I have been putting off this blog post for a long time. In part, it’s because I’ve been busy with my last semester of college, two internships, and running a bunch of steeplechases. But the main reason that I’ve been procrastinating this review is because The Life of Pablo has torn me in a lot of different directions. Within a week or two of the album’s release, I had a thousand words of my thoughts about Pablo ready to go. They were mostly negative, but it didn’t feel right to completely trash the album. Kanye West is one of my all-time favorite artists and I regard several of his albums as masterpieces. I wanted this album to change my life, I was ready for it. The Life of Pablo is not the album to do that. It’s too long and full of momentum-killers. It has a lot of songs brimming with potential that are derailed by embarrassingly bad rapping. It’s Kanye taking some big swings and striking out.
Kanye albums have been home to some of the most innovative production of the last ten years, and Pablo lives up to its predecessors. The Pastor T.L. Barrett-sampling intro in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” features a gloriously drawn-out (but now over-memed) Metro Boomin tag and builds into Kid Cudi’s joyous hook in epic fashion. But the production is quickly forgotten when Kanye’s first lines are about bleached assholes. “Famous”, with the uncomfortable sex-with-Taylor Swift lines, closes with the bouncy “Bam Bam” outro, which is genius and transforms the original song into something bigger. Inconsistency and unevenness run deep on Pablo. Even the already-classic “Ultralight Beam”feels skeletal and haphazardly pieced together before Chance spits a Hall Of Fame verse that absolves any previous sins.
“Pt. 2” is another misguided song that boasts lot of potential but ultimately falls flat. Kanye shared the song lyrics before the album’s debut and my expectations for the song skyrocketed. He says he cried while he wrote it. He references his father’s mistakes, his mother’s death, and his near-fatal car accident all in one verse. I was ready for an emotionally devastating Kanye performance. But the finished product? He’s rapping with the Autotune turned way up on a remix of Desiigner’s trap anthem “Panda”. I’m not saying rappers can’t convey emotion with this style of hip hop; Future does it all the time. But right after Kanye’s verse, the hook bursts in with “I got broads in Atlanta / Twisting dope, lean, and the Fanta” and the song officially becomes a confusing mess. “Pt. 2” goes from exploring some deep topics (though maybe not in the most effective way) to transforming into a hype anthem, which is just one of Kanye’s many frustrating choices made within Pablo‘s 59 minutes.
Not every rapper has to use internal rhyme schemes or tell vivid stories to make rewarding music. Kanye has never been the most talented lyricist or had the smoothest delivery, but it has rarely compromised the quality of his music (save for some of his guest verses, where he often struggles to fit in and elevate the song with his presence). At his best, his rapping is personal, clever, and memorable. Despite flashes of these qualities, The Life of Pablo is ultimately bogged down by poorly executed delivery of clunky and childish lyrics. His delivery is usually clear and simple, which highlights his weak lines more so than someone like Young Thug. He has an annoying habit of repeating a line right after he says it the first time. Among the misfires there are still gems such as “I just copped a jet to fly over personal debt”, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”, and most of the second verse in “No More Parties in L.A.”, but these quotables can’t hold together the album.
“Real Friends”, positioned towards the end of the “actual” album (aka everything before “30 Hours”), is a friendly reminder of what makes timeless Kanye songs. It’s a simple concept that hits home: “Real friends, how many of us?” The piano-driven beat is haunting but also has an instant feel of nostalgia and comfort. Kanye’s straightforward and honest lyrics are what makes his songs enduring. His flow is natural and even when he breaks out of it to fit in all his thoughts into a single line (“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fucking bitches on”), it’s forgivable because it really feels like we’re getting a look into his mind.
The Life of Pablo is an album of what-ifs. What if the tracklist wasn’t so bloated with deadweight songs? What if the lyrics were fine-tuned a little bit more? What if all the songs were fully fleshed-out like “FML” and “Real Friends”? What if lines like “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / This n*gga when he off his Lexapro” were explored more? Would I be here talking about another classic Mr. West product?
This isn’t a disappointing album for me because of a few bad lines or because I need a deep album from Kanye to consider it worthwhile. When I listen, I can’t help but hear the flaws. I hear the unused potential and the disconnect between the instrumentals and the lyrics. It’s distracting and frustrating. Kanye probably had an amazing album within his grasp, but Pablo‘s final form is more similar to a glorified mixtape: it’s too long, doesn’t flow, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s hard to view it as a singular piece of art like his other albums. It’s pretty easy to get the whole picture on the first listen.
I can’t tell what I would think of The Life of Pablo if I had never heard Late Registration or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Maybe I don’t like it because I had such high expectations. The Life of Pablo isn’t a fun listen for me, but I can hear the greatness within it.