‘The Life of Pablo’: Kanye West’s Moody, Misogynistic Ode to Fatherhood in the Face of Fame
The Chicago native’s seventh studio album lacks structure and is bursting with cameos. Even though it falls short of Yeezus, ’Ye’s latest occasionally dazzles.
During the summer of 1918, as World War I came to a close, Pablo Picasso wed Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina in Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary company Ballets Russes. It was an odd pairing, to say the least—the epicurean artist and the chaste Russian Orthodox redhead—but at 36, and on the heels of a spurned proposal, the bachelor was ready to settle down and start a family.
Picasso’s art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, rented the couple an apartment adjacent to his at 23 Rue la Boétie in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. This shift to haute société proved trying for the bohemian Cubist, whose bride resented his and his friends’ libertine ways.
“Former friends denounced Picasso’s new address as too redolent of bourgeois affluence and commerce,” wrote John Richardson in the third volume of his sprawling opus A Life of Picasso. “The Rue la Boétie had recently become the center of the Paris art trade. It was lined with galleries and expensive antiques shops. Why, in view of his denunciations of ‘dealers [as] the enemy,’ did Picasso choose to live in their very midst? Had he returned to the more bohemian Montparnasse, where he had previously resided, he would have encountered disgruntled Cubists and former girlfriends at every turn. Also, Olga was determined to woo him away from his formerly louche life.”
Like Picasso, whom he namechecked on recent single “No More Parties in L.A.,” rapper Kanye West married Kim Kardashian at the age of 36. West had tragically lost his mother, Donda, to complications from plastic surgery and was eager to fill that familial void. Furthermore, his last serious relationship, with hip-hop model Amber Rose, resulted in an acrimonious split—one that still reverberates to this day—and a public apology in the form of his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
As soon as Kimye formed, the duo fought to be taken seriously by the haute couture world—Kanye as designer and Kim as muse. They were both seen as tacky interlopers and brutally rebuffed, with West (the musician) blackballed by many of the top designers and Kardashian (the reality star) reportedly banned from attending the 2012 Met Ball by Anna Wintour herself.
What a difference a few years makes. Today, the two are the faces of Balmain, and on Feb. 11, West presented his second consecutive showing during New York Fashion Week—a frenzied spectacle at Madison Square Garden attended by, yes, Ms. Wintour. The event also served as the hotly anticipated debut of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, a nod to Picasso as well as Paul the Apostle, a Pharisee who preached that Christ is the Son of God and was subsequently beheaded during the cruel reign of Roman Emperor Nero.
Similar to most superstars consumed by the celebrity-industrial complex, it’s become harder and harder to separate Kanye West the Artist from Kanye West the Outré Personality. And the lead-up to the release of TLOP has seen us all bear witness to one of the most piss-poor press tours since that of Bill Cosby’s Netflix special, replete with three album title changes, a bizarre (and misguided) rant at ex Rose and Wiz Khalifa, the ominous inscription “Kylie Was Here,” tweaked tracklistings, and the pièce de résistance:
The Life of Pablo opens with the gospel intro “Ultralight Beam.” A Jesus Juice-swillin’ young girl, presumably representing his daughter North, shrieks, “We don’t want no devils in the house!” before it gives way to choral hymns, and a call-and-response between West and The Dream, with the twosome crooning, “We on an ultra light beam / This is a God dream / This is a God dream / This is everything.” It’s really a prolonged prayer, with West seeking guidance from the heavens to stay steady for the sake of his children. In a sense, the moody, contemplative track serves as the perfect amuse-bouche to this schizophrenic array of tuneful tapas, exhibiting its strengths and weaknesses.
For one, as evidenced by “Ultralight Beam,” the production on TLOP pales in comparison to the sonically audacious Yeezus. West’s sophisticated, forward-thinking production has always been a hallmark of his musical brand—hell, he started out producing smash hits for mentor Jay Z and Talib Kweli—but, to quote West, this doesn’t sound like “the futch” so much as the present, with minimalist beats serving to underscore the vocals instead of propelling them, while mimicking the stylings of the day, from Future to Kendrick. And on “Beam,” as on much of TLOP, West feels like a guest on his own album, often contributing, say, one verse out of three, and often overshadowed by his surfeit of cameos—in this case Chance the Rapper rhyming “Pangaea” with “Zambia” in a truly fire verse.
Track Nos. 2 and 3, “Father Stretch My Hands, Pts. I & II,” follows the theme of West negotiating fatherhood with fame and his lascivious past. “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,” he rhymes in auto-tune in one of the album’s more quotable lines.
Later on, Metro Boomin’s hymn-backed beat transitions into clap-heavy synths as Pt. II kicks in, with West recalling how far he’s come since those dark early days, building a new house from a broken foundation. “Drop some stacks, pops is good / Momma pass in Hollywood / If you ask, lost my soul / Driving fast, lost control / Off the road, jaw was broke / ’Member we all was broke / ’Member I’m coming back / And I’ll be taking all the stacks,” he hurriedly raps. This push-pull between the life he’s chosen and the fast life he could lead is further emphasized by Future soundalike Desiigner spitting about his “broads in Atlanta” and sipping lean, representing the current hip-hop zeitgeist. It’s a beautiful mess, this two-part song, with its varying beats, rhythms, and flows.
One of the only tracks that sounds futch is “Feedback,” with West toasting his humble beginnings and myriad accomplishments while ethering his haters in tune with a pulsing electro beat similar to Yeezus’s “On Sight.” West is often at his venomous best when he’s angry (see: “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” all of MBDTF), and here he’s furious, rapping, “I can’t let these people play me / Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” and later adding, “I know, I know, I shouldn’t even bother / With all these gossiping, no-pussy-getting bloggers.”
Unfortunately, the genuine vitriol is in short supply on TLOP, and on the following track, aimed at a strange target: Taylor Swift. Yes, on “Famous,” West unloads what is bound to be one of the more controversial lines off the album: “For all my Southside niggas that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous / God damn / I made that bitch famous.” The rest of the track features meandering production by Hudson Mohawke and a wasted chorus by Rihanna, but the Swift dig raises the question of why West is simultaneously lambasting the tabloid nonsense and fueling it. Perhaps it’s the Kardashian in him, but on the next track, “High Lights,” West invokes two names that have absolutely no business on a Kanye album when he raps, “Blac Chyna fuckin’ Rob, help him with the weight / I wish my trainer would, tell me what I overate.” Giving a nod to the recent gossip rag nonsense involving his wife’s little brother and her little sister’s ex is beneath him.
And it’s here we should address West’s frustrating penchant for misogyny. It’s an all-too-prevalent theme in hip-hop, of course—a byproduct of braggadocio gone haywire—but audiences largely excused West’s “single black female[s] addicted to retail” and “gold digger[s]” as the musings of an immature, single young man trying to stake his claim in an arena where the commodification of women is sadly de rigueur.
Now, there’s no excuse. West is not only rap’s standard-bearer, but also 38 years old and a married father of two—one of whom is a baby girl—yet he still treats virtually every woman on The Life of Pablo as a sexual object. Labeling Taylor Swift a “bitch” who still might have sex with him is only the tip of the iceberg. On “Freestyle 4,” he raps, “Whip that, bitch out / Tits out, oh shit / My dick out, can she suck it right now? / Fuck, can she fuck right now? / I done asked twice now / Can you bring your price down?” He even treats his own wife and the mother of his children, Kim Kardashian, as a disposable prop, invoking her sex tape several times for the purpose of boosting his own ego. “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,” he spits on “Highlights.” Later, on the meandering track “30 Hours,” he brings it up again: “I wake up, all veggies no eggs / I hit the gym, all chest no legs / Yep, then I made myself a smoothie / Yeah, then me and wifey make a movie.”
West is better than this.
There’s plenty more on TLOP that seems beneath West, too, including the hectic track “Freestyle 4” or the interlude-esque closer “Fade,” which barely even features him—instead inexplicably handing mic duties over to Ty Dolla $ign and Post Malone. Again, the lack of West here makes it seem more like a GOOD Music compilation, a la Cruel Summer, than an actual Kanye West studio album.
Thankfully, the track that reportedly held up the album’s release, “Waves,” washes the bad taste out of your mouth, with troubled R&B star Chris Brown crooning, “You set the night on fire / I’m still gonna be here in the mornin’, no lie” in beauteous fashion. This is a track you and your crew will blast in the Uber with all the windows down on the long ride home from the club, feeling invincible. It’s followed by “FML” which, ridiculous title aside, returns things to the themes of fatherhood and family in the face of temptation, with West deliberately rapping, “I been feeling all I’m giving / For my children / I will die for those I love / God I’m willing / To make this my mission / Give up the women / Before I lose half of what I own.” Its complemented by a euphonious chorus from The Weeknd that not only fits the proceedings perfectly, but serves as a bridge to the more aggressive second verse: “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / This nigga when he off his Lexapro.”
“FML” kicks off a trifecta of impressive songs, including the previously released singles “Real Friends,” and “Wolves,” with the latter tweaked to remove Sia and Vic Mensa in favor of a pair of West verses about, of course, putting his wild ways to bed for the sake of protecting his children—with some religious imagery to boot:
“Then I said, ‘What if Mary was in the club / What if she met Joseph around hella thugs / Cover Nori in lambs wool / We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves.’ / Then I said, ‘What if Mary was in the club / What if she met Joseph with no love / Cover Saint in lambs wool / We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves.”
The removal of Sia and Mensa from the track will undoubtedly irk some, but it also helps make the track feel more personal and haunting—just ’Ye and an aching Frank Ocean outro to send it all home.
Taken as a whole, The Life of Pablo’s patchwork feel will prompt fans of West to question his working methods, including exactly how divided his attention is between fame, family, fashion, and music. His two finest works, The College Dropout and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, received his complete focus, with the former taking over four years to record and the latter famously laid down over many months at a compound in Hawaii with a regimented work schedule. West’s previous album Yeezus, on the other hand, was brought to uber-producer Rick Rubin five weeks before its release needing serious CPR. According to Rubin, it consisted of 3½ hours worth of beats and scattered lyrics, but in 15 to 16 days, he helped West carve it down to a tight, cohesive whole.
From a technical standpoint, Pablo feels like West’s least harmonious album since Graduation, and is overwhelmed by its many, many cameos. But this is still Kanye West we’re talking about here, and like one of Picasso’s lesser works, it’s still better than most. We just wish he’d grow up a little.