Some Songs Considered #043: The 7-Day, 7-Stage Life of Pablo
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
As of today, the Kanye fans of the world (myself included), have had just about a week to process The Life of Pablo.
We’ve all had different journeys with the album, and mine is by no means definitive. But I’ve borne witness, and I’m here today to testify; not as an expression of faith, but one of hope.
These are my seven stages of Pablo, my seven day theory.
“This album is perfect. He’s done it again.”
It was worth it. The title uncertainty, the track list changes, the Twitter breakdowns, “Facts” – every terrifying act of misdirection Kanye has thrown our way in the name of this album for the last month, they all seem so trivial now. The only thing that matters is this perfect, perfect album: Chance the Rapper’s tear-jerking “Ultralight Beams” verse, the triumphant flip of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” on “Famous,” the gut-wrenching outro of “FML,” the much-anticipated “Wolves” CDQ. It’s a masterpiece. This is Kanye’s greatest album yet. His God-status remains intact.
“This is his aging star athlete album”
Alright, it may seem like Kanye’s contributions to the album, particularly with regard to his rapping, are scant. But that’s okay! This is Kanye’s aging star athlete album – he’s surrounded himself with a team of young guns to do the heavy lifting, but at the end of the day, he’s still the captain. We have to make peace with the fact that we’re never going to get sped-up-soul-sample Kanye again, and we can’t expect the kind of lyrical dynamite we heard on “Through the Wire”# or the kind of perfectly-constructed story verse of a “Drive Slow”# or “Still Dreaming.”
But instead we get moments like the incredible Metro Boomin drop, and ideal settings for Chance and Kendrick to be amazing, and surprisingly great contributions from Chris Brown and Post Malone. It’s all good! Nobody could bring all these artists together and squeeze the very best out of them like Kanye. Even if the tracks on the back end of the album (man, why’d you have to keep “Facts” on there) aren’t that great.
And look, people really are signing up for TIDAL!
“Listening to this is hard”
Fine, I can’t pretend anymore that these lyrics aren’t bothering me – I love “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” but that “bleach” line is so devastating. How did that line make the final cut? Maybe he really is surrounded by “yes” men, just like Rhymefest says.
That’s to say nothing of the reference to Taylor Swift, who dragged him hard at the Grammys, and you know what? She’s absolutely right. I’m on her side, here. This is awful.
“This album is a prison”
I’m trapped. This is a horrible feeling. I can’t stop listening to The Life of Pablo, but I also recognize that it’s indefensible. Kanye’s crossed the line, finally and forever: I can no longer separate him from his art. And it doesn’t help that a good chunk of this album sounds hastily made, shoddy, wholly unworthy of the most important 21st century pop artist.
And it’s not over. It might not even be finished. What if Kanye has decided that he wants to control the media cycle forever by saying terrible things every day and making The Life of Pablo worse by adding more bad songs in perpetuity? Yeezus, why have you forsaken me?
“I still can’t stop listening to this album”
I’ve had several days to process, and while the pains of The Life of Pablo haven’t diminished – neither have its pleasures. That “Bam Bam” flip still sounds like a stroke of genius. Kelly Price sounds even more immaculate on “Ultralight Beams.” I feel a deep, uncomfortable sympathy when Kanye raps about the episode he suffers through while not taking his Lexapro. I’m going through a hard time with the new Kanye – but clearly so is Kanye.
Hey, here’s something I just realized – he refers to “30 Hours” as a bonus track. At the Madison Square Garden event, we heard “Ultralight Beams” first, and “Wolves” last. Is the album meant to be understood as a 13 track LP, from “Ultra Light Beams” to “Wolves,” and the remainder a series of bonus tracks? Let me listen again…
“This album is a song cycle”
Something amazing happens when you listen to The Life of Pablo from “Ultralight Beams” to “Wolves” and back again: the LP reveals itself as a song cycle, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
Bookended by the most religious songs, one dark and doubtful and one exuberant and full of light, the embarrassing and vulgar moments of the other tracks feel intentional, thoughtful, synergistic with the whole. With “Wolves” and “Ultralight Beams” as its alpha and omega, Pablo can read as a story of redemption, like the life of Paul the Apostle, or a story of damnation, like the life of Pablo Escobar. It all depends on the track order.
But why would he hide this from us? Why wouldn’t he be clear from outset that everything after “Wolves” is not technically canon? And why keep changing it, and why all the thirsty Tweets? I have doubts, Yeezus. I have such doubts.
Kanye appeared to me today in a vision, to reveal the meaning of The Life of Pablo. I said, “what up, Yeezus?” He said:
The meaning is that there is no meaning – there is no guiding thematic purpose or artistic objective, there is no God-like message being handed down from on high, and in fact there is no album. In fact, there is no God. Or if there is, it’s not Kanye.
The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s reverse-ascension: it’s an act of asserting once and for all his mortality, his fallibility, his realness. To release an album in the traditional sense is to hand down commandments – forever unchanging, set in stone. To do what Kanye is doing with The Life of Pablo is exactly the opposite. This collection of songs will be forever in flux, forever malleable and never complete. It’s the ultimate democratizing act; Kanye is transcending the Master/Slave dialectic of the artist/audience relationship by letting us decide what the album is. It’s a gift.
His willingness to express the worst, most vulgar, and most human parts of himself – this, too, is its own kind of generosity. The process of creating the album was designed to optimize unfiltered expression; when you plan too hard, the ego gets in the way, and protects the mind from full exposure. As a result, we got what sounds like an unpolished, raw product. But it’s also the most honest Kanye’s ever been with us.
Kanye’s pursuit of perfection is over – gone are the days of obsessing over 75 identical mixes of “Stronger.” It’s even possible that his pursuit of music is over. Gods don’t change, but people do, and we have to accept that Kanye is human. And as a Kanye fan, when you do accept it, a wonderful thing happens – you free yourself. You become free from the responsibility of Stan-ing for everything Kanye does, says, and makes. You free yourself from defending his temper, his often problematic worldview, and his *gulp* bad songs. Yes, there are some bad Kanye songs. And that’s okay. It’s okay to miss the old Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye. But The Life of Pablo is yours, and you can feel however you want about it.
I no longer have faith in Kanye, because faith is the wrong word. But I do believe that he loves us like he loves Kanye. And that’s really something.
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