Give Kanye West some credit. Yesterday’s launch of his latest album The Life of Pablo was one of the most anticipated musical events of the year, despite an abundance of pre-release red flags: the late track list changes, the late title changes, the title he actually decided on. Thousands packed into the official release party at Madison Square Garden to listen; millions more presumably watched the live stream on Tidal (OK, it’s Tidal, so maybe not millions).
The event wasn’t just about the music. Kanye also debuted his new fashion line, Yeezy Season 3, improvised some speeches about his haters and God, and showed an insane teaser, twice, for Only One: The Game, in which players will guide his late mother, Donda (angel wings and all), into heaven. Quickly, before we get to the music: I have no opinion about the fashion (except that it was nice to see Kanye use almost exclusively models of color), I thought the God-and-haters speeches were stronger on the Yeezus tour, and I’ll circle back to the Only One game later.
So, was the album any good? Of course it was. Kanye is a genius, a perfectionist, and rich. He’s under no pressure to ever release music that’s not, in one way or another, good. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of stumbling — and on first listen, The Life of Pablo seems to stumble multiple times — but that his stumbles still operate on a plane beyond simple judgments of good/bad. Kanye songs that fail typically fail because they’re too crazy, ambitious, or distasteful — not because they’re “bad.”
Kanye might actually like himself now. That’s great for him, sincerely; I’m not convinced it’s great for us.
The Life of Pablo is a little crazy, very ambitious, and definitely distasteful. I mean, come on: “I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous,” Kanye raps on the Rihanna-featuring “Famous.” It’s hard to defend a line like that, except to note that Kanye pulled off similarly offensive material on 2013’s Yeezus by leaning into his terribleness, pairing his most unhinged lyrics with his rawest, scariest music. The result was outrageous but fascinating, an unfiltered glimpse at the rage and pettiness behind the biggest ego ever to storm the VMAs.
The big difference between Yeezus and The Life of Pablo is that Kanye might actually like himself now. That’s great for him, sincerely; I’m not convinced it’s great for us. “Smiling Yeezus” is the best way I can think to describe Pablo’s sound — but so much of what made Yeezus amazing was its bitterness, especially the bile explicitly prompted by racism on songs like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” Take that world- and self-loathing away and Kanye’s more aggressive boasts, which largely dominate Pablo, just seem like bullying.
That said, bullying has rarely sounded so interesting. Like every other Kanye record, The Life of Pablo is packed with stuff to listen to: gospel choirs, soul samples, heavy autotune, harsh synths, and, to borrow a Taylor Swift-ism, sick beats (sorry). “Highlights” takes a few minutes to find its groove, but when it does, it’s the most effortlessly swaggering Kanye cut since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Ultra Light Beam” has a lot of disparate parts that don’t necessarily cohere, but one of those parts is a typically awesome Chance the Rapper guest verse, singlehandedly justifying the track’s existence. And “Real Friends,” which was released last month on Kanye’s Soundcloud, is a total gem, a wiser, funnier take on the sentimental Kanye of songs like “Family Business” and “Hey Mama.” It’s too early to tell whether the rest of Pablo will improve or fade with further listens, but the peaks are certainly no embarrassment.
Finally, as promised, back to Only One: The Game. It worries me. One of the weirdest and most impressive things about Kanye is that even though his public persona has long been based on impulsiveness, his art has always felt completely in control of how it will be received. But even if Only One isn’t a disaster (assuming it’s ever released at all), it’s still practically inviting the masses to laugh at Kanye’s dead mom. The Kanye of any earlier period would have known better, which suggests he’s now reached a level of artistic insulation where even his bad ideas are fast tracked. That’s happened to most of the all-time great music artists who weren’t lucky enough to die young (Bob Dylan, David Bowie, etc.), but part of me was still holding out hope that Kanye could be our first musical icon to never jump the shark — to successfully pull off the myth of perfection.
That’s an unfair burden to shoulder, and maybe Kanye will be happy to be rid of it. He said he’d touch the sky; he never said he’d stay there. If 2016 Kanye is an artist coming back down to Earth, there have been far, far worse comedown albums than The Life of Pablo. Let him live.