Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo Has Aged Quite Well
Kanye West had the Internet buzzing this past Valentine’s Day when he returned to social media and proceeded to spend seven hours posting pictures of famous celebrity couples. We’re still not quite sure what the meaning behind it all was (or if there was supposed to be any meaning at all). Valentine’s Day was also the anniversary of his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo. Much has happened to West since, including a public breakdown, a new baby and a brief allegiance with then president-elect Donald Trump. Through it all, Pablo has aged quite well. The Muse’s Thomas Penney and Kristopher Smith collaborated on a retrospective on the album, how it was released and how it has matured.
Kris: I’d definitely wager a nice portion of my nonexistent fortune that Tom and I are the resident on staff “Kanye experts” at The Muse and are very qualified to talk to you about Mr. West. I’ve been a huge Kanye fan for well over a decade and have been known to defend him in conversations when Taylor Swift comes up, in person and online.
Tom: For the purposes of this exercise, I am singularly a Kanye obsessive. When I was still reviewing music regularly, I would salivate at the chance to review a new Kanye album. Knowing that an artist is always going to try to evolve while maintaining their sense of self is always fun.
Kris: So we’re talking about Pablo. Did we ever find out which Pablo Kanye West was referring to? Picasso or Escobar? Was it both? West’s seventh studio album was teased on New Year’s Eve 2015 with the release of “Facts” and then it was announced by his wife, Kim Kardashian, that “G.O.O.D. Fridays” would return. That seemed to be what was happening when we got “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in L.A.” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Except it didn’t really happen that way which is the first and last time I’ll ever trust a Kardashian.
This album was the natural progression of 2013’s Yeezus but was slightly more accessible. In a lot of ways I would say this album was by “Kanye Kardashian” rather than Kanye West. The rapper seems to fully embrace the famous lifestyle on many of the songs. If it wasn’t for the song “Famous,” we wouldn’t have confirmation that Taylor Swift is a snake and Swift wouldn’t have half the material for her Reputation album.
Tom: The Life of Pablo is about Saint Peter, Jesus’ right-hand-man, I think. I’m not sure if that means Kanye believes JAY-Z to be Jesus, and himself to be the more interesting figure, or if he just likes religious imagery. Either way, TLOP is a sprawling and deeply faith-driven album that wasn’t actually finished when it was released. When Kanye and Chance the rapper debuted “Ultra Light Beam” on SNL, the album was still being tweaked. “Wolves” was entirely overhauled, for the better, and “Saint Pablo” was added as the albums ultimate track.
The changes were all for the better, especially the latter. Saint Pablo is a near perfect song, which samples JAY-Z’s “Where I’m From.”
Kris: The album that was initially called Swish, then Waves and it was announced that it would “premiere” at West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show on February 11, 2016, which it did in an early form. No news about a physical release was announced leading up to that Thursday in February and HMV had no knowledge of the album when I inquired. (Remember HMV? A lot can change in two years).
Finally, the album was available following West’s appearance on Saturday Night Live on February 14.
Tom: How long did we wait on this album? It underwent something like 4 name changes over the course of three years. Several singles that had absolutely nothing to do with the album were released, Kanye became more erratic than usual, and we spent the better part of three years wondering where this album was. While we waited, Kanye performed what was initially the lead single for this album, “All Day”, at the 2015 Brit Awards. The concussive performance had many of us believing a return the grandeur of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was coming.
That didn’t happen.
Kris: I remember I was watching SNL hoping that West would announce that the album was available as I had been waiting since the fashion show on Thursday. My life was sort of in shambles at the time with a lot of drama going down and a new album by one of my favorite artists was just the distraction I needed.
I remember staying up until nearly four in the morning trying to purchase the album from West’s site as it was only available there and for streaming on Tidal. Eventually I got it and it was the best Valentine’s Day gift I’d gotten since my mom bought be a plush velociraptor when I was in Grade 2.
Tom: Do you have any idea how painful it is to be a captive viewer of SNL when the absolute last thing you want to do is watch sketch comedy? Seriously, I haven’t watched SNL since Hannibal Buress left, and even then I barely did. Either way, here I was waiting for a rare public appearance from the increasingly reclusive Kanye, hopeful that I’d get more than a new single.
Something Kanye has mastered is hype. Remember Yeezus? That was released on an hour’s notice. TLOP was even more ambitious, released on 30 seconds notice. I fired up my Tidal subscription, which I swear I didn’t cancel after a month, and I finally had the album in my hands, so to speak.
Kris: I love SNL so…
Why It Matters Now:
Kris: TLOP arrived just when I needed it. Though I wanted it many times before that with the numerous album teases. West really pushed the notion of an album here as he never officially released a physical copy and made several changes and updates to it for streaming services which could be a sign of things to come for future albums. He introduced me to rappers like Chance and Desiigner and Young Thug who are doing well for themselves throughout the mainstream right now.
In some ways, Pablo should have been called a “playlist” instead of an album the same thing Drake did with More Life in 2017. Kanye is more of a curator on this album and knows when to step back. He paints an artistic picture on “Ultra Light Beam” and Chance shines with his verse. He uses Rhianna on the hook of “Famous” and she delivers an amazing vocal. He took the hook from Desiigner’s “Panda” (which also became a big hit in 2016) and built an entire song around it in “Pt. 2.”
“30 Hours” is also a standout track (though I could do without the extended album version) and provides the best petty social media status you could ever use in the lyric “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life/I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right”. Oh and he also manages to quote Nelly’s early 2000’s hit “EI” in a very effortless and natural way.
The entire thing has aged well and sounds just as fresh and erratic as it did when I first listened to it on that early Valentine’s Day morning.
Tom: The Life of Pablo is Kanye’s darkest album to date (Editors Note: Ye says, “Hold my drink!”). It continues a trend in his music that has seen a distinct lack of joyfulness since Late Registration. It also provided another deeply honest look into Kanye’s increasingly unstable personal life. The album is a sonic mess, but it seems more and more like that was done on purpose. It sounds amateurish and accomplished all at once. Speculation that Kanye’s personal life was a string of mood swings and panic fueled paranoia seemed to be reflected on the album.
Of course, the album still features immaculately produced songs to go with the messy, more unhinged tracks. Chance the Rapper’s “Waves” features beautifully arranged cascading synth sounds, which underscore vocal harmonies. Still, two years later, the album is more interesting in the messy bits.
“Wolves,” perhaps one of Kanye’s greatest songs to date, is at all times coherent and sprawling. The heavy vocal distortion, along with the howling horns create a vast, empty feeling. Something that you can project your own 3:00 a.m. problems onto. Sia and Vic Mensa come together for one of the most interesting collaborations.
Still, there is triumphant sounding material here. “Father Stretch my Hands Part 1” sees Kanye reuniting with long-time collaborator Kid Cudi. Kanye gets the most out of his features, and Cudi is perhaps the best example. When Cudi hums under jubilant drums marries perfectly with Kanye’s recounting of his meeting one-time romantic partner Amber Rose.
Look, this one requires a little more squinting to be seen as a classic in the Kanye catalogue. It doesn’t touch MBDTF (which is the greatest album recorded post 2000, fight me) but it holds up well against Yeezus and 808’s.