Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo”

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Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo”

By James Finn

In late January, several weeks before Kanye West released his long-awaited “The Life of Pablo,” West tweeted that his latest release “is actually a gospel album.” “The Life of Pablo’s” lyrics and their musical accompaniment support his statement, with extended allusions to religion and the divine, rousing gospel-choir background singers throughout, and lush, sweeping organs layered beneath the album’s vocals.

But if the album’s gospel-esque musicality and lyrics are meant to worship someone, that person is, as in so much of West’s prior work, Kanye himself. When it comes to self-aggrandizement in rap,  Kanye West is the champ. “This is a God dream,” West chants in “Ultralight Beam,” the album’s stellar opening track. Any listener who has prior experience with Kanye’s music knows immediately that the subject of the so-called “God-dream” is Mr. West. For those who don’t, the truth becomes evident pretty quickly. The album features a plethora of guest artists, all of whom contribute to a work that could be likened to a church service in honor of Kanye. “I made Sunday Candy, I’m never going to hell—I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” boasts Chance the Rapper on “Ultralight Beam.”

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The theme of self-worship persists throughout when Kanye attempts to justify his eccentricities by ordering his listeners to “name a genius that ain’t crazy” on “Feedback.” On this release, it seems as though Kanye is more aware of his image—he even takes a satirical stab at his self-interest on the 44-second “I Love Kanye,” which is so self-applauding (“I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”) that it almost seems as though West is satirizing the self-obsessed conception of himself that has become so prevalent in modern media. That newfound self-awareness shines through again on “Real Friends,” when Kanye asks himself, “When was the last time I remembered a birthday, when was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry.”

Make no mistake—Kanye is as self-obsessed on “Pablo” as ever. And yet, the album’s excellence shines through. “The Life of Pablo’s” musical brilliance is evocative of West’s classic 2010 release “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which set the standard for the musically innovative rap that he reprises with “Pablo.”

Musically, no other rappers are doing anything like this. “Pablo” is the rap equivalent of a well-arranged symphony. Tracks such as “Famous,” “Waves,” “FML” and “Real Friends” astound by virtue of the beauty of their lushly layered organs, synthesizers, vocal ensembles and the varied voices of West’s many guest artists — characteristics present on “Fantasy” as well. As with “Fantasy,” the music itself is (almost) what is most appreciable, not West’s rapped lyrics. But “Pablo” employs a sound that is more experimental, and for all of its elaborate arrangements, more minimalistic and stark than that of “Fantasy.” “Pablo” exhibits a range of unique sounds and styles that run the gamut from the aforementioned gospel style to EDM. The percussion on several of the tracks even evoke dark ’80 synthesizer pop (think Eurythmics). “FML” features an echoing, ethereal beat that perhaps is meant to evoke its artist’s self-perceived godliness. The album’s musical greatness alone makes it worth listening to.

One thing that makes “Life of Pablo” less great is how difficult it is to get ahold of. West released the album to be available exclusively through Tidal, the music streaming service run by his friend and business partner Jay Z. If you don’t have a Tidal account and choose to refrain from downloading “Life of Pablo” illegally, you’re out of luck (unless you give Tidal your credit card information in order to access the website’s 30-day free trial and cancel your subscription before payment kicks in, like I did). If you have Tidal, though, or even if you have a friend who has it, give “The Life of Pablo” a listen — you won’t be disappointed.