Two confederates of ours not given to hysterics who follow Kanye West’s Twitter feeds recently expressed concern for the brother’s mental state. Fears of a looming meltdown were voiced by both his recently dismissed collaborator Rhymefest and poet Malik Yusef, who likened ‘Ye’s bridge-burning to Van Gogh’s ear. We’ve been on this ride before with MJ.
Living out the difference between acting crazy and going crazy can get blurry to a tipping point. Quincy Jones’ diagnosis of Jackson’s crisis years was blunt: “The statute of limitation has expired on all childhood traumas. Get it fixed and get on with your life.” Whole world knows how disregarding that memo turned out. Clinical studies have shown a prodigious level of musical productivity can be maintained despite cognitive dissonance. Exhibit A would be The Life of Pablo — as musically mesmerizing as any Kanye before it while being markedly and sonically different from those previous bonanzas of hip-hop tunesmithing too.
Meaning that in a Kendrick Lamar worldview (and a Drake rearview), Kanye West is still vaguely, maddeningly, musically relevant — at least for the next 15 minutes, a Twitter-spat eternity nowadays. We however did take bruh seriously when he told Charlemagne the God a couple years ago that he already felt replaced by Drake as the people’s favorite rapper, hence his obsessive focus on fashion and branding over album-making of late. Don’t know if the clothes he unveiled at the Garden were a dunk but he certainly blew off the map any other runway event happening that week in terms of sheer spectacle — thereby joining Beyoncé at the Superbowl and Kendrick at the Grammys in making this just about the blackest Black History Month ever, at least in mass-media takeover terms.
Fortunately even if Mr. West feels (for now, at least) that his best years as a rap superstar are behind him, there’s still hella great beats roaming around that dazed and befuddling noggin per The Life of Pablo for dang sure — befitting an album that over-generated interest and ink in its much-ballyhooed delayed rollout, and may sound in utero the first couple times you click it on.
Kanye the compulsive craftsman will never phone it in, but every mad genius has what appears to be less-than-fully-attentive moments. Think of Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On — now universally hailed as a consecrated masterpiece of paranoiac profundities and dithyrambic vagaries, but back in that day, some folks thought it more a mere phonographic rendering of cocaine’s freeze-and-crash cycle than sobering high art.
Like Sly, ‘Ye’s gotten it so right in the studio for so long he’s got nothing left to prove except his power to get haters’ and fence-sitters’ tongues and fingers wagging in dismay or outright disapproval over his dull-witted, desperate, trolling diarrhea-of-the-mouth misogyny. For our part — that of a pre-Twitter, P-Funk-to-Public Enemy-era hip-hop head — we just say, “Hey, two thumbs up ‘Ye-dude for your continued compositional ingenuity — even if a taste of your crackling thunder sounds copped from the more artfully (and viscerally) noisy Death Grips.”
Pablo jumps off with “Ultralight Beam,” a staggered, processional Baptism of sung prayers and bursts of ululating choir that could give a damn about endearing parishioners or nightclubbers to Yeezy’s Glorified angst. Amidst the high notes of Kelly Price, The-Dream, and Kirk Franklin (not to mention a rowdy child-preacher), it’s Chance the Rapper who carries the day, granted maximal bars to express his happiness from merely being given his shot at shining on a Kanye album.
The neo-godspell “Father Stretch My Hands” follows, mashing up naked praises for the most high with as honest a confession as any neurotic narcissist has ever dropped on wax: “I’ll be worried if they say nothing.” The lush music melodiously echoes prime-time Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. Gawdawful, Auto-Tuned rhymes abhorring sex with creamy bleached assholes prepare us for the jackassed Taylor Swift jibe to come. The second part of “Father” introduces the latest G.O.O.D signing, the throaty and credibly trap Desiigner, but its highpoint is actually the whooping and shouting mad preacher samples that accent the 808 kick.
Pablo will likely one day be remembered as the album where Kanye proved steady beats and affability are irrelevant if you’ve got a gifted enough asshole at the mixing console. It doesn’t drive or build or go for baroque as maniacally as Yeezus or as melodiously as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. By contrast, Pablo languorously drifts from whimsical episode to episode in bumpy, jumpy, and even lumpy fits and starts. Damn cleverly from time to time too, and with more than a little help from his many super friends: Rihanna singing Nina Simone lyrics as the warm-up for Nina herself on “Famous” doesn’t hurt your cause — well, at least until the most caddish troll in ‘Ye’s attention-craving brain obscenely invokes two-time Album of the Year recipient Taylor Swift for publicity-stunt value alone.
More virtuously, Mr. West doesn’t stiff on reminding us, as he always does, that adroit sampling should never stop being a cornerstone of hip-hop composition, given what analog warmth contributes to the boom-bap — even if the degree to which he indulges has grown more expensive and prohibitive than a mutha for even your not-top-of-the-food-chain crate-digger’s fodder.
To wit: On the album’s closer, “Fade,” Motown’sRare Earth and house diva Barbara Tucker cross-fade and elevate the curtain moment with what gooder-than-Yeezus-and-thou Christians call the Good News. You too may wish Kendrick dropped his spit on that ‘un rather than on “No More Parties in L.A.” — if only because “Parties” is the only duet-cut where ‘Ye displays enough oomph to not have needed a co-host. Same can’t be said for “FML,” where he wisely shares the stage with the Weeknd, whose crisp falsetto rides discreet dubstep into stadium-worthy power balladry once West babbles on a bit more about his business, his vision, his cash, his account-draining women, and his affiliation to the supposed “check-a-hoe” tribe.
Throughout Pablo there are stellar musical choices that tend to fall more into the realm of cinematic underscoring than hip-hop as we bumptiously know it — an effect that also makes Pablo feel like Kanye’s version of a J Dilla collection when it doesn’t feel like a spoken-word joint with an absentee landlord at the helm, or a funkier Animal Collective DJ set.
Nonetheless, for all the paradoxical production agendas in play, Mr. West’s guiding hand in constructing the album’s boldly going flow is everywhere in evidence. As glacially paced, mood-enhancing music, Pablo is a hypnotic slam-dunk and this reviewer will be among those first online if an all-instrumental edition finally surfaces on Vocaroo, because over the long haul ‘Ye the MC here proves as elusive as the proverbial Cheshire Cat. Could be there’s a change-of-career gambit method to the scoring over rapping emphasis, who knows? Certainly if there’s any hip-hop producer who should have already scored a big-screen sci-fi thriller or two it’s our 2020 president.
He doesn’t vocally appear on “Low Lights” (featuring another come-to-Jesus moment by a ministering and melancholic lady preacher), but comes back hard on the spasmodic “Highlights” to spit fire over a chord progression inspired by Prince’s “Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” A half-hearted search for freaky bad bitches in Equinox ensues. Another off-the-cuff verse (“Freestyle 4”) with interstitial horror music drops hard, which begets an actual a cappella track, the same one he recently laid down in the hallways of SNL during a skit. The best pole dancers in your circumference won’t be overlooking the trap erotics of “Facts,” a track whose perverse, up-to-the-nanosecond references to Bill Cosby and Steve Harvey’s bouts of skillful amnesia actually inspired the kind of beyond rude-boy throwaway lines that hip-hop risks best. That’s how the transactions work on this album: The stuttering Phillip Glass impression on “Waves” makes up for all the mock-hipster ranting; “Real Friends” jooks with the classic refrain of Whodini’s “Friends” to shame needy, poor relations for insincerity.
Moral of story: Don’t be Kanye’s ne’er do-well cousin and come begging your boy Pablo for a dime. On an album long on musical confidence and short on inspirational verses, the plaintive vulnerability and alienation he expresses at least seem cathartically crafted. One can only pray now that all bile and vitriol is out of the lad’s system, that he acts on the unheeded advice Q gave to brother Jackson and throws himself as hardcore into therapy or naturopathy or a Vodou ceremony or Yoruba bembé ASAP. Because to echo ‘Ye’s Chicago elder Jesse Jackson’s invocations during apologias for the ”Hymietown” meltdown, God isn’t done with our Mr. West yet — and, selfishly speaking, neither need be we, should proper hope, treatments, and change-agents prove willing.