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Album of the Week: Kanye West 'The Life of Pablo'

On February 15, 2016

Every week, we tell you about a new album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo

It’s probably a net positive for society that The Life of Pablo, for its lyrics, for the #problematic Tweets Kanye dropped in the last two weeks about Taylor, Cosby, and basically everything else, is the first Kanye West album I feel like I have to apologize for. Of course I saw his Tweets about Bill Cosby, and no, I don’t agree with them, and yes, I know what he says about Taylor on “Famous,” and no, that’s not true, and it’s offensive to her and to which ever stooge (I’m betting CyHi) helped write that couplet. And yes, I’m aware blaming that lyric on a stooge is removing a layer of guilt from Yeezy’s expensive Adidas shoes.

We’ve been waging a war on Twitter--and that’s the only place these things are happening, really, On Twitter; IRL people aren’t arguing about whether it’s cool to like R. Kelly while they scream along to “Ignition Remix” in the club--about whether or not it’s possible to separate an artist from their art. Because we live in a time when our social media output is everyone’s own version of performance art, and it’s impossible to separate our “real” selves from our social media selves, it’s even harder to dissociate Kanye and his shitty opinions about women and Bill Cosby from the Kanye who made “Jesus Walks” than it used to be. I am not naive enough to think that I am going to “solve” this issue here--everyone is entrenched in their “Hitler made ok art, doesn’t mean his paintings are evil” or “If you listen to Nicki Minaj knowing her brother is an alleged child rapist, you are as bad as an alleged child rapist!” poles, and no one listens to each other anyway--and I don’t think it will ever be solved. Plus the ability to separate art from artist changes from person to person, artist to artist.  

But I think we’d be well served to remember that we can’t associate fans of certain art with the sins of the artist who made that art, because there are levels to this. 12 billion people have bought Beatles records, and I would bet not all of them beat their romantic partners like John Lennon did. But you also don’t see people calling out John Lennon as an artist worthy of derision, either. People are willing to overlook transgressions if the art speaks to them. All this comes down to personal considerations, and liking Kanye West does not mean you also hate women; you can love and respect women enough to never call them the b-word and also think “Famous” fucking rules. You can’t police taste in art.  


Which is to say The Life of Pablo is this week’s Album of the Week, and it should really be Album of the Month, and I think--should we do one--it’s got a really good shot of being Album of the Year. Kanye has spent more than a dozen years changing it up for every album; the only two in his catalog that sound like each other are the first two, and that’s only because he was perfecting the soul-sample hip-hop, and he finished it off on the second one. Since then, none of his albums sound remotely the same, while this one, somehow, sounds like a MegaZord of all of his albums. There’s the soul sample boom bap via the gospel choirs on stuff like “Ultralight Beam,” the massive choruses and slick-electro futurism of Graduation in “Waves,” the Auto-Tuned sadness of 808s and Heartbreak in “Low Lights” and “Highlights,” the weary maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in “Fade” and “FML” and “Real Friends,” and the future-shock of Yeezus in “Freestyle 4” and “Famous.” The Life of Pablo is almost an entirely new greatest hits album. Everyone has wanted him to repeat his first LP since the day that came out, and now he’s gone ahead and repeated all of them. “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye, called “I Miss the Old Kanye,”/ Man, that would be so Kanye,” Kanye raps on “I Love Kanye,” once again proving he’s aware of the public perception of his music more than maybe any other artist.    

Kanye’s greatest strength, since he showed up with a Louis Vuitton full of beats for Cam and Jay, has been his choice of collaborators; he’s not the best “rapper” in rap, but there isn’t anyone even on his planet as a curator. Here, he has Young Thug sing for real (“Highlights”) and gets R&B and gospel greats like El Debarge, (“Highlights” again), The-Dream (multiple cuts), and Kirk Franklin (“Ultralight Beam”) to show up for what amount to under-promoted cameo appearances. Andre 3000 sings backup on “30 Hours,” a song where Kanye “runs out” of lyrics, which will probably drive 3 Stacks fans insane. Chris Brown shows up on “Waves,” doing more to repair his public perception than anything he’s done in the last seven years, Weeknd howls from the bowels of hell on “FML,” and Frank Ocean comes in from whatever wilderness he’s been roaming to deliver the emotional outro for “Wolves.” Ty Dolla $ign is going to be able to eat off his instant classic appearance on “Real Friends” as Kanye’s R&B subconscious, and Post Malone will get another six months of not being firmly trash-binned to the garbage can of pop culture off his singing on “Fade.”

But the person with the biggest Kanye swag snatch here is Chance the Rapper, whose verse on “Ultralight Beam” is going to be the part from this album that is going to be most posted on Tumblr, and it’s not even close. Chance stole the whole SNL performance this weekend too. I’ve never been more sure of someone on the upward trajectory to playing hockey arenas than I am of Chance after his appearance here. He deserves to be huge.    

You’re going to read a lot this week about how TLOP had the most tortured release of any major album this side of Jay-Z’s dumbass Samsung ad album, but all of that is in the past, and we all lived it together. And while I can appreciate people who are going to take a #hardpass on this album because Kanye seems like a total dick, we are past the point where someone can claim Kanye doesn’t make “good” (or G.O.O.D., I suppose) music. He’s seven-for-seven, and you have to go back to classic rock to find an artist with that kind of winning percentage. He’s not fighting to have the best catalog in rap anymore; he’s fighting with the lionized bands of Boomer culture now. He’s our best chance to lionize a musical great in the pantheon. If you think Kanye’s music is trash, get ready to take that hard L historically. You’ll be buried in a wing alongside the people who thought the Beatles and Michael Jackson made trash music.

I spent an hour Saturday night driving around the highways of Madison while my girlfriend met with her library school study group at our apartment. I listened to my illegal (hello RIAA) rip of the stream of the Yeezy Season 3 listening event and ate a five-piece spicy tenders meal from Popeye’s and drove the Beltline for the full running time of that version of TLOP. It’s hard to think of a musical experience I will enjoy more in 2016 than that one.

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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