Since his 2004 debut, there has been no one else more concerned with the public perception of Kanye West than Kanye West.
His interest is not as shallow as this sounds. He has been hammering home that understanding his beliefs has been paramount to him from the very start. He vetted his place on The College Dropout with a makeshift résumé on ‘Spaceship’ (“Lock yourself in a room doing nine beats a day for three summers”) and slammed the notion that rapping about faith was a foolish idea on ‘Jesus Walks’. ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’, the lead single from Graduation, felt patently un-Kanye in the context of his first two albums, but foretold the man we’ve seen unfold over the past ten years. He’s the same man who issued an enormous public apology with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, after becoming public enemy number one in the wake of his mother’s death. His seventh studio album The Life of Pablo is once more an album full of self-awareness. But despite how much of it is predicated on Kanye Talking About Kanye, it is also supposed to act as a credo that guides his listener to see themselves the way he sees himself.
“As much as the public cares to judge him, Kanye is always inspecting himself under an even stronger microscope.”
Before its release, West proclaimed this a gospel album. There are parts that are readily comprehensible as part of that genre: the choir who pad out opener ‘Ultralight Beam’ and the leads sung by Kelly Price, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and gospel icon Kirk Franklin; the four-year old rebuking the devil sampled from Instagram; elemental lifts from Chicago pastor T.L Barrett’s ‘Father I Stretch My Hands’. But Pablo is also a gospel album by less obvious means. With ‘FML’, The Weeknd sings on the hook, “Even though I always fuck my life / Only I can mention me.” It’s a mantra of self-reflection, subtly mirroring the idea that only God can judge, and demands an insurmountable count of honesty in so few words. It’s no wonder Kanye is so pissed when people accusing him of ranting, or pokes fun at his own perceived aggressiveness: as much as the public cares to judge him, he is always inspecting himself under an even stronger microscope.
His awareness of these critiques does not go unacknowledged. On the a cappella ‘I Love Kanye’ he raps about nostalgia for pink-Polo-and-soul-sample Kanye and the sneering at “bad mood Kanye / Spazz in the news Kanye”. It is certainly self-aware, capping the track off with a giggling nod to the meme “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”, but there is also so much to unpack in under a minute. People do not lose their core personality, which means West has not lost his, either. He just has much more fame, access and cachet than he did as a Roc-A-Fella producer being given a shot for impressing Dame Dash with lines like, “Mayonnaise-colored Benz / I push miracle whips”. To even consider how Dame and Kanye have essentially switched roles is to realize how much can evolve in a decade and change.
The Life Of Pablo is a stark reminder that while his music and production has developed over time — he is, perhaps, the only pop radio artist who has released an album that might as well have come out on Tri Angle — Kanye hasn’t, at least not lyrically. His penchant for dad joke punchlines, familial details, general grandiosity and, yes, numbskull comments about women is still intact. The rapper who made The College Dropout is also a person who would still hold a grudge against a laptop-stealing cousin, as well as subtly flex his come-up by comparing the way his daughter dresses to a rapper who helped build his career, as he does on ‘No More Parties in L.A.’.
Despite this through-line, his musical evolution and influential bravery since 808s and Heartbreak make it easy to bury the time he rapped about Alicia Keys’ boobs or forget about his guest verse on the video vixen-lambasting ‘Wouldn’t Get Far’. But it comes from the same part of Kanye that thinks a lyric like “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” on ‘Famous’ is acceptable locker room talk to put out into the universe. And it isn’t more nefarious than that, mostly boneheaded, because there is no way it was going to get swept under the rug as Kanye Being Kanye because of their tenuous relationship, as well as Swift’s budding feminism. But there is an inherent power to a black man using pop music’s most precious white woman as an avatar for his cultural capital, particularly when his wife Kim Kardashian’s sexuality is so rampantly used against her. That is referenced here too, on ‘Highlights’, which builds on his previous assertion that there is nothing wrong with a sex tape: “I wish my dick had Go-Pro / So I could watch that shit back in slo-mo”; “We made an amateur video / I think I should go pro”; and the kicker: “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain’t love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first / Only problem is I’m rich”. Lines like that are not only built for commentary, but to be immediately shout-able.
“Somewhere along the line, the public forgot that Kanye West has the same humanity as everybody else.”
A lot of Pablo feels designed for the club. Closer ‘Fade’ featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone builds a new world on to Chicago house track Mr. Fingers’ ‘Mystery of Love’. Maintaining an influence from Yeezus, ‘Feedback’ is especially memorable for lines like “Y’all sleepin’ on me, huh? / Had a good snooze?” and “Hands up / We just doin’ what the cops taught us”. And as ever, the “if Young Metro don’t trust you” drop on ‘Pt. 2’ is bound to stir up a crowd. But these tracks feel like they’re from a different project from the subdued Arthur Russell-sampling ‘30 Hours’ and meditative ‘Real Friends’. The same goes for triumphant tracks like ‘Low Lights’, which was produced in collaboration with DJ Dodger Stadium and features only vocals sampled from house DJ Kings of Tomorrow’s ‘So Alive’, as well as the Chris Brown collaboration ‘Waves’.
Pablo is a dense text that suffers at the hands of technology, potentially less seamless because of its presentation only through streaming. This doesn’t excuse its sequencing issues; the album sounds cobbled together and far less detail-oriented than the stand-alone songs. ‘Silver Surfer Intermission’, which features a recorded phone call French Montana makes to Max B. co-signing Kanye’s controversial use of the wave, should have come before or after ‘Waves’. In one of the first iterations of the tracklist, West set up the album in Acts, which would have been a good thing to maintain. The lack of cohesion throughout is one of the only things that makes Pablo flawed.
There is also the matter of the album’s major point of contention. At the time of publication, we do not have a definitive iteration of the song ‘Wolves’. Originally presented at the Yeezy Season 2 unveiling, then featuring Chicago rapper Vic Mensa and pop music’s guardian angel Sia, the CD quality version of the song became a coveted item. At time of release, the album version was stripped of its original guests, bolstered in psalms for his children North and Saint, and capped off with solemn crooning from elusive singer Frank Ocean. The demand for a high quality version was a popular meme on Twitter, and Kanye’s “Ima fix wolves” tweet after T.L.O.P. was released has become its own Internet punchline. An alleged “fixed” version which pushes Ocean to the front and re-establishes Mensa’s and Sia’s cameos surfaced on leak sites It is, however, missing something without Kanye’s album verse, particularly the lines: “I said, ‘Baby, what if you was clubbin’’ / Thuggin’, hustlin’, before you met your husband?’ / Then I said, ‘What Mary was in the club / And met Joseph around hella thugs?’” He’s posturing that judging someone for their past can blockade a fruitful and bright future, inverting the Madonna-whore complex and sending a message of full acceptance to his wife. This is the album’s finest example of gospel.
The hunger for ‘Wolves’ to be the way people wanted falls distinctly into why dialogue about West is so often hinged on what he should do to please his audience, not necessarily what should be creatively satisfying. Somewhere along the line, the public forgot that Kanye West has the same humanity as everybody else. It is possible this is because he is so transparently emotional, a walking id, so tirelessly unafraid to let us know how he feels. West is a superlative artist not just because every time he makes an album it is an event, but because he allows us unparalleled access to himself.
He is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing — he is only trying to shepherd us to see ourselves in the same light.