The Music Addicts
September 18, 2017
Welcome to September’s edition of The Music Addicts! After a long pause in reviews, we’re back at it. This month, we’ll revisit one of the most acclaimed yet controversial albums of 2016: The Life of Pablo. Does Kanye really have the audacity to compare himself to the greatest painter of the twentieth century, the most notorious drug dealer the world has ever known and the author of half the New Testament in four short words? Yes. Yes he does.
The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
The album begins with the apex of its religious themes, Ultralight Beam. Backed by a partially silent instrumental reminiscent of a more melancholy Yeezus, every bar involves a slowly crescendoing bass that releases before the listener can receive any satisfaction from it. The track opens with a sample of a young girl preaching on Instagram to pray for “no devils in the house,” and the lord. The-Dream has the honour of the opening lines sung on the album, “I’m tryna keep my faith.” This is a recurring theme throughout the album. The rest of the opening verse seems to be a prayer to God, asking to be delivered serenity and peace, something that Kanye finds little of throughout his most restless and uneven album. The thematic journey from Kelly Price’s doubt to Chance’s thankfulness draws me in so perfectly, I can’t not be so touched.
Kanye pours out his heart about his personal debts, the money he owes family members, his place as “the most influential…this generation’s closest thing to Einstein.” The opening verse is one of his most personal on the album and he closes with a callback to “We Don’t Care,” the very first song, on his very first album. “I wasn’t supposed to make it past 25” is a weighted line, both a reference to the Chicago murder rates and Kanye’s age when he crashed his car. Look how far he’s come. “Saint Pablo” references Saint Paul’s Biblical trip to Damascus, an expression that for all of his doubts and fears and mistakes, Kanye is still his lord’s apostle and he is finally where he must be, at home with himself. Kanye returns to discuss his co-sign from Don Muhammad, black on black crime, comparing commercialism to slavery, how public feedback affects his self-esteem, Apple, Tidal, his loyalty to his big brother Hova. In a foreshadowing set of bars, he raps “Let me not say too much or do too much/Cause if I’m up way too much, I’m out of touch.” By listing his most personal desires he’s humbling himself before his audience and God. This is his form of redemption.
Remarkably, the closing few minutes of the album do not feature Kanye at all, instead Sampha begs God to come appear to him and make his actions apparent. “I can’t quite understand the games you play,” he sings, seemingly at odds to Kanye’s earlier, “I know, I know he got a plan, I know I’m on your beams.” I imagine it’s very tough, sacrificing spins and ends for the thought of taking away sins, without ever hearing that confirmation from God that what you’re doing is right.
It’s hard to tie all of his public persona to the album, because he is such a multi-faceted man. His mother passed away and that changed a lot inside of him. He became much more outspoken, and artistically experimental, to the point that it was grating to people. But he also began to suffer from depression, rapping about Lexapro and suicide. It’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for him when he’s expressing his willingness to die for his family.
The balance of these personas are what the title—if not the whole album—is about. Is Kanye Pablo Picasso, the groundbreaking artist whose impact is still seen a hundred years later? Is he Pablo Escobar, the celebrated criminal and villain the media makes him out to be? Is he Saint Paul, the apostle who was so deeply connected to Jesus Christ that he personally preached the word of his God in a world that persecuted him for it? Or is he none of these men?