Paul Thompson dropped out of college.
In 1991, Jerry Seinfeld went on The Arsenio Hall Show and Arsenio asked him how he could stand to make a show about nothing. “We got so much going on in the world; we got this war, the economy, crime.” Jerry said that that was “all going on, but it’s not happening right here, right now; it’s all going on out there.”
I wonder if Kanye West liked Nelly. On “30 Hours,” he raps “E.I.”’s hook; in 2000, he was doing beats for Beanie Sigel and dead prez and The Dynasty. Jay E—a white guy from St. Louis, not Jay Electronica—produced the bulk of Country Grammar, and once called Nelly a “bubblegum rapper.” He apologized and did the beats for about half of Nellyville, but Nelly once told me he asked for a session with the Neptunes just so he would have a lead single Jay E didn’t produce.
“30 Hours” is the same song where Kanye says his “Expedition was Eddie Bauer edition,” which is like when Wayne said “I had the Eddie Bauer Expedition seven years ago/ My grandma used to tell me that she swear I been here before.” Does Kanye care that he got the only bad Wayne verse in 2007?
(Wayne is on Country Grammar—on “For My,” where Nelly says he’s “bumpin’ N.O.R.E., number six.” The sixth song on N.O.R.E. is “Hed,” where Noreaga and Nature rap about driving to the Grand Canyon and not having sex.)
“30 Hours” is a bonus track, and it’s a bonus track by design. Kanye’s real verses are clumsy and confused, but the whole second half of the track is mumbed reference vocals, Matt Barnes, and actual phone calls. Also relegated to the extra disc, if there were discs at all: “Fade,” the DJ Dodger Stadium co-produced Chicago house cut; “Facts,” which has a new beat that apes “Jumpman” less but isn’t here to save us; and “No More Parties in L.A.”
“Parties” is a Madlib song. Remember the 13th disc of The Medicine Show? That’s what this song: rap’s biggest stars stitched together by its best producer. Kanye’s first verse and the Kendrick segment that follows are fine. The last three-and-a-half minutes of the song are Kanye’s best performance on The Life of Pablo: no barricades on Mulholland, Nori in Cam furs, assistants crashing Maybachs, agents he hates, whole family getting money—thank God for E!
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, celebrity was abstract and academic. Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America? On Pablo, celebrity is Xanax before birthday parties.
On Pablo’s most lucid moments—“Parties,” “Real Friends,” “Wolves,” so on—celebrity has stakes, because even its smallest moments are happening right here, right now. Celebrity has stakes, $250,000 for the laptop.
What is The Life of Pablo about? If the crux is that last verse from “Wolves” (Cover Nori in lamb’s wool), why is “I be worried ‘bout my daughter, I be worried ‘bout Kim/ But Saint is little ‘Ye, I ain’t worried ‘bout him” pushed off the album proper? Where is “All Day,” where he huddles with Farrakhan, or “Only One,” where Paul McCartney helps his Nori meet the grandmother she’ll never see in the flesh?
Pablo’s construction curbs how effective it could be. Kanye’s referred to it as a gospel album, but it mostly fades away? “Ultralight Beam” is the best opener Kanye’s made since “We Don’t Care,” even though he’s barely on it. Chance’s verse is his best since Acid Rap. There’s the sermon on “Low Lights,” and if you want to be really broad, “Waves” is a spiritual moment.
But that trio of closing songs is the confession, and then there’s no boxing with God. “FML” is smartly made—spare, melodic, biting. “Real Friends” is the only time Kanye finds that perfect pocket in the beat (“I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions/ Fuck the church up by drinking at the communion”); “Wolves,” at least the first half, is the natural extension of 808s & Heartbreak, where “Coldest Winter” gives way to what-ifs.
The hand-wringing from “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” (“Same problem my father had”) is powerful, but divorced from the emotional crises at the end; as the album stands now, there are Grammys and Vogue parties and Chris Browns and then dots to connect when Kanye maybe alludes to divorce?
What if we did fuck this Vogue party? Who’s fucking at this Vogue party?
Kanye has been criticized for treating black women more poorly than white women in his lyrics and his videos and his tweets. On The Life of Pablo, most of the women are underdeveloped to the point where race isn’t even mentioned.
The one detail that comes through for most Pablo women is that they’re not Kim. Kanye would hardly be the first rapper to write about trysts and go home to a wife and kids, but who’s he fucking at this Vogue party? (Literally, the Vogue party lines on “Freestyle 4” are probably about Kim, but who will survive at this Vogue party?)
On the first part of “Father”—which is otherwise excellent, from the choir to Metro Boomin to Kanye’s hook and even to Kid Cudi—Kanye says, “Now if I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my t-shirt/ Then I’ma feel like an asshole.” This should make you long for the days of “Housekeeping/ I mean, goddamn, one time, let it be a bad bitch sweeping.” It should make Kanye’s dry cleaner long for those days, too.
“Famous” is one of the best songs on the album, with its Havoc-produced beat and its Swizz Beatz-incited dance party in the second half. But it opens with Kanye saying that he might have sex with Taylor Swift, since he “made that bitch famous.” You might very reasonably find that objectionable on moral or political grounds; it’s also a creative failure, a half-formed idea that mines a seven-year-old feud that was already resolved for a shred of relevancy that Kanye doesn’t need, and that makes him seem needlessly petty on a song where he’s supposed to be loose and excited.
“Put On” came out eight years ago, and probably marked the beginning of Kanye’s middle period. You remember that verse, it starts: “I feel like it’s still n—-as that owe me checks/ I feel like it’s still bitches that owe me sex.” It worked, because the rest of the verse riffed on that idea. Not many complained, because he wasn’t calling out women by name.
The other women from the first verse of “Famous” are anonymous, and Kanye sees that as their fatal flaw.
When he does mention Kim, it’s on “Highlights,” in the worst context imaginable: “I bet me and Ray J would be friends/ If we ain’t love the same bitch/ Yeah, he might’ve hit it first/ Only problem is I’m rich.” There’s nothing fucked up about being friends with your wife’s old boyfriend, but the guy who holds her sex tape over her head like a guillotine probably shouldn’t be on the list for seder.
I miss the old Kanye, where he fit the crassest bars between SARS references and Common rapping about remote
One of the best minutes of rapping on The Life of Pablo starts, “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye…” It’s a great bit of meta-commentary, but it also highlights how much less warm and endearing he is in 2016. Not that he’s under any obligation to be warm or endearing—he wasn’t for long stretches on his last three albums, each of which is great—but that likability helped to sell his clumsiest lines and verses. On Pablo, those are usually left exposed.
Intimate bleaching aside, there are songs where Kanye never really flexes any identity or point of view, where you’d be left scratching your head if you’d been in a coma since the Kerry candidacy. “Feedback” works, but it does so in spite of writing that’s mostly nondescript, anonymous.
“Feedback” does have the album’s single best line: “PETA mad ‘cause I made a jacket out of possum,” which is the exact kind of marginally-rare animal cruelty he should be staking his modern reputation on.
Do you think Desiigner’s advance was less expensive than two Future verses?
Has any album with beats this good been this disjointed? Not just good—there are 18 tracks packed into Pablo’s 58 minutes, and that actually undersells how many ideas it contains. It’s like Graduation: ahead of its time, but only by five or six months. This is what a big-budget rap album in 2016 can and should sound like, the most confounding pieces of pop radio and Audiomack set to a simmer.
Let’s go a step further. Not only is The Life of Pablo decidedly of 2016 in its musical cues, it’s made of and for our world. It’s sloppy, disconnected, and dull in the middle, yet wildly inventive and even brave when it wants to be. It gestures at Important Topics, but finds most of its depth at its darkest points.
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