Two weeks after Kanye West premiered an iteration of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, at Madison Square Garden, we — critics, listeners, industry insiders and naysayers alike — are still trying to make sense of this album. The show itself, a collaboration with existentialist performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, could be aptly described as couture Rwanda. The visual alone was a ton to unpack: for one, how the dehumanization of the “models” — fetishized shades of black explicitly robbed of any agency — was counter-productive to showing how clothes actually flow, fall and move. Even for a contradiction king like Kanye, it was a blaring decree of tone-deafness; an artist who regularly rants about the primal need for expression and individuality was requiring sentient beings to serve as human mannequins.
But even that cultural event — unprecedented in scope, laudable in ambition, breaking ground in multiple industries — hasn’t been fully digested, due to the never-ending plot twists that have unfolded since then: Kanye’s ongoing Twitter tirades, declarations of fiscal debt, backstage outbursts and album changes that prompted former friends to question his mental health. If his rap about “Michael Douglas out the car now” from 2013’s Yeezus was indeed a reference to Falling Down, this seems to be the moment where Kanye is snapping; the watershed where his outsized personality begins to overtake his larger-than-life musical output. At this point, it’s almost impossible to separate the music on The Life of Pablo from the life and times of Kanye West in a way that allows an objective reading of his creative offerings — especially when his music has in some ways been the least noteworthy thing about him these past few weeks.
In many ways, this has always been Kanye’s design. His enthusiasm, passion and vision have always been enough to pull culture to his gravitational center. He talked a lot of ish, but he backed it up with music that was much like him: discordant and harmonious, glorious and downtrodden, a singular blend of world-class chest-puffing and vividly exposed insecurities. The way we talked about his music mirrored the way he spoke about himself. If he said he made the best anything “of all time” and compared himself to creative and corporate giants, we laughed, but we inspected his claims seriously when it came to his music. If he made the mistake of equating the success of his clothing line to his sartorial vision and not the power of his celebrity, we didn’t correct him. That was the power of his music from 2004’s The College Dropout — the two remained inseparable, but the music always wore the non-Yeezy pants in the relationship.
Opinions are divided on The Life of Pablo, not because the music is divisive — though it is — but because Kanye is divided against himself. He’s railing against the world one day, playing paparazzi peacemaker the next; claiming to be in debt while rapping about his matted-out Maybach, furs for his daughter, his wife making a million dollars a minute on the app store. He’s married to one of the most famous women in the world, but spends a lot of time on his new album half-lusting after Taylor Swift, rapping about “every bad bitch up in Equinox” and claiming to have recently copulated with models. None of these inconsistencies are new with West, but the haphazard rollout around this album makes it that much harder to find a center. Tellingly, when the album was released on Tidal after his Saturday Night Live performance, there were so many technical difficulties that downloading a high-quality illegal copy was actually quicker and more convenient than streaming the music via the service.
But all dramatics aside, The Life of Pablo is a typical Kanye West album — which means that it’s more progressive and expansive than just about anything being made by anyone on his level of fame and relevance. As he’s always done, Kanye, the erstwhile backpacker, takes disparate underground sounds into the mainstream, mixing high-art and lowbrow in a way that makes it all seem not only logical, but preordained. The opening number “Ultralight Beam” is maximal and triumphant, mixing an Instagram clip of a sanctifying toddler, a gospel choir, trumpets and Kirk Franklin while still sounding like a hip-hop song. “Pt. 2” amounts to little more than Kanye freestyling over newcomer Desiigner’s “Panda,” but also features some of the most transparent disclosures he’s ever rapped. In a few bars, he talks about his dad, his mom passing and his shortcomings as a husband. “Fade” is an ode to his Chicago roots, mixing Mr. Fingers’ “Mystery of Love” and Hardrive’s “Deep Inside” for three minutes of soulful house that feel as if they could go on for another seven minutes without tiring.
“Famous” is one of the album’s best numbers, and it’s also emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of The Life of Pablo. Taken at surface level, the song reads as the continuation of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s “Runaway,” with Rihanna taking on partial hook duties via a Nina Simone interpolation: “Man, I can understand how it might be kinda hard to love a girl like me/ I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free.” But “Famous” lacks all the self-awareness, -inquiry and -investigation that made “Runaway” relatable — it’s the song where Kanye fires a totally unnecessary and totally problematic shot at Taylor Swift.
Indeed, The Life of Pablo is steeped in aggressive misogyny. Kanye is not just dismissive of women; he sees them as tools of revenge or targets of it. Some of the lines are so ridiculous that they’re hard to take seriously, but ultimately too hurtful to be ignored. “For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West/ If you see ’em in the streets, give ’em Kanye’s best/ Why? They mad they ain’t famous,” he raps. Meanwhile, “Famous” also features a masterful flip of Sister Nancy‘s dancehall classic “Bam Bam,” turning her toasting into something looping, elegiac and operatic, and proving it’s possible to be drawn to his music’s brilliance and repelled by its repugnancy at the same time.
It should be noted that there are five producers listed on “Famous,” making it difficult to tell who should get credit for what. Kanye’s albums have always been done by committee, and Pablo is no different. We can’t even be sure which rhymes Kanye wrote — we can only be sure that he feels comfortable putting them forward as his own thoughts. It can, however, be safely assumed that he’s in control of his Twitter feed. And in the past few weeks, that feed — comical, abrasive, head-scratching and disgusting — has held our attention through the Grammys, NBA All-Star Weekend, everything Beyoncé– and Rihanna-related, and even the death of a Supreme Court justice. It’s been fine entertainment, consistently pulling our eyes to the ongoing spectacle that is Kanye — and pulling our ears away from his music.