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★★★✩✩

The Life of Pablo

Kanye West

Def Jam Recordings and G.O.O.D. Music

February 21, 2016

Kanye West is a visionary, a jackass, a gifted musician, and an awful fashion designer. And after an admission of being $53 million in debt, irrational Twitter behavior, a leaked SNL backstage rant, and multiple tracklist and title changes, he has finally released a working version of his seventh studio album titled The Life of Pablo.

While the identity crisis from Hollywood fame and Compton root has been rapped about many times over, The Life Of Pablo is the manifestation of a psyche much more complicated. West opens up the album with “Ultralight Beams,” a performance that incorporates elements from gospel music and discusses the ever-growing challenges to faith in God and faith in one another. Immediately afterward, West dives headfirst into the song “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” that opens with a particularly crude, obscene lyric and a stiff, demo-sounding beat. The next song “Pt. 2”ditches his repentance in favor of trap music, fancy cars, and “taking all the stacks” for the people he has wronged. West completely flips his rhetoric, style, and production before the album even takes off.

“Famous,” one of the best and most diverse songs on the album, features stunning vocals from Rihanna, a discordant mix of sounds and samples, and, unsurprisingly, another vulgar insult directed to Taylor Swift. In the track, Rihanna personifies fame trying to lure West into its grasp, singing “I just wanted you to know/I love you better than your own kin did” while West is possessed by the ecstasy of it all. An artist as ambitious and notorious as Kanye West certainly has the credentials to flaunt fame and fortune as he does in this track, and many of The Life of Pablo’s most memorable moments are ones done in poor taste.

However, for an artist infamous for his overwhelming thirst for attention and greatness, self-doubt and personal criticism are surprisingly pervasive in this album. In the track “Wolves,” West uses dark, primal noises and religious imagery to underscore the dangers that he and the world present to his wife and children. The song “Real Friends” articulates the superficiality of many of West’s relationships with his friends and family. Look back twelve years ago at his debut album The College Dropout: West was inspired and motivated by his extended family when he said, “This is family business/And this is for the family that can’t be with us.” What have West and his loved ones done to ruin their trust? West might be as successful as ever, but he isn’t afraid to point out that his insecurity has grown hand-in-hand with his list of achievements.

Just like the man who created it, The Life of Pablo has its fair share of imperfections. While West purposely gives the album a scattered, eccentric mood, there is plenty of filler material that makes it less accessible to casual listeners than his previous work. Many of the backing sounds, beats, and overall production — which have previously been West’s bread and butter — seem to be incomplete. Though West is celebrated for music that spans multiple genres and pushes endless boundaries, this album might be his first that doesn’t awaken a new generation of artists to mimic a new sound of his. Sure, West was able to gather an absolutely astounding collection of guest artists to contribute — Chris Brown, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Andre 3000, and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few — but he tries to fit these artists into such small parts that he suffocates their talent.

Like that of all great artists, Kanye West’s work is always evolving, always interesting, and always unique. While The Life of Pablo doesn’t contain the grounded sampling and clever lyricism that The College Dropout and Late Registration did, or illustrate the grandiose, masterful production and structure found in West’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it challenges listeners to put together the pieces of West’s life and artistic vision. After all, The Life of Pablo is not a narrative, a memoir, or a sociopolitical abstraction. Rather, it is an impression of all the arrogance, creativity, bravado, and debt in which Kanye West is immersed.