Since the debut of his 2004 album, “The College Dropout,” Kanye West has been setting the standard for hip-hop and rap. Needless to say, his seventh studio album “The Life of Pablo” is no exception.
There are plenty of tracks on this album that are beautifully constructed. It starts with the one is currently receiving the highest praise, “Ultralight Beam.” I have nothing but good things to say about the song, and the thing I like most about it is the fact that it doesn’t sound like anything Kanye has done before while also being produced as if it were something he had been doing all along. Just like a few other tracks in the album, it centers around religion and even features acclaimed gospel singer Kirk Franklin. The clean, powerful vocals of a choir juxtaposed with West’s distorted voice is the most intriguing part of the track. In addition, it has the best feature on the album with Chance the Rapper. Since Chance is a newly established artist and was heavily inspired by fellow Chicago native Kanye at the early age of 10, this feature is momentous for the young rapper’s career. Chance doesn’t let his fans down, either, and probably gained many more after his excitable, clear and celebratory verse in “Ultralight Beam.” The song does not rely on gimmicks and ultimately is the most memorable and unique song on the album.
“Famous” is another memorable song. However, it’s not memorable because it’s inventive and different like “Ultralight Beam.” It’s memorable because it models itself after so many great Kanye tracks that have come before it. Both featured artists on the track, Swizz Beatz and Rihanna, have worked with Kanye West before. The song immediately picks up after a small verse from Rihanna and then slows down once more for another Rihanna verse. Other than her feature, the song is heavy, joyous and quick. It reminds me of other huge tracks such as “Monster” and “All of the Lights.” However it isn’t nearly as cohesive as some of Kanye’s best work. Rather than Rihanna’s hooks and Kanye’s verses complimenting one another, they work against each other and feel like two entirely different songs. Both elements of the song are so well produced that it’s enjoyable, despite this clash. In addition to the great energy and impressive features, Kanye’s sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” is the best on the album. Its sampling reinvents the song while still making it recognizable and is the happiest and most fun the album ever gets. Last but certainly not least, Kanye’s verses on “Famous” are in his signature harsh and quick style that fans have endlessly praised throughout the years. Without a doubt, this is the most marketable song on the album and I don’t doubt it will get radio play and a music video sometime soon.
While I have a strong inclination that “Ultralight Beam” and “Famous” will be the two most popular songs on the album, the absolute best song on “The Life of Pablo” is “Wolves.” After several interludes and decent songs throughout the middle of the album, this track appears. “Wolves” is the slowest, and it’s one of the only songs on the album discussing his relationship with his wife Kim Kardashian-West. The track premiered over a year ago at the Yeezus season two fashion show and featured British popstar Sia. When I first heard that Sia was taken off of the final product I was distraught.
However, the song still has several amazing features. Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winning vocalist, and her eerie vocal style highlight its simple yet haunting instrumentals. I haven’t heard a similar vocal style used in hip hop music, and this choice makes me want to praise Kanye West for once again adding an entirely new element to mainstream music today. It’s the first Kanye song produced by Cashmere Cat, a Norwegian DJ, and their collaboration provided something entirely unique. You can’t help but compliment the sheer fact that he is still able to introduce new elements to his music on his seventh album. The unusual yet gritty instrumental, Shaw’s vocals and Kanye’s emotional and distorted versesremind the listener how imaginative and in-your-face Kanye’s songs are supposed to be. Just as the song ends, and you think you’ve heard the magnum opus of the album, Kanye features one of the most elusive and admired R&B artists in music today, Frank Ocean. His single verse at the end ties up the song in a way that leaves you wanting more.
A track that I think takes away from the album’s quality is “Facts.” Kanye’s sampling of Dirt and Grime’s “Father’s Children” at the beginning of the song immediately grabs your attention, only for the song to immediately let you down with Kanye’s rapping over the currently popular “Jumpman” by Drake and Future. I don’t think Kanye West ripping off a currently popular song, saying “Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy / Just jumped over jumpman,” is particularly surprising, but it’s simply unnecessary. There’s endless evidence as to why West is much more influential to music than these other artists, but his need to articulate it is just too much for me. But, after all, it is Kanye, and as an audience we almost expect him to do something that may not be in good taste.
Another track worthy of discussion is “I Love Kanye.” It may seem silly to write about a song that is less than a minute, but it’s literally a biographical freestyle and entirely different from any Kanye song produced before. As a whole, the song is about a common feeling that he was better when he was “the old Kanye.” Also known as the Kanye who wasn’t as outrageous as to interrupt Taylor Swift receiving an award, then publically reconcile years later, only to drop her name in one of his tracks, claiming he “made that bitch famous.” However, as the track articulates, no matter how much you may dislike this Kanye there’s no doubt he’s one of the most influential artists in modern hip-hop. This is best exemplified in the lyric, “See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes / And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes.” Regardless of whether you think he’s rude, spastic or insane, no one can take away the sheer fact he is the most accomplished rapper today. His blunt, nearly playful way of articulating his successes in “I Love Kanye” is much more enjoyable as a listener than “Facts.’”
As for the rest of the album, “The Life of Pablo” still has many elements I absolutely adore, while others leave me underwhelmed. “Waves,” for example, has great instrumentals and has crisp and fresh production values. However, Chris Brown’s feature on the album seems predictable and blasé. What I admire about Kanye West is that there’s an unconventional component in almost all of his songs, but “Waves” seems to be lacking that. It’s a good listen but fails to get me excited about Kanye like other songs do. “FML” featuring the Weeknd is another with great instrumentals, a solid hook and is a good listen but fails to leave me complimenting anything else. However, “30 hours” and “No More Parties in L.A.” are solid tracks that recall to “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” eras, which can please any fan. “Feedback” channels his previous album, “Yeezus” and features that candid and severe style that made his 2013 release widely praised.
In terms of production and sound, “The Life of Pablo” will, without a doubt, be one of the best albums of the year. But in terms of lyrics and themes, like any Kanye West album, it is complex and intense. 38 years-old now, Kanye West definitely understands how to please millions of listeners across the world but never limits himself to one particular style or niche, and anyone should be able to admire that. The album’s best songs, “Ultralight Beam” and “Wolves,” are all around remarkable tracks with themes that are much more complex than love and worldly affairs, while other songs still seem to revert back to the need to remind everyone why he’s become the icon he is today. But that’s just it, the contradiction and jumbled themes are just so Kanye. 4.5 out of 5 stars.