There are some similarities between current day Kanye West and the version of Miles Davis that abandoned his musical roots and went on a self-imposed exile from playing the instrument that made him famous. During this time, Davis’ life was spiraling out of control courtesy of his sex and drug addictions and his attempts to compose new music bore little fruit and never saw the light of day.
Although we’re not entirely sure what’s going on with the mental state of Kanye West, it certainly feels like The Life Of Pablo parallels the work that Davis composed but remained unreleased. Back in the late 70s, it wasn’t so easy to churn out an album. Today is a much different time when the songs that the Chicago rapper has worked on can be released in a matter of hours.
All this to say that The Life Of Pablo is a far cry from the Kanye West we fell in love with and his seventh studio album, like Miles’ unreleased work, may better have been served in a vault.
That’s not to say that T.L.O.P. doesn’t possess some brilliant moments. For an artist who has been instrumental in building a bridge between the underground and mainstream and has released some of the finest collections of albums, it’s almost impossible for Kanye to not show flashes of his musical genius at any given moment. However, T.L.O.P. is a self-masturbatory collection of songs that feel as if he’s driving blindly with his hands off the steering wheel in hopes of accidentally making a classic.
Nevertheless, even at his worst, Kanye is better than a majority of artists. But T.L.O.P. certainly belongs in the bottom half of his catalog and lacks the ingenuity to exist alongside his previous work. Even if you disliked Yeezus, it still felt as if Kanye put some thought into taking the experimental route. But on this album he’s a mad scientist doing pretty average things who now belongs in a strait jacket until further notice.
It’s difficult to separate the individual from the artist because his randomness on social media, the album’s rollout and the nonsensical album titles parallels the music and lyricism (or, lack thereof) on the album.
But when brilliance comes out to play, it certainly shines bright.
Excellence comes in the form of “Ultralight Beam” which ironically has very little Kanye West in terms of vocals but a whole lot of Mr. West when it comes to arrangement. You can tell he had his hands all over the song and how everything was woven together. The little girl’s speech, the choir, the powerful vocal set by Kelly Price, the stellar performance by suitable heir to the throne Chance The Rapper and Kirk Franklin’s closing remarks are all the epitome of a Kanye West production. It’s meticulously put together and one of those moments that reflects back to when Kanye explained to Sway in an early 2000s interview that he saw music as colors. His ear knows where things should go and how they sound is impeccable when used properly.
Never to be confused as one of the finest lyrical assassins to touch the mic, it has always been Kanye’s ability to be relatable that has drawn us to the Chicago rapper/producer. He’s at his best when he’s introspective on songs such as “Real Friends” and “No More Parties In LA.” The former encompasses his paranoia of celebrity and relationship struggles while the latter finds West alongside Kendrick Lamar as the duo humorously lament about the problems that come with being rich and famous. These are the moments that helped catapult Kanye West to the top of the hip-hop food chain and helped spawn a number of emcees who weren’t afraid to expose their vulnerabilities. The production on these songs hearkens to earlier Kanye days and happens to be a little more conventional, granted it has the fingerprints of Madlib, Boi-1da, Havoc, Kareem Riggins and Frank Dukes all over it. But it certainly is fitting.
But as musically dense as The Life Of Pablo at times can be, it is just as kiddie pool shallow from a lyrical perspective.
At this point in his career, orchestration might be Kanye’s strongest gift. But his lyrical ability has fallen drastically to the wayside. Like, it’s almost mindboggling how bad some of his rhymes are. And his overreliance on Autotune drowns the album in a sea of mediocrity and all too familiar territory while attempting to mask his lyrical deficiencies.
Kanye has always had a penchant for balancing a witty punchline with one that is extraordinarily junior high school corny. But he’s been able to hide some of his weaker lines behind incredible production. On The Life Of Pablo, his rhymes lack taste and often fall flat with nowhere to hide.
For instance, his opening bars about bleached assholes on “Father Stretch My Hands” are simply cringe worthy and ruin an exceptional production by Metro Boomin. In the grander scheme of things, the random subject matter that pertains to his current state of living becomes the album’s biggest detriment.
T.L.O.P. becomes masturbation for the sake of masturbation and it certainly becomes a grind to sit through Kanye loving himself. Especially when the words coming out of his mouth are about as coarse as the bully who uses his stature to elicit laughs rather than cleverness. “Famous” is the perfect example of Kanye discarding any effort of being crafty and just says whatever the hell it is that he thinks, no matter how incorrect it might be. He made Taylor Swift famous? Right on, Kanye.
Oh, and sex? He talks about it, and he talks about it a lot. Which might be a little obnoxious after the fifth or sixth song. If he isn’t putting a GoPro on his dick, he’s trying to have sex in the middle of the dinner table. At a certain point, you’ve had enough of Kanye West’s sexual exploits. “Pray for Paris, pray for the parents” is about as socially conscious as Kanye gets on this album.
He’s run out of meaningful things to say and is consumed so much with self that he’s lost perspective. He often sounds trapped between the person that he has become and the person he wanted to be. It’s almost as if you can feel the void of a voice of reason that the passing of his mother left. At least he’s self-aware on “I Love Kanye,” right?
But when you read between the lines, it’s evident that he’s trying to work through his issues. He’s addressing his use of the depression drug Lexapro and he’s listening to the children of his psychiatrist make songs about their dead friends. That’s certainly not fun and piques your curiosity as to the mental state of Kanye West.
As for the production, oftentimes it’s chaos without being organized. Songs like “Waves” sound like they were rushed to be finished and lack that extra touch that takes the production up a notch. “FML” has a beautiful structure but there’s no furniture in the house. And with a list of collaborators that reads like a guest list to a Kardashian New Year’s Party, it becomes a discombobulated event of sounds that looks better on paper than in real life. Songs such as “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” sound like unfinished remnants of Yeezus while songs like “Wolves” feel as if Kanye never figured out how to finish it.
Circling this back around to Miles Davis, if social media were around during his dark period from 1976-1979, he probably would be doing exactly as Kanye has done. Madmen don’t need twitter to confirm their crazy. They need to be kept far, far away from it. Both Miles and Kanye were driven by different things later in life and it reflected in their music. Miles never recaptured the magic, but Kanye still has a chance.
Ultimately, what The Life Of Pablo ends up becoming is one of those albums we’ll look at years from now when Kanye gets out of rehab (yeah, I said it) and we’ll study this in an attempt to figure out what was going on in his life. Because, right now, we’re too busy laughing at him to care that he has a problem and he’s been crying out for help the entire time.