (besides a few biblical images in “Wolves”). That doesn’t sound like a gospel album to me, and maybe Kanye was just saying that to generate interest.
But for all the bad things you could call Kanye, dishonest isn’t one of them. No matter how irritating or crass his statements may be, it still seems like he legitimately believes the things he says, so I think there is truth in his statement that somehow this entire album is somehow “gospel.”
This led me to think that maybe he didn’t mean gospel in a musical sense as much as he meant it represents a gospel in a more narrative sense. The name The Life of Pablo itself makes the album sound like it’s telling some sort of story, so whose story is it?
This was a legitimate mystery-to-be-solved for me. The biggest hint came in the song “Feedback” where Kanye talks about the “good news” about a “Chicago south-sider” who’s “been outta [his] mind a long time.” Gospel literally means good news. The gospel Kanye’s been referring to seems to me to be the gospel of Kanye himself.
This would make sense, especially considering he got the name Pablo from the Spanish form of Paul, the saint who was famous for interpreting the life of a famous historical figure of mythological proportions. In some ways, Kanye is doing the same thing. Kanye West is a modern day figure of similar proportions (at least in the world of popular culture), and on this album, Kanye is interpreting the life of the myth that is his public self, a myth of his own creation.
At this point, my mind was sufficiently blown, and I went and listened to the album for a second time with this in mind. The contradiction of the spiritual and carnal aspects of this album constantly butting heads began to make sense because that’s what’s been going on in Kanye’s head for his whole life. His life in many ways has been a war between his desire for God and desire for power/influence/sex.
This also helps to explain why he makes so many references to his past on the album whether it be the Taylor Swift incident or sampling part of Late Registration or talking about an ex from Chicago in “30 Hours.” These are all integral parts of his story.
What’s interesting about this gospel, like Jesus’, is that Kanye is just as interested in the future as he is with telling the story of his past, and there’s a very specific type of longing he has for the future. A theme that keeps popping up on this album is liberation. Kanye says that he just wants to be free (or I guess Rihanna does on “Famous”) and feel liberated.
But liberated from what? Some of Kanye’s tweets lately seem to hint that he’s trying to be free of his ego, but nothing he says on this album really points towards anything that would lead me to believe he’s actually acting on that wish. The Life of Pablo is full of the same Kanye-isms we’ve come to expect of him, reminding us of how narcissistic he can be.
The only thing I could see as maybe pointing towards Kanye getting better about his ego is the amount of times he references Christianity, a faith that tends to focus on serving others instead of the self. But even then, Kanye isn’t usually the one on the album who says much about Christ; it’s usually other people whether it be the little girl on the opening track “Ultralight Beam” or the woman sharing her testimony on “Low Lights.” This isn’t to say that Kanye hasn’t rapped about his faith before; “Jesus Walks” is one of my all-time favorite Kanye tracks. I just find it odd that apart from these themes being on the album, Kanye distances himself from them in that it’s never actually him saying much about God. He’s simultaneously asking for liberation and refusing to ever say what he believes will get him there.
All of this to say that thematically, I find this album incredibly interesting. I think there’s a lot to unpack about Kanye’s spirituality and quest for freedom, a lot I probably haven’t even picked up on yet. It’s a very personal album that reveals a lot about its creator.
Musically, however, this album tends to be kind of all over the place. Kanye is just as gifted a producer as ever, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that links the songs together as far as instrumentation or vibe go. I think I read somewhere that this album feels more like a mixtape for that reason, and I think that’s a good way of thinking of it. There’s a diverse amount of material on here, and I’ll highlight a couple tracks I think are important.
“Ultralight Beam” is one of my favorite tracks and features Chance The Rapper who probably has the best verse on the album. In fact, Chance and Kendrick probably have the two best verses, which may relate back to Kanye’s lessening of his ego, but I digress. I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs Kanye has ever written.
Then we get to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” which I’m going to lump together as one track. The sample at the beginning of “Pt. 1” is really cool, and I love how that bass synth starts to creep in underneath it. Lyrically, I’m not a huge fan. Frankly, I think the “bleached asshole” bit is kind of stupid. Who rhymes asshole with asshole? I’m not even sure that Kanye can get away with it. We then get to “Pt. 2” which sounds like a lot of bad, popular rap being made right now. My favorite thing about Kanye is his relentless creativity, but this song kind of sounds like Future, and not in a good way. You’re better than Future, Kanye.
“Feedback” is my favorite song on the album as of right now. It’s just sick and features what I think is Kanye’s best verse of these 18 tracks. In second and third place for my favorite tracks are probably “No More Parties in LA” and “30 Hours.”
I guess my biggest thing is that this album probably could have been a lot shorter and have functioned better as an album. A lot of the songs feel unnecessary or just aren’t as good as the tracks that are truly exceptional. That may just be me as I tend to be a fan of shorter albums, but the album starts to feel unfocused by its second half and ends on a really strange note.
Overall, I think it’s a great though. It’s got some of Kanye’s most unique songs even with a couple that are a little closer to average. I think it’s probably about half and half, but the songs that I didn’t initially like grow on me every time I listen to them. The whole album has grown on me. Maybe this was partially due to my getting over the fact that Kanye made it a Tidal exclusive, or maybe these songs really do need a few listens for one to begin to understand the underlying messages. I don’t really know.
All I do know is that I’m glad Kanye is back and creating art as complex as we’d expect from an artist with his level of talent, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I just hope in the meantime, he takes a break from Twitter.