An artist dealing in extremes, Chicago Ill. hip hop producer, entrepreneur, and fashion designer Kanye West’s work teeters between megalomania and humility in a perpetual state of cogitation. West initially received fame in the early 2000s as a songwriter and producer for Roc-a-Fella Records, working with artists like Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson, but it was his following solo career that elevated him to A-list status.
While many of his records, like 2004’s “The College Dropout,” are received as classics, the public sphere often has trouble separating the art from the artist, citing him as everything from a creative inspiration to a misogynistic and verbose egotist.
He carries this inconsistent demeanor to all of his endeavors, including 2003’s Kanye West Foundation, battling youth illiteracy in Chicago, or 2009’s MTV Video Music Awards, where he interrupted pop star Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech on live television. While celebrity buzz flocks to his controversial words and actions, the ensuing spectacle often fails to acknowledge the actual music West writes. His seventh full-length album, “The Life of Pablo,” was released on Saturday, Feb. 13 on Tidal for streaming, but West the musician stands in the shadow of West the iconoclast.
As detailed in a 2012 interview with Ellen DeGeneres, West the musician treats a composition as a collage. Afflicted with synesthesia, he perceives music as a series of visual colors, and in songwriting, acts as an impressionist. In this sense, “The Life of Pablo” is a canvas of contrast, an aural document of gospel, R&B, trap and house with West’s signature in bold. The 18 tracks presented here are components of a greater whole, guiding the listener through the disparate junctures of West’s mind.
Opener “Ultralight Beam” greets the ears as a gospel proclamation of faith, curbing uncertainty through prayer. Cut-up drum breaks and fretless bass interject the bellows of a full choir. Soon after, Chance the Rapper repurposes lyrics from West and Jay-Z’s song “Otis,” rapping that he “made ‘Sunday Candy,’ I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail” in a slant rhyme nodding to the wordplay of “The College Dropout.” West’s newest album seemingly launches on a note of gratitude.
Yet, lyrically, “Pablo” sees West fumbling to find himself, his vision blinded by the multiplicity of personae built by American media. “FACTS” taunts anyone listening, with West pointing to album sales and sneaker sales, but his ego trip stops, these numbers trivialized by the number of yearly murders in his hometown. Similarly, the line “Name one genius that ain’t crazy” on “Feedback” feigns braggadocio, giving way to sheer absurdity in a skit parodying the Oprah Winfrey show. West slips into arrogance like an oversized costume: viewers can see its exaggerated proportions, but they can tell West fails to fill it out.
Insecurity permeates his composure on “No More Parties in LA,” a plea to leave the fast celebrity lifestyle behind. A funk instrumental crafted by West and Madlib states its urgency with a punchy bass and trebly guitar, but is constantly interrupted by vocal samples. West stutters, passing the microphone to Kendrick Lamar in a take on 1990s G-funk updated with 2010s malaise. West’s flow picks up at an incalzando, scrutinizing stardom and resolving to love what is genuine.
West states this without hesitation on “Real Friends,” an exercise in honesty that serves as the album’s centerpiece. The scathing lens of self-loathing confronts West’s internal feelings, commits them to a beat and broadcasts them to the ears. He warns that “any argument, the media will extend it” in an attempt to sunder the self from its portrayal. The sparse, reverberated piano and distant kick drum never overpower what is being said, creating the backdrop to West’s confessional. The lavish and detailed production of “Pablo” halts to reveal a “deadbeat cousin” who will spend “maybe 15 minutes” with his family on Christmas.
Erratic mood swings aside, West’s production is still his greatest asset. “The Life of Pablo” cycles through a spectrum of human emotions, but West’s ability to construct an instrumental to convey these emotions is peerless.
Despite the density of “Ultralight Beam,” no voice or instrument feels uncomfortable in the mix. While the verses of “No More Parties in LA” feel disorienting, they intentionally mirror any person wading through the sea of an urban metropolis. The ability to instrumentally execute both minimalism and maximalism and effectively navigate the parameters of these extremes is the mark of a brilliant musician.
“The Life of Pablo” is a varied exhibit, sifting through West’s fascinations. Here, he chooses not to reinvent himself, like he did with the synthetic R&B of 2008’s “808s and Heartbreak” or the industrial-punk of 2013’s “Yeezus.” The warm analog resonance of the Roland drum machine, the uncanny robotics of Auto-Tune, and the pitched-up soul samples that became West’s trademark all fit in a nexus where his hubris freely trades place with his regret.
There is no mission statement to Kanye West. Verbal assaults on figures like former U.S. president George W. Bush entreat redemption with apologies like 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” He grasps for attention, but he never finds compassion. The humanity of “Real Friends” is not new. It filters through songs like 2006’s “Bittersweet Poetry” or 2004’s “Family Business.” This cycle of actions and amends is a human experience, made hyperbole through the guise of American media.
Jeffrey Holmes is a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy. They can be reached at JH791223@wcupa.edu.