God in the Building: A Second Look At The Life of Pablo

B. Michael Payne takes a fresh look at Kanye West's divisive The Life of Pablo.
By    June 20, 2016

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B. Michael Payne never misses leg day. 

Legends climb invisible stairs of greatness, venturing higher than those with less imagination would consider possible. It’s what makes them the best. Now, it’s probably undeniable that Kanye West is a great artist, a musical fixture for the entire adolescent and adult lives of many of his fans—me included. So the more curious trajectory in my mind is how he’s ascended up the ranks of celebrity to the extent that it has possibly surpassed his musical legacy for much of the public.

He had been weaving in and out of the tabloid world, but at some point in 2013, Kanye seemed to arrive as a capital-C Celebrity. The release of Yeezus, the high-profile migration from Nike to Adidas, and the birth of his first child with Kim Kardashian (and his sporadic appearances on that show) all conspired to push him well past the music blog-o-twitter-sphere and into the tedious realm of conversations with your mom and coworkers.

(It’s of course telling that virtually 0% of those conversations centered on what it means for acid techno to re-enter the mainstream of music production.)

We’re in the weird place where being a fan of Kanye West, actually appreciating his music, feels like the watchword to a secret society. The illuminati of people who don’t care about illuminati memes. Kanye arguably left his imperial phase as soon as he entered his zone, and now we’re very publicly viewing the tale, tweeted by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

With all of the above as a caveat, I have to say I’m 100% captivated by Kanye’s latest album, The Life Of Pablo. I don’t know if it qualifies as some of the best music Kanye has made in half a decade. I believe it does, but I’m particularly receptive to it right now.

TLOP feels much more integrated into my life than most of his (presumably better) albums do. It’s a matter of music belonging to a time and a place. Yes, I was crashing on my friend’s couch for a summer when I first heard College Dropout. I was twelve years younger and a different person, but that was a different time, too. Dropping out of college (a concept Kanye loosely devotes three albums to) actually seems like a good idea, now. The jittery, smashed up, incongruous world of TLOP is just more realistic than the coherent, backward-looking, American dream deflating early stuff made by a kid whose mom was a college professor.

For better or (let’s be honest:) worse, this is a Snapchat (neé Instagram)-obsessed, world of thirst traps and crying Jordan memes. It’s hilarious, to me, that the two most out-of-touch moments of TLOP involve someone leaving (or, really, listening to) a voicemail and hearing a retro “Marimba” iPhone ring. Kanye—like me—is just on the cusp of being socially and technologically irrelevant, and TLOP is his last rage against the dying light.

Throughout the course of his career, the main thing that’s fascinated me about Kanye is what I’d call his “cosmology.” As his universe has expanded from that locked room where he did five beats a day for three summers to selling out the Garden in a day (to do a “fashion” show), necessarily too has the scope of his interests. So you get a brilliantly Kanye line like,

Now if I fuck this model

And she just bleached her asshole

And I get bleach on my t shirt

I’mma feel like an asshole

It combines fashion (twice, because you know his T-shirt is some ridiculous $300 long, curved hem, drapey thing), ridiculous personal grooming rituals, sex, and of course self-loathing. Plus, it’s kind of funny. This verse is everything Kanye lovers love and the inverse—what his detractors hate.

Then there’s the famously oafish verse that leads off “Famous”:

For all my Southside n///as that know me best

I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex

Why? I made that bitch famous

I made that bitch famous

It’s really one of the album’s great tragedies that the verse low-roads the internet’s most ambivalently loved #squadleader. The ensuing ‘drama’ suppressed the obvious fact that “Famous” is one of the best songs Kanye’s made in years. Also, consider: that from the Sister Nancy flip, to the haunting Rihanna hook, to the final transcendent Nina Simone outro, it’s just a murderers row of accomplished women carrying Kanye’s cocky ass over a pretty knocking Swizzy beat. The irony drips from a song that starts out about as misogynistically as possible. Subconscious, conscious, or accidentally genius?

“Famous” also contains one of the better lyrical juxtapositions I’ve recently heard,

Last month I helped her with the car payment

Young and we alive, whoo!

We never gonna die, whoo!

Kanye’s like, ‘Hey guys, I helped my side piece pay off her Prius. Wooo, I’m frigging immortal!’ But really, a large part of Kanye’s cosmology equates sex with transcendence, which, obviously. And the only thing sexier than transcendence is money. So you’ve got Kanye bragging about Kimoji’s App Store dominance on the one hand, and then Kanye saying,

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

On the other. It’s dark, twisted, Kanye logic. Two men, united in the common pursuit of banging Kim Kardashian, divided by one man’s immense wealth.

Even though sex and money are the x- and y-axes of the album, there are plenty of salient points in its lines.

  • Middle aged Kanye (“I wish my trainer would tell me what I overate”).
  • Mental health Kanye (“You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than this n///a when he off his Lexapro”).
  • Keeping Up Kanye (“Blac Chyna fuckin’ Rob, help him with the weight”).
  • So Kanye (“What if Kanye made a song, about Kanye called ‘I Miss The Old Kanye’?”).
  • Bro Split Kanye (“I hit the gym, all chest no legs”).
  • Pseduo-Trump Kanye (“2020, I’mma run the whole election”)

Listening to the album, one of my biggest takeaways is that it does a particularly good job of joining the timeless with the temporal. Will some of the references age poorly? I guess that depends on how long Derek Fisher can stay relevant. But even soon-to-be obscure references just shade within the lines of an unfortunately timeless story about male ego running wild. So it’s like just about every great rock and rap album ever made.

Recent reports of assassination of the album by the rapper Kanye West have been greatly exaggerated, not to mention shortsighted or naive. I think the main cause of this “Kanye’s killing the album” talk has to do with, of course, social media. It’s not just that he tweeted about “not making CDs ever again”. The physical (as it were) format of the album isn’t intrinsic to the form itself. The larger cause has to do with what I talked about at the top: Kanye is a bigger celebrity than musician. (It doesn’t hurt that the music press has veered sharply toward celebrity/gossip style reporting than actual criticism.) Every development in the lifecycle of TLOP has equal or greater relevance for Just Jared than Pitchfork.

It’s part of our age, but every damn development in the development of the album isn’t actually a part of the album. If the recording history of Houses of the Holy were broadcast all over TMZ, Jimmy Page’s statutory rape allegations would have probably influenced how people thought of the album. Instead, we just sort of don’t think about that—for better or worse. (Worse is the correct answer).

Kanye’s celebrity-inflated ego is intertwined with his music explicitly, though the rock god fantasies infusing pretty much all great guitar music somehow go unnoticed. People talk about Kanye like he’s a crazy egomaniac, but you don’t sort of mumble together a group of A-list creative talent, hundreds of models, a partnership with global shoe and apparel brands, and all the other insane shit Kanye’s done the last year. Everyone who’s tried to accomplish anything significantly greater than himself has had to fearlessly (and selfishly) work for it. And they all think they’re the best ever.

Finally, Pablo‘s most ‘damning’ argument against the album format is its constant revisions. There are seven different versions as of 14 June 2016. (Also, google the “OG Pack” version of the album for an unofficial and surprisingly good eighth.) You can see one version of a crowdsourced ‘patch notes’ on this reddit post.

Observers point to the updates and conclude Kanye’s destroying the album format because albums are supposed to be fixed points, immutable objects that, in the words of Vincent Gallo, “span time.” Of course, this is bullshit. From myriad different mastering choices (google the Steve Hoffman forum) of simultaneously available releases to the sprawling, cash-grab box set versions of every conceivable classic album—Kanye’s approach to TLOP‘s release marks it as one of the most album-y albums of all-time. It’s its own real-time variorum edition. Music nerds can pick and choose their favorite versions of each song to make the perfect TLOP (the February 14th version of “Famous” is my favorite, by far). If you don’t really care that much, you probably won’t notice many of the changes. You’ll just stream the latest ‘author corrected’ copy of the album. It’s no different than most forms of publishing.

The Life Of Pablo is actually a great album. It’s problematic, reaching, and mercurial. As always, the latest Kanye album is the clearest present snapshot of its creator.

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