Sometimes even the best artists lose their mojo. Sometimes even the best artists fall prey to their big egos. Sadly, Kanye West has done both with his new album, The Life of Pablo. But did we really need a new album to learn these things about Kanye? Probably not. It was pretty obvious that he’d lost his marbles when he recently tweeted, “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!” I mean, sure, people are supposed to be presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law, but when that many women accuse you of rape and other sexual abuse, something must be rotten in Denmark. Otherwise, they’re all part of the greatest conspiracy since Roswell. Further proof that Kanye has lost his marbles? On “Famous,” he raps about Taylor Swift, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” Talk about a self-destructive, arrogant man. For one thing, Taylor was already as famous as he was before his rude award acceptant speech interruption. But they made up after that — I believe they even joked about it — and they seemed to be part of a mutual admiration society. At the very least, it appeared that they respected each other. But now Kanye’s gone and thrown any semblance of friendship they had, or someday might have had, down the toilet, this all in the interest of something as petty as shock value. (It’s pretty inconsiderate for someone who goes on and on about his own feelings on his new album not to care about somebody else’s.) It might amuse some of his younger fans who worship the ground he walks on, but most of us will just sympathize with Taylor and be disgusted with him. And this business of publicly asking Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollars is pathetic. Even if publicly asking a celebrity for money wasn’t tacky, Kanye is said to be 53 million in debt, so why should Zuckerberg give him millions of dollars more than he even needs? It’s confusing, isn’t it? Well, so is The Life of Pablo. We’re talking about an album that could be named after Pablo Escobar, Saint Paul or Pablo Picasso, depending on who you ask. But since the album cover reads “WHICH / ONE” several times, he clearly intends to keep us guessing. Which would be fine if it was the only bizarre thing about the record, but it’s far from it.
Sometimes an artist has to throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks. In the case of The Life of Pablo, Kanye threw enough ideas for four albums on there and forced them all to stick with super glue. Listening to its songs feels like looking at an obsessive detective’s work board on a bank robbery case. There are two hundred photos and Post-It notes, all in a seemingly random order. Good luck getting to the bottom of things. These songs have far too many clues, half of which ring false. You know Kanye is the detective, but he doesn’t make any more sense than his board. You’ll feel like it’s not even worth deducing what he has to say. You know there are too many cooks in the kitchen when songs have as many as six producers and nine co-writers. And the sauce they’ve come up with is too salty, too sweet, and just plain gross. Compared to this, Rihanna’s oddball album ANTI is album of the year material. At least that has a cohesive, stripped back and slowed down, if minimalist, vision. I can actually listen to that album and appreciate its general vibe even if it’s rather lacking in the hook department.
Perhaps one of The Life of Pablo’s greatest weaknesses is that Kanye is too much of a perfectionist for his own good. At some point, perhaps a month or two ago, he probably had a solid album. I don’t think it was ever going to be nearly as good as his other (mostly) grade A records, but it might have scored a solid, respectable B, still better than the output of many of his contemporaries. But he apparently tweaked it to death. During the last couple of weeks the title went from Swish to Waves to The Life of Pablo. Meanwhile, guests were added and subtracted as if they were nothing more than simple beats and not actual people. When he did finally release the album on Valentine’s Day strictly via his website, he quickly took it down with the explanation that he was going to “fix ‘Wolves.'” He also stated that it would be on Tidal for a week then it would be for sale and on stream services everywhere. Well, that didn’t stick. Now he’s saying that it will never be for sale and that it will only ever be available to hear on Tidal. And the new G.O.O.D. Friday tracks he promised to give people every week? Now he’s not giving them away. Or selling them. They’ll only be on Tidal, too. Only an artist with a God complex like Kanye would promise his fans free music downloads then change his mind and say that they can only stream the tracks and only then if they pay $9.99 – $19.99 a month. Plus, fans want to own their favorite artists albums and the idea that they should have to pay a monthly fee just to stream them is absurd. Fans often listen to new albums by their favorite artists for months, even years after they come about. Should they have to indefinitely pay a monthly fee to do so? It’s outrageous. And it’s pretty ironic that a guy who’s so broke that he’s publicly begging for money should make his fans pay a monthly fee to listen to his album. I suppose the joke is on him, though, as most people seem unwilling to pay for Tidal and will likely just download his album illegally in order to listen to it, as millions of them undoubtedly already have since he stopped selling it on Saturday. Another thing that sucks for Kanye’s fans is that the album apparently won’t be released on CD or vinyl, if it’s only going to be on Tidal. If he was one of my favorite artists, I’d be pretty bummed about that. I wonder what he would have thought when he was a kid if one of his favorite artists said you’d only be able to listen to their new songs on the radio, that you couldn’t walk into the record store and buy their albums? But the lack of quality and coherency are the much, much bigger issues.
Still, there are a small number of impressive tracks on The Life of Pablo. Opener “Ultralight Beam” is a serene walk through “a God dream,” that finds powerful gospel singers singing about trying to keep their faith. (I don’t know if Kanye views himself as God or the person losing their faith (or both), but it’s a very pleasant listen regardless.) The catchy “Feedback” finds Kanye at the top of his game, spitting fire and rhyming fine, and it also happens to be the only song on the album to only feature rapping by Kanye. (Again, too many cooks in the kitchen.) The other track only to feature Kanye is just a 45 second interlude that finds Kanye rapping, “I hate the new Kanye / The bad mood Kanye / The always rude Kanye.” (It’s infectious and thought-provoking, but instead of purely being introspection he has to end it by patting himself on the back for all the Kanye clones he’s created.) Musically, “Waves” is infectious, but I’ve only listened to it once because it features Chris Brown and I dislike him for assaulting a woman and frequently saying inflammatory things on Twitter, though, I’ll admit, he hasn’t done either of these things lately, so far as I’m aware. Otherwise, “No More Parties In L.A.” is a clever and highly enjoyable collaboration with Kendrick Lamar.
Ultimately, this will probably be an album you’ll either love or hate. It will be the album that his fans argue about, the essential divisive album that any artist with a long-term career eventually makes. Maybe now that the record is finished, or nearly finished, Kanye can finally get that mental health help he seems to need and come back next year with a Kanye album that’s just Kanye, no guests, and truly brilliant.