It is hard to tell if Kanye West’s newest album, “The Life of Pablo,” is a eulogy for celebrity, a plea for attention, a return to Kanye’s roots as a producer, or merely superfluous. It’s likely a combination of the four. More than anything, though, it is a show, a display of West’s braggadocio and persona, with brief bits that allude to West’s family, flawed character, and faith.
On this album, it’s difficult to tell whether West is trying too hard or not enough. At times, his lyrics come off as needlessly inappropriate, and the production of tracks seems lazy (On “Pt. 2,” which is meant to be the second part of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” there is heavy sampling of Brooklyn rapper Desiigner’s “Panda.”)
“Ultra Light Beam,” the album’s opening track, is perhaps the most powerful track on the album. It is a gospel-infused anthem attempting to reinforce—or, perhaps, explain—West’s faith in God. “Light Beam” is also one of the hardest tracks to understand. Humbling and down to earth, it is simultaneously a display of West’s famed cognitive dissonance, with featured artist Chance the Rapper proclaiming,“I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.” The same night the album was released, West tweeted that he is “53 million dollars in personal debt.” This is one of those places where it is extremely hard to know where the real West comes in and where the larger-than-life character, Kanye, emerges. There are flashes of an immature Kanye—one who is still very much a child—and flashes of a man who is attempting to transition into being a husband and a father.
At times, the songs on the album seem jagged or incomplete. It doesn’t sound like an album. More than that, it’s a mish-mash of tracks that sound vaguely similar, each one unexpected—but totally reasonable when you consider West’s public and private personas. In that way, it’s much like West’s Twitter feed.
“Famous,” which features Rihanna singing the hook—“I just wanted you to know,” she croons—is one of the more enjoyable songs on the album, despite the childish misogyny at its beginning. On “Famous,” Kanye comes out swinging immediately, directly naming Taylor Swift. It is thoroughly unnecessary, a reversion to West’s controversial mouth more than his lyrical skill as a rapper. At the end of the song, Nina Simone is sampled, juxtaposing her and Rihanna’s respective vocals. It is one of the stronger samples used by Kanye in the album, controlled and highly effective.
“Wolves,” which Kanye originally performed with Sia and Vic Mensa on “Saturday Night Live” in early 2015, features a rework, with West singing some of Sia’s parts and a light outro by Frank Ocean, who has been noticeably absent for the past year or two. After the album release, West wrote on Twitter, “Ima fix wolves,” and time will tell how the perfectionist will change the track.
“The Life of Pablo” is not as good as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” nor does it have the consistency of “Yeezus.” It is a reversion to West’s younger days, flashes of immaturity and all, though its twinges of adulthood reveal a man who is less angry (or at least upfront about his anger, as in “Yeezus”) and more aware of himself and his personality, faults and all. On “I Love Kanye,” West turns the tables on his overexcited fans, and, sparse as it is, we actually see what West knows—about himself, how he is perceived, and who he claims to be. In that way, “Pablo” might be his most honest album yet.