The Life of Pablo is sprawling, beautiful and obscene, endearing in a kind of off-kilter way, comfortable in the sense it isn’t Yeezus and alien in the manner it isn’t quite like anything else Kanye West has made. The way the album was, and is being, birthed and presented in the public view has been the focal point for many seeking to immediately understand the legacy of Pablo. West, the notorious perfectionist, was changing the game by releasing an imperfect product with a guarantee that it would evolve into its true form over time.
Ima fix wolves
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016
He’s stuck to that promise. He fixed “Wolves” by adding contributions from Sia and Vic Mensa and slicing Frank Ocean’s verse into the on-the-nose “Frank’s Track”. He added an entirely new track, “Saint Pablo” to the end of the album. He made minor mixing changes to a dozen or so other tracks.
Truthfully, the “evolving album” concept isn’t exactly industry-shaking. The small mixing changes, the new song, adding a few letters to “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”, are a wash, a welcome gift, and a wash, respectively. That’s assuming your version of Pablo has been updated correctly – as of this writing, the Spotify version of the album features “Wolves”-sans Sia and Mensa, with Frank Ocean still performing the outro, but now with “Frank’s Track” following, meaning the listener hears the same thirty-eight seconds of Ocean twice in a row. That’s not groundbreaking so much as amateurish.
The concept could be used more dramatically in the future, by West or another artist, but in regards to Pablo it doesn’t add up to more than a bemusing tweet or a lens to magnify a minute aspect of the way streaming services are changing the way people consume music, at best. At the end of the day, the story of Pablo is the story of the many relationships of Kanye West.
THE MANY RELATIONSHIPS OF KANYE WEST
While West has often focused on relationships in his music, the sheer breadth in Pablo is unique. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was about relationships, but more specifically it was a dramatization of his relationship with one woman, Amber Rose. 808s & Heartbreak bleakly followed the dissolution of his relationship with fiancée Alexis Phifer and the death of his mother. Yeezus, the least relationship-driven of his post-Graduation work, is a mostly inward-looking album that considers the reconciliation of West’s bachelor life with his budding relationship with Kim Kardashian. Pablo stands alone as the landscape view of his relationships, romantic and otherwise, where there isn’t a narrative thread like an icy breakup or a passionate flame-out holding the album together but there are instead many threads with West as the nucleus.
Let’s establish the cast of people who form the relationships West references in Pablo. The relationships we’re talking about aren’t name-drops, like Taylor Swift on “Famous”, but actual peeks into relationships. You have: God, Kanye fans, Kim, kids Nori and Saint, his laptop-stealing cousin, who may or may not also be the subject of the second verse in “Real Friends”, an old girlfriend believed to be Sumeke Rainey, his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist’s kid, that kid’s friends, Amber Rose, and Jay-Z. That’s quite the list.
A good portion of the album after the midpoint is dedicated to the examination of these relationships, particularly “FML”, “Real Friends”, “Wolves”, and the gem of the album, “No More Parties In LA”.
“Real Friends” paints a strikingly vulnerable picture of West’s relationship with his family by subverting the typical “mo’ money, mo’ problems” story. West establishes in the first verse that he is the “deatbeat cousin”, and he’s wrong to paint his family as money-grabbing leeches.
“Who your real friends? We all came from the bottom/I’m always blaming you but what’s sad, you’re not the problem,” isn’t a standard West admission. So when he starts blaming his family for transgressions imagined (“to be honest, dog, I ain’t feeling your energy”) and real (“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fucking bitches on/Paid that nigga 250 thousand just to get it from him,”), there is a self-awareness that hasn’t been present on his previous work.
The closest thing to “Real Friends” in West’s catalog is “Blame Game” from MBDTF, an emotional argument between him and a lover. But while “Blame Game” is excellent pathos, West isn’t really offering an apology. The title of the song suggests West understands the futility of his argument, but at the end he sidesteps self-critique and acceptance and instead finds his woman has already moved on to having sex with other men.
West may not be the protagonist of “Blame Game”, but he is supposed to be a tragic, sympathetic figure. On “Real Friends”, West quickly exposes himself to be unreasonably distant, so the next two verses blaming his family, the media, anyone, for his failings in kinship, are revealed to be nothing more than a natural defense mechanism.
“Wolves” and “No More Parties In LA” see West dig into his immediate family. He tells us the extravagant furs he buys Nori and Saint are for protection, implicitly. He sees destiny as the force uniting he and Kim, implicitly. On an album full of casual misogyny, he surprisingly makes the admission he is more worried about the safety of Kim and Nori than he is baby Saint’s, although the phrasing leaves room for interpretation whether West is referring to violence often reserved for women or the likelihood that Saint, a male, is more likely to survive a car crash like his father.
On a meta level, even the appearances of other artists on the album add to the understanding of West’s relationships. Chance’s much-acclaimed guest verse on “Ultralight Beam” is joyous, exuberant, and those emotions are grounded in his relationship to West: “I made ‘Sunday Candy’ I’m never going to hell/I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail,” an interpolation of West’s own lyrics on “Otis”, is an homage on two levels.
West takes care to highlight his membership status in the upper-echelon of the music world, bringing out pre-Blonde Frank Ocean and Andre 3000, two of the most elusive musicians of our time, for token appearances. West certainly enjoys the two in a strictly musical sense – he was listed as a contributor to Blonde, and he tells fans thirsty for more Three Stacks “man, you’re preaching to choir” – but it’s obvious either of their contributions to Pablo, particularly Andre’s, could have easily been replaced by a more substantial feature, or dropped entirely.
“Silver Surfer Intermission” (I’m not doing the vowels again) is entirely pointless except to prove to the world that West knew the history of “waves” in rap by getting the entirely unnecessary blessing of wave god Max B. But those relationships with auteurs and moguls, the Anna Wintours, the Jay-Zs, the Frank Oceans, have proven over time to be of great importance to West, and the pedestal of esteem he reserves for culture-molders informs us of Kanye West.
This reading of Pablo in which the choice of featured artist contributes greater to the understanding of the album than the feature itself reveals plainly that the album fails in a few respects. The relationship painting, expressionist more than realist, that has contributed to so much of West’s critical acclaim through his post-Graduation work is diluted here.
His trademark laser-focus has been split into multiple beams, and as such, we don’t learn too much about Kanye’s bond with anyone in particular, even on those songs that compose the emotional core of the album. “Wolves” is about protecting the kids and Kim from, well, something, but he shies from sharing what they mean to him, why their protection is so vital. On “FML”, a look at his relationship with Kim is almost completely overshadowed by misogynistic hip-hop posturing of “check[ing] a hoe”. Compared to the soul-baring peaks of 808s and Twisted Fantasy, it feels like he’s often picking at the surface of a profound revelation before his attention is pulled in another direction.
THE LEGACY OF PABLO
Kanye West has changed the way music is made throughout his career. His influence on the importance of the pitched-up soul sample in hip-hop, the validation of AutoTune as a creative tool, and the mainstreaming of harsh noise dramatically shaped the last decade of pop music. The Life of Pablo will fall short of those wheelie-on-a-zeitgeist influences. Even if more artists begin seeing albums as entities that can be edited post-release, so what? Is it significant if in the future, Taylor Swift can add a new song to 1989? Not really.
It’s easy to imagine a future where West says something offensive enough that Katy Perry fans will wake up one day to find “E.T.” without his guest verse. Maybe someday, West will feel uncomfortable referencing Bill Cosby in “Facts” and poof, it will be replaced with a line hyping Hannibal Burress. It’s not important. Any musical whitewashing important enough to be noticed will be, and those edits small enough to escape the vigilant ear will slip into the ether harmlessly. If we’ve learned one thing in the 21st century, it’s that the internet doesn’t, can’t, forget.
Come the end of the year, Pablo will be at or near the top of many year-end lists, and rightfully so. With it will surely come the anxious regurgitation of the news that needn’t be: Pablo changed the game. It didn’t, at least not on the macro-scale that The College Dropout, 808s & Heartbreak, and Yeezus did.
The Life of Pablo changed Kanye West’s legacy. Fans who became disillusioned with West beginning with 808s and completely jumped ship with Yeezus found joy in a “classic” Kanye album. He even brought (inconclusive) evidence to a large audience that his “Famous” line about Swift came from a place of friendship, not delusion, partially redeeming himself in the eyes of those capable of forgiving West.
The album showed West, crucially, as a three-dimensional human. He isn’t a lovelorn robot or a debauched egomaniac, a human incapable of self-critique and reflection. At least, not entirely. The unstructured nature of Pablo seems to have lifted a weight from West’s shoulders, and there is a joy present that we haven’t seen in a post-Graduation album (save Watch The Throne).
Pablo, back when it was WAVES or SWISH or So Help Me God, was supposed to be a gospel album. Fans quickly decided that was a misdirection – there were a few references to God, but he also talked about bleached assholes. He even cut the choir from Chance’s vision of “Waves”. But past the obvious touchpoints, The Life of Pablo still finds gospel in a story about a deeply-flawed man being pulled in infinitely many directions, wildly trying to seize the most important bonds. In 2016, that makes for a pretty radical Kanye West album.