My life can be divided up into Kanye West chapters. 2005 meant watching music videos on VH1 and seeing the now-iconic “Gold Digger” video for the first time, understanding even then that this guy wearing sunglasses indoors was on a path to artistic greatness.
2008 was a year of me singing along to “Stronger” at middle school dances. And staying up late with my brother playing “Graduation” softly so we wouldn’t wake our parents up, thinking how this was one of the best albums of all time.
By 2011 I was “indie,” i.e. I didn’t listen to the radio because of some ridiculous superiority complex. But I would blast “Monster” in the car with my friends, unable to deny that Kanye was still a genius.
And now, 2016, the Yeezy love is more passionate than ever. I’ve spent the last two weeks with “The Life of Pablo” on repeat, in complete awe that this is the product after months of build-up and tweets and rumors. That in the vast existence of the universe, we are so lucky to live in the same speck of time as Mr. West.
Alright, before I plunge into my torrent of why Kanye is the most incredible artist of our generation, I should probably address the haters. First off, I get it. Kanye is super over-the-top and has a knack for saying some really stupid shit sometimes. But that’s not the point. Kanye has only done what every great, eccentric artist has done before him: create a harsh, visceral public image that incites zealous conversations.
Look at The Beatles, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, the entire punk movement—all artists who completely innovated how music conveys sound, style and persona. Also note that these are white artists, whose controversial impacts to music are nonetheless respected all these years later. Kanye is “too black, too vocal, too flagrant”, which is why he’s getting backlash despite following the white trends of disorder established decades before he even dropped his first single.
So, you either love him or you hate him. As aware as he is of his fans, he’s also aware of the haters and you know what, he really doesn’t care what end of the spectrum you fall under.
That’s the initial takeaway from “The Life of Pablo”—Kanye’s biting self-awareness. He knows about Kanye West trying his Kanye best; he knows that we’re looking for someone who will love us the way Kanye loves Kanye. After listening to “Pablo,” I understood that Kanye’s been in on it this entire time. He jabs at his self-proclaimed superstar family, his relationship with Amber Rose, his disconcerting dive into the fashion industry. “I Love Kanye” articulates this in 45 perfect seconds, calling us out after we’ve spent so much time calling him out: “What if Kanye wrote a song about Kanye/Called it ‘I Miss the Old Kanye’/ Man that’d be so Kanye!”
All of our reactionary jokes, it seems, were controlled, carefully presented before us to abuse in the internet vortex of culture-creation. If we look up, we can see Kanye guiding the pieces, laughing and writing bars based on our antics as a result of his antics.
While “Pablo” has an absurdist sense of humor, the most shining moments are when Yeezy juxtaposes jokes with heavier issues that run deeper than his own public persona. “Ultralight Beam” opens the album with a paralyzing, five-minute outpour of faith, made even holier thanks to contributions from Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin.
“I’m trying to keep my faith/But I’m looking for more,” Franklin oozes throughout the track. It reminds us of Kanye’s complex psychology, as previously explored on albums “808s and Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and even making us think of one of his first singles, “Jesus Walks.” This is a side of Kanye we have definitely seen before, but one we may have forgotten because of distracting shit that makes Kanye out to be someone we can’t take seriously. But in “Pablo” we’re told to wake up, another common theme in West’s discography. “Y’all been sleeping on me huh, have a good snooze?” he asks us, serving as the blaring alarm that he’s same old Kanye and he’s not going to let us forget.
It’s just as important to credit “Pablo’s” production and how Kanye is redefining the sound of hip hop. Again, this is nothing new—he’s always been on the forefront of rap, setting new trends in production and mixing in eclectic samples. “Pablo” just does all this standard Kanye practice at full throttle, a cubist collection of sounds that shouldn’t fuse together but somehow find their synthesis. It’s like watching a movie comprised of many montages—rapidly cutting from one emotive image to another. It takes looking at the movie as a whole, and not as the individual images, to get the point.
“Famous” drops my girl Sister Nancy, and closing track “Fade” puts in one of my favorite house beats from Mr. Fingers. But what put me over the edge was his Arthur Russell sample on “30 Hours.” Every time I listen to it, I imagine Kanye sitting alone in a dark room, putting on Russell’s heart-wrenching “World of Echo” and weeping. Through these deep-cut samples, “Pablo” proves that Kanye is a connoisseur of music, seeing it wholly as art via sound.
With his various collaborations, ranging from new artists like Desiigner to icons like Rihanna and Andre 3000, Kanye emphasizes that hip hop is a glittering community for distinct voices to unite in unconventional ways. He knows music history and innovators and is brave enough to figure out how to blend all of this knowledge together in one special Yeezy elixir.
As “Fade” slams the door shut on “The Life of Pablo,” I have understood this beautiful, abstract story differently than my homies next to me understood it. But the point is we both have “Highlights” stuck in our heads, laughing at the idea of Kanye and Ray J possibly being friends while we’re simultaneously reaching to press play and listen to it all over again.