Of course we all know how much of a headache the rollout for Kanye West's ambitious seventh studio album has been to keep up with: the multiple name changes, the flip-flopping on the cover art and track listing, the adding and subtracting of features, the TIDAL exclusivity and the number of demos surfacing online. That isn't even to speak of the non-album events, which included flexing Twitter fingers with Wiz Khalifa, defending Bill Cosby, stream-of-consciousness musings on personal debt and the price of textbooks.
These moments have been enough to either strengthen the listener's bond with West or make them miss the old Kanye that much more; but then, he challenges on "Feedback," "Name one genius that ain't crazy." The way in which
The record is splintered in its approach, with West's musical ideas largely proving to be either overdeveloped or not developed enough. The scattershot suite "Father Stretch My Hands" is the biggest offender of the former category, cobbling together dusty gospel samples, a heaven-sent hook to revive Kid Cudi's career, an interpolation of N.Y. upstart Desiigner's street hit "Panda" and a solo vocoder all in a little over four minutes. Harried transitions do little to establish any sense of direction — a strange quality for an album that boasts a wealth of West's production calling cards. Creative sampling shines through on "Famous," which takes vocals from Sister Nancy and Nina Simone, while Goldfrapp's eerie solo strings glide through "Freestyle 4" and "FML" flips post-punk vets Section 25.
After all this endless revision, the highs of Pablo still arrive with a sense of grandeur that's come to be expected with West's recent work. "Ultralight Beam" is a jaw-dropping opener that sees Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream and Chance the Rapper bear most of the weight in delivering the gospel-indebted masterpiece. It also stands as a testament to how good West is at getting nothing less than the best from his contributors. The Weeknd is the perfect fit for the emotive, self-lacerating hook of "FML," while Ty Dolla $ign flows effortlessly through "Real Friends." West even makes Chris Brown sound redeemable for a brief moment amidst the uplifting tremolo choir of "Waves."
For West in particular, most of his better showings on the mic for Pablo come later in the track list. The short a cappella "I Love Kanye" is a humorous self-examination, a reprieve from the confessional nature of the record's final three songs; "FML" takes aim at giving up his life of excess for monogamy; "Real Friends" is an admission to strained relationships between friends and family; "Wolves" is a final prayer for the safety of his young family, full of biblical imagery: "What if Mary / Was in the club / When she met Joseph / Around hella thugs."
The handful of bonus cuts tacked onto the release last-minute are also worth mentioning. "30 Hours" sees West reflect on a former long-distance relationship in uncharacteristically calm fashion, while his wit is razor sharp as he lines up alongside Kendrick Lamar on the Madlib-produced "No More Parties in L.A." for his best bars on the entire record.
But for every bit of clever wordplay, some of the punchlines here — low-hanging fruit, mostly — may have been better left out. West openly wishing he could strap a GoPro camera to his genitals to "play that shit back in slo-mo" and stating he's "from a tribe called check-a-hoe" are cringe-worthy, but "Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my t-shirt / I'mma feel like an asshole" could easily stand as one of his worst lyrics. The highly publicized Taylor Swift jab in "Famous" was completely unnecessary and avoidable, and the one mention of wife Kim Kardashian comes in the cheap "I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain't love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first / Only problem is I'm rich."
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains the apex of West's maximalist visions, and while The Life of Pablo certainly aims high, it isn't as consistently pointed in delivering both music and message as its big-budget predecessor was. And yet, it remains a modern gospel that is undeniably West's own, with a handful of vexatious moments peppered throughout the undeniably visionary ones.