Usually #ABookAWeek focuses on the book I read that week, but this week I won't lie, I listened to Kanye's new album, The Life Of Pablo, at least 50 times. It consumed my entire week, and I think it is worth examining just as much as any book.
Let's dive in:
Some background here first. I have been listening to Kanye West ever since The College Dropout blasted onto the scene in 2004 (I just pulled that date from memory btw). In short, I have watched Kanye grow as an artist, so know that when I say The Life Of Pablo is his best album yet, I say so with a strong awareness of the hits from Graduation (or any of his first 3 albums), the risks taken with 808s and Heartbreaks, and the beauty of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The Life Of Pablo blows them all out of the water.
I have spent the past week reading all the reviews of The Life Of Pablo online, and truthfully none of them even scratch the surface. They talk about how Kanye has "lost it" or how he is "attacking the structure of what an album should be." They talk about his infatuation with fame. They talk about his crazed production and interlaced features, but none of them have gone to the depths. Some even compare Kanye's life directly to Pablo Picasso's life.
Sure, we could go through and match up Kanye albums to the different artistic periods the iconic Picasso went through, but that still would be depriving Kanye of his own artistry. All we would be doing is drawing a parallel and calling it a day.
So what is The Life Of Pablo?
It is a self portrait by a manic-depressive artist.
There's no easy to tackle this project because it's all over the place, but let's see what we can do:
The Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man
If we look back at Kanye's earliest albums, we hear a boy. A kid who wanted to be heard, and spoke from the heart. This is what Kanye is referring to in TLOP when he mocks public opinion with the lyrics, "I miss the old Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye...". It is every artist's challenge to deal with people who want their "old stuff" (Jay-Z addresses this on The Blueprint III when he says, "...want my old shit? / buy my old album").
In Kanye's case, it is exacerbated by the fact that he was so genuine as a kid, and since then has seemingly gone haywire. If you ask anyone what they think of Kanye, their first response is, "Honestly I hate him as a person." It's unfortunate, because he is a great artist.
We saw this progression escalate drastically after 808s and Heartbreak. I think that was his breaking point. For one, that album was made right after his mother died. Second, it was his first real leap outside of conventional hip-hop and his classic sound, and through its success I think he realized he could take more chances. We saw that risk taking really come out in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not just in the music, but in the writing. It was Kanye both unfiltered and more self-aware than ever.
The Life Of Pablo took the best elements of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and turned them way, way up.
The album is very reminiscent of James Joyce's first novel, "The Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man." The novel "traces religious and intellectual awakening of young Stephen Dedalus, a fictional alter-ego of Joyce and an allusion to the Greek God, Daedalus."
This is, almost verbatim, what Kanye does in TLOP. He takes that self-awareness discovered through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and, as a narrator, goes all the way in. He embodies the character and persona of "Kanye" completely, this public personal everyone has learned to love to hate—and at the same time, in one track, he peeks from behind the curtain and waves at his audience. "What if Kanye made a song about Kanye? Called "I Miss the Old Kanye"? Man that'd so Kanye!"
He is very aware of the persona he is creating, and it's actually through the embodiment of that persona, the decision to fully step into the character for the duration of the album, that he actually awakens as an artist himself.
In spirituality, we would call this "stepping into The Witness."
He is witnessing himself (and all his ups and downs), through his music.
The Creative Director
Kanye West is not the best songwriter. He is not the best producer (although in hip-hop, top 5 for sure). He is not the best rapper. He is not "the best" of anything.
However, what he IS the best at, is creative direction.
When you listen to a Kanye album, it is full. It is total. It is an idea seen through from beginning to end. Some say The Life Of Pablo is the anti-album. I completely disagree. I actually think it is the epitome of an album in its totality.
The way songs start and stop at their highest points.
The way ideas begin and end at random.
The fact is, once you hit Play on TLOP, you can't stop. Every time you think "Ok, I'll break after this song," you have to keep going because he hooks you. It's as if Kanye knows right about when the listener will start to get bored, and then throws them into the next song and idea. There are no "best tracks" of TLOP. There is no "I'm only going to listen to these few songs." What makes each track so great is the way it fits with the rest of the puzzle. You either embrace the whole thing, or you don't—just like you wouldn't look at a painting and say, "Well, I like the bottom left-hand corner, but everything else is meh." It's all or nothing (which is yet another parallel to Kanye's manic-depressive state, all or nothing).
In this same fashion (no pun intended), it is this gift of creative direction that makes Kanye such a putz in mainstream media. He sees the entire world as a stage and he is the one running around with a megaphone yelling stage directions. It's what makes him such a brilliant artist, but it's also why people absolutely despise his public image. He thinks he is the creative director of, not just himself and his art, but everybody else's art.
Hilarious, to say the least.
Let's talk about the musical textures used in TLOP. Honestly, the lyrical content is amusing, at best. It is revealing, at times. It is thought provoking once in a blue moon. It reads like a Cosmo column revealing the secrets of celebrity life. But the musicality of it all, and the textures of the instruments, tells the real story.
For the fun of it, let's look at a few Picasso paintings:
Listening to TLOP (and this is the only way I can describe this) is it feels like you are LISTENING to a painting.
The way the soul samples have this harsh distortion over them, creating the feeling of chalk.
The way Kanye's vocals are auto-tuned like a fine-tip paint brush.
The way he blends rich orchestral strings with plasticy 808 claps, distorted bass melodies and vibrant gospel choirs.
There are so many different textures, and in the hands of anyone else this project would have been a mess. But to an experienced painter, these conflicting elements create a very unique, distinct, and vibrant work of art. Picasso-esqe, to say the least.
These textures are the reason why we as listeners can tolerate his bravado as a narrator. In fact, they actually help us make sense of what he is really saying. The best example of this is in the song "Highlights" when he says: "I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain't love the same bitch / 'Ye mad he hit it first / Only problem is I'm rich." (Background if you didn't know: Kanye's wife Kim K got famous from a sex tape with R&B singer Ray J)
What makes this moment so tolerable is the music that comes in immediately to follow. It is in a major key. It is uplifting. It is melodic. It is heartwarming. You would expect shit-talking lyrics like these to be paired with something harsh and dark instrumentally, but they're not. They are paired with a warmness that makes you realize underneath Kanye's aggressive lyrics is an unseen insecurity and subtly reveals an artist at odds with the world.
And he doesn't just do this once.
He does it over and over and over again.
This is what makes TLOP the work of art that it is. It is not intended to be a "radio album." It is not intended to be "hit after hit." It is not intended to "bring back hip-hop." This is Kanye stepping back from himself, as an artist, and painting what he sees—good or bad.
The Life Of Pablo is Kanye's best album, not because of how good it sounds, not because of how much controversy it has generated, but because it is his most intentional album yet. It is the giant leap every great artist hopes to one day take, and that is both fully embracing the embodiment of their ego, and at the same time, stepping back to see clearly enough how they can paint it.
The Life Of Pablo is this: