Album Review: The Life of Pablo

None of the best moments on Kanye West’s new album involve Kanye’s voice. Rapping alongside superior contemporaries like Drake and Kendrick Lamar in recent years has exposed Kanye’s biggest crutch: his own vocal chords, which have always been melodically inadequate, but now have recently developed into a braggadocious nuisance. One can’t even read his Twitter feed nowadays without wondering whether his delusions of grandeur are serious or a serious case of insecurity, and either way his Internet musings don’t make for anything inspirational anymore. If there’s anything we learn about Kanye West on The Life of Pablo, it’s that what he says doesn’t matter nearly as much as what it once did.

That’s not to say that The Life of Pablo is a bad album. Rather surprisingly, it’s a pretty good album, despite the mess of a release that started with a worldwide simulcast of a boring fashion show and continues with questions about whether we’re going to see a physical release or not. But the album’s quality has less to do with Kanye as a rapper and more to do with Kanye’s two greater strengths: production and collaboration.

Just about every song on the album boasts a distinct and enthralling instrumental, reaffirming Kanye as the most unpredictable and consistently brilliant producer in the business. The maximalist vocals on “Ultralight Beam” and “Waves” sound heavenly, while the abrasiveness on songs like “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” harken back to the best moments on his genre-bending Yeezus. Even the better-on-paper moments like Caroline Shaw’s howls on “Wolves” and the Sister Nancy sample on “Famous” still sound pretty good in a vacuum, and the more ambitious moments like the dance rhythm on “Fade” and the watery piano on “Real Friends” end up being some of the most satisfying sounds on the project. “Wolves” gets a little boring after a few listens and “Facts” sounds plain corny, but everything else sounds tremendous.

That is, everything sounds tremendous until Kanye starts talking. “Father Strech My Hands Pt. 1” explodes with the greatest chorus Kid Cudi has ever recorded, only to lead to an exceptionally dumb line about Kanye wondering whether the model he just had sex with stained his t-shirt with her bleached asshole. “Feedback” suffers from the same issues, with Kanye ruining a heart-stopping rhythm with the laziest one-liners he’s ever come up with. The only time that he sounds remotely original is during “FML” when he reflects on his temper off his behavioural medication, and even that seems shallow compared to the emotional caverns on 808s and Heartbreak or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He might have been better off leaving himself off the album entirely; there isn’t a song here that is improved by his voice.

Kanye’s poor vocal contributions are especially disappointing considering he was once a legitimately great lyricist. After six years of talking about nothing but promiscuous sex, however, Kanye’s shtick is starting to peel off. His problem may not even be lack of quality; lines like “sometimes I’m wishing that my dick had Go-Pro” and “my sheets still orange from your spray tan” would be funny bars from 2 Chainz, but coming from the guy who rapped “I put the pussy in a sarcophagus” three albums ago, they inspire nothing but eye-rolling. The most disappointing manifestation of his stubbornness appears on “Famous,” where he proclaims that he and Taylor Swift, “…could still have sex/why?/I made that bitch famous.” This is both untrue and disrespectful, and for once I found myself on Team T-Swizzle and her on-point Grammy acceptance speech. This was disheartening for me because for the first time in my life, I was wishing Kanye West, the greatest rapper of all time, would just shut up.

Thankfully, Kanye’s collaborators are here to pick up the slack. Mediocre musicians like Kid Cudi, Chris Brown, Post Malone, and The Weeknd all sound great on their respective contributions, and established talents like Ty Dolla $ign, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and most notably Chance the Rapper all use Kanye’s pedestal to lift themselves up to unmatched heights. One height in particular, the opener “Ultralight Beam,” finds The Dream, Kelly Price, and a gospel choir drowning out Kanye’s own voice before Chance brings the house down with a sung verse straight from the Southside paradise he claims. “Ultralight Beam” is the best opener on any Kanye album and one of the ten best songs he’s ever produced, and the reasons have almost nothing to do with his own contributions. Ty Dolla $ign provides an equally beautiful hook on “Real Friends,” and even the minimal contributions from misanthropic geniuses Frank Ocean and Andre 3000 are exciting enough to warrant joyful squeals when their voices pop up on “Wolves” and “30 Hours,” respectively. Kanye’s position at the height of the hip-hop world deserved collaborations to match, and considering his own deteriorating writing talents, he’s really fortunate that everyone came through with their own.

When Kanye finally calls it quits, all of the drama surrounding his albums will most likely be forgotten, leaving us to judge Mr. West on the quality of his products. The Life of Pablo could stand a lot of cuts, “Facts” and the three interludes especially, but ultimately it will stand as an album worthy of the hype that his art has inspired throughout the years. I doubt Pablo will be as influential as The College Dropout or 808s were, but it proves that there is justification to that Kanye-sized ego that Kanye carries around.

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