The Life of Pablo


Band: Kanye West
Album: The Life of Pablo
Best song: “No More Parties in L.A.”
Worst song: “I Love Kanye West” is dumb.

The Life of Pablo was finally released Sunday — two days after it was supposed to be released and three days after a pretty weird fashion show/listening party at Madison Square Garden — and let’s examine how I can relate to it . The important caveats apply, as usual:

  • I’m a 35-year-old white man from the same region (but a wholly different world) of the nation of the country as West. He’s a scant four years older than I, so we both listened to DJ Joe Soto on WGCI and the dusty throwback shows on the same station.
  • I have no background in or knowledge of the black church, save for living down the block from one in DC. I’m not well-versed in Christianity, on the whole, save for a general curiosity and books read on the historical Jesus and the spread of the church throughout the Roman Empire. This is pretty useless when talking about an album that is, by many accounts, as gospel as anything.
  • West’s recent run of sexism — dating back to Yeezus’ often deplorable lyrics claimed to be jokes — turns me off quite a bit.
  • West’s outward ego — which has been, of course, said to be masking some tremendous insecurity — turns most people off, let’s be honest. Like Cam Newton last week, the unfortunate byproduct of big ego while successful is that a lack of success makes for an uncomfortable watch.

From what I understand about Christianity in its most modern American form, the nature of it is quite attractive for the sinner (which is good!), as so much of it acknowledges the nature of sin as a natural state of human life. Which is to say that humans are flawed and being godly is not necessarily only the domain of the pure.

Which is why it would be small-minded to say that The Life of Pablo‘s sinful struggles — talk of sex, worshipping money, etc. — are just that: Struggles. I’m wholly unqualified to speak to Kanye West’s journey as an African American and its connection to black Christianity, but that’s what a lot of people talking about the album is saying.

Indeed, “Ultralight Beam” is an exercise in this godliness, as West brings in a gospel choir and The-Dream to sing about the struggle against sin, pre-determinism and the questions that come within it. It’s all couched in the classic notion of the holy-as-light that doubles as a Kubrickian notion (to these white atheist ears). It’s a strikingly beautiful look into West’s Daedalean religiosity.

Yeezus, musically, avoided much Christian gospel influence in combining hip hop and dance styles outside of it while questioning the very concept of god (including some via the Nation of Islam) lyrically. The Life of Pablo, as West explained on Twitter, is not a reference to the famed appropriator of African art/artist Pablo Picasso but rather a Christian notion of St. Paul. It’s a strange reference for a record that is less accessible than previous albums — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his masterpiece, for sure — that appeal to multiple audiences; The Life of Pablo is hard to get into and will, most certainly, fracture audience by the nature of the album and, of course, via West himself. Mentioning the saint who was responsible for spreading the gospel speaks as much to West’s thoughts about himself as it does to his current feelings on Christianity.

Which brings us to the largest complain about West: Ego. Where I lose my connection with West is when his ego becomes the focal point of his music. Yeezus played around with this, no doubt, but used the concept more as a path to his ideas of god-as-each-man.

I’m not alone in having a harder time feeling sympathy for those in positions of power and talent (the entire celebrity gossip industry is built on the darker side of this: schadenfreude), so West’s complaints about fucking models on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” falls somewhat flat to me. Forty seconds of shallow self-examination on “I Love Kanye” is not particularly worthwhile.

Indeed, West’s best work — and the best work of any artists — is that which takes West’s personal demons and making them universal. “All Falls Down” is the platonic ideal of this, as it introduced most of us to West’s best sides, but his reworking of Volcano Choir’s “Still” as “Lost in the World” explores similar themes. Hell, all of the often-decried “808s and Heartbreak” is West’s best (worst?) foot forward in dealing with the universal theme of the end of a relationship.

The concept of “FML” — a measure-shifting song about the struggles of being faithful to one of the most famous women in the world — could go sideways in a heartbeat, but West’ strength remains in his ability to craft a hook in just about any circumstance. The Weeknd’s hook ties the first — wildly sexist — verse to the more affecting second verse and the beautifully dissonant coda. The song’s downbeat nature is entirely listenable while straining the conventions of its form, as West’s best work always is.

Which connects The Life of Pablo with the overarching problem with West: his relationship with women. Back in the second- and third-wave emo days, the charge of emo dudes putting women on pedestals out of fear — there are connections here to the idiotic Men’s Rights Activism thing, no doubt — created a toxic stew of misogyny disguised as sensitivity. The stupendous Julie Klausner touched on it in her book and revisited the concept in an interview with Vanity Fair:

I’m more concerned with those guys in sensitive emo-guy clothing, who are just terrified of women to the extent they can’t make eye contact… Fear isn’t respect; it’s just as often contempt, but in the examples I gave, it’s contempt with this culturally-sanctioned “fake sensitive guy” ruse.

West doesn’t fear women, for sure, but he most certainly puts them on a pedestal, from his mother to his weird obsession with his now-wife before they were married to, well, all the shit he’s said about his ex-girlfriend Amber Rose in the last few years.

This came to a head with that whole thing about whether or not West is into butt stuff a few weeks ago, but as Kara Brown writes, West is absolutely obsessed with disparaging Rose’s time as a stripper and, therefore, her sexuality. There’s, of course, a logic issue with his pedestal for his wife — who shot to fame, lest we forget via a sex tape — but the actual issue is that West feels it important to even talk about Rose. Why even bring her up or acknowledge her existence? Fuck, if someone asks me about my exes, I have nothing but nice things to say and I’m a fucking nobody. Is he talking about her on the first verse of “Father, Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” a song that begins with a sample of preacher (and huge figure in the Chicago black community, as well as a pyramid schemer according to the state of Illinois) Pastor T.L. Barrett?

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
I was high when I met her
We was down in Tribeca
She get under your skin if you let her

Either way, it speaks to a larger — armchair psychologist alert — issue that West has with women: he sees them not as people, but rather within the context of the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Somehow, his wife is one and Amber Rose is the other.

(This, of course, is akin to Drake’s “good girl” issue, so it’s not just West that plays this game, but popular music itself)

West seems to put women in these places by way of his lyrics, as well. The catchy but deplorable “Famous” features West’s now-infamous lyric about (white) America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous”), but the lines that follow paint femaleness more as a problem within West’s world:

For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West
If you see ’em in the streets give ’em Kanye’s best
Why? They mad they ain’t famous (God damn)
They mad they’re still nameless (Talk that talk, man)

This echoes Yeezus‘ worst bits (“Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce” and “black girl sippin’ white wine/Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”) masquerading as humor, but speaking to the easy dehumanization of women.

As such, the Bill Cosby tweet follows this logic: women are less than human, therefore, his word is worth more than the scores of women accusing him. Treating his wife as a mannequin for his fashion dreams follows, as well, as it takes away her agency to fucking dress herself.

Which brings it back to the breakdown aspect of this, argued by David Roth and placed in contrast with West’s claims of humor or his supporters’ idea that this is performance art or simply promotion for the album. I don’t know, obviously, if West is truly struggling with his own mind or just trying to gin up excitement for the record; his delays, confusion and nonsense around the album’s release may simply be a symptom of the current state of the record industry as much as anything else (you couldn’t add/subtract tracks or delay releases as much when you had to press thousands of CDs).

He could be mentally ill or on cocaine or something else. Or he could be playing a role, but the problem with art is that it stop’s being the artist’s once it gets into the world. Indeed, I’ll let Vice‘s Kat George explain in a succinct two sentences:

The inherent problem with Kanye West’s “unique” “performance art” is that it requires the degradation of women to exist. By playing the misogynist, Kanye West becomes a misogynist.

And therein is the problem with Kanye West: Talent is not without problems, as he raps on “Feedback” (“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”). I, personally, can’t figure out how to reconcile his talent, his misogyny and his outbursts. Eventually, I just throw my hands up. I try to separate the artist with the art, but I just end up realizing that everything we love is flawed.

When he puts out albums like Watch the Throne or 808s or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s pretty easy to ignore his sexism (especially when it’s in his lyrics, as it is all over MBDTF). The Life of Pablo isn’t that. It’s an album probably not made for me and, despite its highs being quite high, this is West’s worst record yet.

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