The Life of Pablo
The Wire, April 2016
by Simon Reynolds
A journalist recently asked me whether I agreed with his thesis that the Rock Star is a dying breed – literally dying off, with high-profile 2016 extinctions like Bowie and Lemmy. My thought was that if you understand rock narrowly as electric-guitar music, then yes, resources are depleting rapidly; it’s a minority-interest sound now, incapable of supporting mythic-scale personalities.
But think of “rock star” in a less tethered-to-genre way and it’s surely obvious that the archetype is alive and kicking elsewhere. Above all, rap is where you’ll find that public theatre of ego-drama, unbridled excess, and artistic over-reach, the car-crash personalities and epic sagas of anti-heroism. If Future is our era’s Iggy – vocal tone of pained ecstasy, lust-for-life turned toxic - then Kanye West amply fills the Bowie role. There’s the same torturously conflicted relationship with fame, the same restless chasing of the cutting edge balanced by a compulsion to command the centre stage of pop culture.
Like Bowie, West is a mediatician as much as a musician. So while the audio content of his seventh album intersects with the soundworlds of TriAngle or LuckyMe, it doesn’t make sense to approach The Life of Pablo in the way that 98% of the releases covered in this magazine get treated – as a primarily audio experience. Pablo resists being disentangled from the vortex of discourse - gossip, leaks, forensic analysis, public melt-downs - that imbricates its every texture and lyric. Tempting as it is to hack exasperatedly away at the thicket of context and subtext – from the month-long cavalcade of “spaz in the news Kanye” (to quote a lyric from the album) to the way that virtually every sound and line seems hyperlinked – in order to get through to the Work itself, the truth is that the surrounding swirl is the Work, or at least an outer but un-detachable layer to it.
The fact that there’s no solid-form incarnation of Pablo, that the album can only be heard as a stream from the hi-fidelity streaming service Tidal, practically incites you to listen connectively, with other windows open on your browser: checking reviews, consulting rap-nerd annotation sites, monitoring Twitter and Facebook reactions. This is Pablo’s, and Kanye’s, proper domain: the hubbub of the internet.
Pablo is an Event, then. But it’s also an assemblage of moments, aesthetic decisions, accumulated over three years of studio work (with a few elements dating even further back, to the 2010 sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the album before the previous album). How could a coherent vibe possibly emerge from such a piecemeal process? The simple answer is that it hasn’t. It’s not just that this album as a (not-)whole feels loosely collated and arbitrarily sequenced. Many individual tracks seem like they could easily dis-assemble into constituent parts – there’s a segmental feel to the way that guest raps, vocal cameos, samples, intros and codas slot into their provisionally allotted place. You sense a governing logic of additive and subtractive unrest that has yet to subside. West tweaked tracks up to the last minute and indeed beyond the last minute. It’s conceivable that there will never be a definitive shape to The Life of Pablo.
The album’s mode of construction invites deconstruction: breakdowns of the credits, inventories of samples, a fever of instant-response exegesis. This is how we tend to envisage creativity operating these days: as recreativity, the marshalling of influences, allusions, evocations, self-reflexive references. Kanye is an exemplar of the modern ideal of the curator as creator. He rose to fame through deft use of samples, often amounting simply to re-presenting the music of others with his lyrics over the top and a turbo-boosted beat underneath. That technique felt inspired and glorious on the Chaka Khan-lifting “Through the Wire”, his debut solo smash in 2004; it felt empty and crass with the Curtis Mayfield-molesting “Touch the Sky” and Daft Punk-depleting “Stronger.” Pablo is littered with startling sample-choices, but who even knows if Kanye, a man over-extended on multiple fronts, actually found them all? Perhaps he’s now obliged to delegate tasks like this to his diffuse squad of producers, what’s been described as the Kanye Think Tank.
Just as Pablo dismantles the conventional understanding of the Album as a finished work, authorship becomes moot here as well. “Famous” is typical, crediting no less than sixteen writers (although some of these are the composers of the samples) and eight producers. It’s a drastically racheted-up version of the way Bowie made records, except that each of his albums drew on a finite team of players and a single producer or co-producer. Here, each individual song deploys a different line-up.
As you’d expect, then, Pablo is bitty. It’s an album of good bits and shit bits, all jumbled together. Nearly every song contains at least one great sound or rhythm idea. In “Famous,” it’s a sequence of what sounds like electro-Bollywood, but is actually Eighties dancehall queen Sister Nancy. In “Feedback”, it’s a gnarly loop distantly related to an Iranian disco song by Googoosh. In “FML”, it’s Section 25’s “Hit” drastically reprocessed into a psychedelic dirge of fluorescent bass and gargoyle vox. Other delights come from guest collaborators or producers, like the too-brief interlude of Laurie Anderson-like cyborg chorale from composer Caroline Shaw in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” or the lachrymose texture-swirls and echo-misted beat of “Real Friends,” built by Frank Jukes and Boi-1da.
But every good bit is marred by its proximity to a shit bit, and nine times out of ten, the latter involves a gross sentiment or a mewling, sloppy delivery emitted from the brain and mouth of West himself. Perhaps the most grating adjacency of beauty and beastly is “30 Hours”, where the blurry-souled mumble of Arthur Russell from World of Echo is accompanied by the self-regard and spite of a Kanye punch-drunk in the media echo-chamber. After a swipe at an ex’s supposedly fading looks and a jab about a blow job being better than having no job, the song degenerates into barely written drivel barely synched to the beat – the seeming off-the-cuff realism underlined by the interruption of a cellphone call and Kanye’s mumbled “I’m just doing an album track right now.”
Pablo grips your attention through an attraction-repulsion effect: the attraction largely pertaining to the sonics, the repulsion manifesting almost entirely in the lyrics. Despite the album’s disparate provenance and huge cast list, Kanye’s personality is overpoweringly present, oozing from every pore of the record. If there’s a thematic, it’s spiritual unrest and a longing for wholeness. Fractured and insatiable, Kanye confesses “I just wanna feel liberated” - freed from his own self, from the chains of appetite and vanity. At his core is a hungry hole that can be filled not by trophies and transient thrills but by God’s love alone.
Kanye has touted Pablo as a gospel album (its original working title was So Help Me God) and as a musical form gospel pops up several times, mostly early on. Featuring a squeaky-voiced 4-year old preacher and swells of choir, opener “Ultralight Beam” pleads for serenity and sanctuary. “‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” the next track, uses samples from a 1976 gospel record by Pastor T.L. Barret and Youth for Christ from West’s hometown Chicago. “Low Lights” takes a long passage of female testifying about the Lord’s inspirational power from “So Alive”, a track by house producer Kings of Tomorrow. Not for the first time, I was struck by the childish conception of the Almighty that seems to figure in hip hop: no trace of the Old Testament God of Thou Shalt Not, or the New Testament God who warns that the rich will have a tough time getting into heaven. This is a forgiving and indulgent deity, who offers ego-reinforcement and motivational uplift, unsurprisingly close to the all-American God who figures in prosperity theology a/k/a the gospel of wealth.
Entreaties to the Sky Daddy have featured in Kanye’s work from the start. “Jesus Walks”, on the debut The College Dropout, introduced his “at war with myself” shtick: torn in twain ‘tween venality and virtue, lowly libido and higher purpose. Except it didn’t seem like shtick then; it felt strikingly original. West continued to present himself as a divided soul – most movingly on Late Registration’s exquisite “Addicted” – and opened up the terrain occupied by the likes of Kendrick Lamar with songs like “Bitch, Don’t’ Kill My Vibe” (where Lamar identifies as a sinner while admitting “I’m probably gonna sin again”). A secular version of this woozy confusion came from Drake,who became a superstar by reveling in the fruits of fame and fortune while simultaneously complaining about the hollow-inside tristesse that followed.
These self-medicating and self-loathing (never enough to change or stop, of course) MCs constitute a late phase of rap I think of as its decadence. Where hip hop once thrilled with the barbarian rapacity of its hunger for success, now the genre – all conquering, sated – succumbs to a sickly malaise of self-doubt and overshared “sensitivity”. An inner void has become virtually a status symbol, like being player-hated once was: the true mark of having triumphed now is to feel like the treasure is worthless.
Kanye pioneered this brand of anhedonic numbness, complaining about feeling unreal when he sees himself on TV in the “Pinocchio Story,” the mawkish finale to his emo-rap album 808s & Heartbreak. As the listener ventures deeper into Pablo, the gospel concept dissolves both musically and thematically: the sonics are suggestive by turns of IDM, trap, and “21st Century hipster”, and lyrically any striving for higher ground gives way to the profane fare of paranoia and self-pity. “Famous” is supposedly Kanye “breaking-up” with Fame, (a temptress personified here by Rihanna) but he still manages to squeeze in some instantly-infamous jibes at Taylor Swift along with a legion of haters “mad they still nameless.” “Feedback” confesses “I’ve been out of my mind a long time” only to brandish that fact as support to his claim to be a modern Picasso: “name one genius that ain’t crazy.” “Real Friends” recycles laments first aired on 808s about the impossibility of leading a normal life: back then it involved a relative’s wedding and having to leave before they cut the cake, here it’s about always being in a hurry and not knowing how old his friends’s children are. The only new element is the dissing of a cousin who stole West’s laptop.
That crime and the “dirty motherfucker” responsible crop up a second time on “No More Parties in LA”, one of Pablo’s most cohesive and enjoyably groovy tracks: a Dilla-like throwback to underground rap’s hyno-loop aesthetic, with Madlib producing and guest verses from Kendrick Lamar. One sample source is “Suzy Thundertussy”, Junie Morrison’s funk track about a super groupie. The original song starts with the line “Los Angeles is a lonely sort of place”, but in “No More Parties”, the first two words - Morrison’s oozily enunciated “Los Angeles” - is turned into a recurrent refrain that sounds like “lost in lust” or, even more mystically, “lost in lost”. Like Lamar’s own “Swimming Pools”, the song sounds dissolute, the parties blurring into each other in a memory-haze of Hollywood Hills decadence. More than anything, “No More Parties” reminds me of “Hotel California” and Don Henley solo songs like “The Last Worthless Evening”: rock stars having their coke and critiquing it.
Since at least 808s & Heartbreak being a Kanye West fan has resembled a dysfunctional relationship where one partner keeps pushing the other away, constantly testing their limits. Where Drake exists “somewhere between psychotic and iconic,” the discomfort zone for Kanye is somewhere between mess and messianic, desperation and despotism. An asshole who knows he’s an asshole and tells you he’s an asshole - “a 38-year-old 8-year-old with rich nigga problemsudaciously upfront and often laugh-out-loud ways -- on this album, “I Love Kanye” - of telling you that.
Equal parts scattershot genius and splattershit grotesquerie, Life of Pablo is a reminder of rap’s enduring paradox: here’s an entertainment form based on personalities that in real life you would avoid like the plague - monologists, braggarts, slimeball lechers, pullers of rank. You wouldn’t want to be with these people; you wouldn’t want to be these people. To circle back to the start, that then raises the question: why do we need rock stars? (The “we” is rhetorical: I know many, perhaps most readers of this magazine either never felt such a need or have long out-grown it). At one point, there was interest and even illumination to gleaned from watching their megalo-melodrama from afar. Their misadventures and vision-quests made exhibitionist art out of the paradoxes and impasses of “living without limits” (as West phrases it on the most haunting song here, “FML” - an acronym for Fuck My Life). Stars showed how ascending to that scale of freedom could become its own trap. But we’ve seen this story acted out too many times. Fame-as-pathology, fame-as-catastrophe – it’s a script now.
Pablo’s final song “Fade” pivots around some classic house music samples -- Hardrive’s “Deep Inside,” Mr Fingers’s “Mystery of Love”- along with two different versions of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by Rare Earth and Undisputed Truth. Guest Ty Dolla $ign voices what sounds like Kanye’s personal plaint about needing attention to feel alive: “When no one ain’t around... Ain’t nobody watchin’... I just fade away”. When Barbara Tucker’s wondrous vocal lick from the Hardrive track – “deep deep down inside” – enters, it sounds blurrily processed, probably indecipherably so for listeners unfamiliar with the original garage anthem. I hear it as “deep deep down I’m stuck”. That’s Kanye West and that’s pop culture in 2016.