Kanye West is indefensible. Or, there is little value in attempting to make sense of his messy political maxims, self-aware musings, and social media diatribes. His creative work and understanding of his own genius is essentially all we, legitimately, have to contextualize in terms of formative critique. We live in a culture where few faves are without problem and Kanye maybe the patron saint of these icons (no pun intended).
In thinking through The Life of Pablo (TLOP), and Kanye’s entire portfolio, it is urgent we address the music with a intentional “face value.” Music critic and acclaimed poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib deftly notes this distance and need for objectivity: [we] have no access to Kanye West, or his life, beyond what he shares through his work.” This is not to imply we are unable to unpack and navigate Kanye’s work, yet as consumers of his art we have to locate his messages in a context that allows for his fantasy and failure.
While the chronological follow up to Yeezus, Kanye West’s latest “release” is almost equally in conversation with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The amalgamation of luxurious orchestral arrangements matched with the disruptive sonic production creates a reliable soap box for West to shine. While no one could argue his pure lyricism as standout, Kanye knows how to write for his production. His ear is arguably better than his mouth.
It’s also notable how many collaborators he has (though this isn’t a new phenomenon for Kanye). He’s able to curate spaces for a variety of artist and sounds to take shape on his tracks. A particularly stand out verse is on the opening track “Ultralight Beam” from Chicago heartthrob Chance the Rapper. Like Nicki Minaj’s iconic “Monster” verse or Lupe Fiasco on “Touch The Sky”, Chance outshines most others on the track just by showing up. (Note: Don’t miss underrated R&B legend Kelly Price slay on this track about 1:58)
Of the multitude that is Kanye West, The Life of Pablo feels like less of a departure, and more like swan dive into the personal zeal and faith that Kanye has long had with himself. West has longed imagined better and best for himself. Fame and acclaim has been a central tenant of his aspirations and the constant defense of his credentials reveal some level of frustration at not being “seen”. The Life of Pablo, as West has stated, is a gospel album; so, if Tidal is the pulpit what’s the good word Rev. West?
“I can’t speak to what Kanye’s heaven looks like, but this album is his prayer hoping for it.”
Now, for some, the religious rhetoric around such a secular artist could be unsettling. Yet there is a language and context for this kind of Black pop culture theology. West’s latest sounds like a prosperity gospel. For those unfamiliar, a “prosperity gospel” is a type of Christian ideology that believes God values material wealth— that offering dues (almost exclusively money) you’ll be able to amass your own wealth both here and in heaven.
I can’t speak to what Kanye’s heaven looks like, but this album is his prayer hoping for it. The tracks move from meditative reflections, cries for help, and a plethora of praise reports. The Life of Pablo though also reveals the shortcomings of this gospel: how money, family, sex, and Blackness all complicate success. He has acquired many of the signifiers of wealth and prosperity of which he has longed dreamed. Kanye feels entitled to fictitious seat at table of cultural supremacy. He’s seeing how that hyper-visibility makes him subject to justifiable critique inspire of his consistently high quality work. The self-aware artist is addressing his own mercurial tendency.
Kanye’s pride is not ever presented without juxtaposing a type of hurt anxiety. So even this seemingly boastful album is more an attempt at hope than a declaration of supremacy. Kanye believes in speaking his genius into relevance. His gospel isn’t simply hubris or a condescension, it’s aspirational. Kanye wants you to love you as much as Kanye loves Kanye. While not as pragmatic or tangible, TLOP still envelopes the listen with a fictitious almost superfluous hope. This sensation reads as testimony on West, yet he seems far from end of his journey.
If Kanye has lost you, this may not be the album to return to, but if you share his almost blind faith in himself, this work offers a humanity. These sad rich dude meditations rely in believing in his artistry, his genius, but more importantly yourself.