It’s been a weird road leading up to The Life of Pablo. The album was intended for a 2014 release under the name So Help Me God, but the year came and went, and no such album came out. The story was the same in 2015, when the album was renamed SWISH but still wasn’t released to the public. A release date was announced—February 11, 2016—but before that, the album was named Waves and then, later, The Life of Pablo. The tracklist was tinkered with multiple times, and the album finally came out February 14, 2016, exclusive to the Tidal streaming service.
West’s indecisiveness in regards to his album’s release date and title are echoed in the music as well, to its detriment. The Life of Pablo is good Kanye West, but not great Kanye West, its largest problem being its lack of coherence. West calls it a gospel album, but it’s not a gospel album in the same way Yeezus was an industrial hip-hop album. Instead, what we have are eighteen tracks that mimic various styles of West’s past music, with context only a minor concern.
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” sounds like a cut from Graduation, “Feedback” could’ve come straight off of Yeezus, and both “Pt. 2” and “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)” are reminiscent of the Cruel Summer compilation album by West’s GOOD Music label. One of my favorite things about Kanye West is that he always goes for a different sound on each album; it’s a bold, ambitious move every time, but it’s one that Mr. West decided to skip here. Still, that takes nothing away from the great tracks. “Wolves” evokes the gorgeous artifice of 808s & Heartbreak in the best way possible; it’s got a booming synthetic bass backing some very watery autotuned vocals, with the occasional chilling harmonic howling in the background. West often overdoes the autotuned crooning throughout this album (particularly on “Highlights”), but here it works perfectly.
“No More Parties in L.A.” and “30 Hours” are the two best tracks on the album, both of them calling back to West’s Late Registration era of production. Madlib takes the reins on production for “No More Parties in L.A.,” which features Kendrick Lamar as a guest performer. A Kanye/Kendrick collaboration was long overdue, and “No More Parties in L.A.” doesn’t disappoint. “30 Hours” sees West teaming up with hip-hop drummer Karriem Riggins—the percussion has a great kick to it and a beneath it all is a nice bassline holding the track together. “Real Friends” is another excellent track, and its mellow, introspective atmosphere makes it one of the more low-key offerings on The Life of Pablo in spite of its somber subject matter.
There aren’t any particularly bad songs on the album, but the Cruel Summer-inspired tracks tend to be the weakest, mostly because Cruel Summer is Kanye West’s worst project to date. “Famous” has a nice synthetic organ beat, but Rihanna’s performance in the chorus is very low-energy (West could have easily done this part himself), and the song features a pretty tasteless lyric about having sex with Taylor Swift. That Kanye West can be a misogynist is hardly a secret, but West doesn’t even make an attempt to hide it here. This problem rears its head later on the album as well; in “Highlights,” West drops a cringeworthy reference to his wife, Kim Kardashian West, and her former boyfriend Ray J. Both tracks are fine listens, but only in spite of some of West’s less-than-stellar lyricism.
An eighteen-track album certainly isn’t the largest Kanye West has made. The College Dropout and Late Registration featured twenty-one tracks apiece, but they both carried their musical concepts to a satisfying conclusion. From Graduation onward, West’s albums were, at most, thirteen tracks long, perhaps because West realized the difficult of sustaining a musical concept over longer albums. It seems as if he’s regressing, unable to bring himself to cut anything from the album, and The Life of Pablo is quite scattershot as a result. What Kanye West has created here is a series of mostly solid (and sometimes very strong) tracks—whether or not he has created an actual album is another story.