It appears that Tidal is becoming the new bastion of exclusivity for out-of-touch musicians who don’t understand the needs and habits of today’s social-media-savvy music consumers. To date, The Life Of Pablo has been pirated over 500,000 times. The online feeding frenzy that occurred over the course of the album’s release weekend makes one consider what would have happened had Twitter been around for the Napster or Limewire eras. And to think the piracy would have probably been halved at minimum had West simply released the album for access on Spotify and Apple Music/iTunes. While the app rose to number one on the app store, probably in response to West’s behest of his fans to download it for exclusive access, I’d be interested to see how many people stick around for the laughable subscription fee for the problematic app, which has never held a candle to its competitors in the way of functionality from day one, yet lauds exclusivity as its main draw.
I’ve got to say I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid that made “UltraLight Beam” bearable to most early reviewers of the album. West’s affected vocals on the song just made me think of how much better this trick works for singers like Sampha or James Blake who have actual chops to back up the digital tampering. Unfortunately, actual singers The Dream and Kelly Price still don’t add much to the song. I’m not a huge fan of Chance The Rapper, but his spoken word contribution was really the only thing worth revisiting to me on this record. I’m not sure what Young Thug contributed specifically to “Highlights” given the mess of auto-tuned vocals, but Kanye’s raps on the record, a cheaply-constructed slaw of TMZ-heavy non-content, make what would normally be a mildly decent, mindless jig into a super-petty vent session for the Kanye Kardashian-Jenner persona we’d all been hoping would never rear its ugly head. It’s non-content like this that was bound to occur once we became aware of the likes of Kylie Jenner being allowed to hang in the studio (“Kylie Was Here”). It’s just hard to believe that any hip-hop classics are being made with Jenners in the studio and “Highlights” is the perfect example of that conflict of interest.
“Famous”, a high point on the album, is textbook Kanye in that he mars what could be an amazing song with typical Kanye ugliness, taking a jab at the fact that he, in his own way, made Taylor Swift famous. This may be true, but that bit of pettiness is unnecessary, as the arrangement of the record itself says more for Kanye the artist than he ever could. The Sister Nancy “Bam Bam” sample is expertly included and the new and improved Rihanna, fresh off of the game-changing ANTI (she’s never sounded better), shows up to lend an assist on the hook. “FML” featuring The Weeknd has moments of greatness blemished by moments of “Kanye, for fuck’s sake, let the singer do the singing”. However, on “Waves”, I was wishing for sweet death the moment Chris Brown’s breathy intrusion surfaced on the record, sounding like Express For Men store soundtrack fodder.
I think enough time has passed where some of us can openly admit that Yeezus wasn’t so much of a pushing of boundaries as it was a Kanye West vanity project. The only people really blown away by that effort were Stans, hypebeasts, and people who had never heard of Hudson Mohawke or Daft Punk before. The anti-establishment rantings weren’t really believable coming from ensconced within the Kardashian-Jenner publicity machine, just like the claim of “greatest artist ever” is starting to come off more hollow the more West leans on this claim as opposed to actually putting out the high art he dares you to say he’s not putting out. Thankfully, TLOP is light years beyond Yeezus production-wise. It’s the rhymes and other glaring blemishes that make the album lukewarm.
In terms of guest appearances, West seemed to have gone the route of the upstart rapper with the dream debut album budget. Though some might argue that he’s taking the time capsule approach to album curation or, as Nina Simone would say, reflecting the times, I think the approach speaks more to West’s well-documented hubris than anything else. He’d rather be a god among freshmen than to risk mediocrity among his fellow varsity. It’s disappointing in a sense that an artist with the influence and resources to rekindle some of what the culture has lost over the years chooses to stoop to the level of pandering to new rap fans instead of building a bridge between the old and new by taking some risks of inclusion. However, it’s obvious that Kanye West is also the kind of artist at this point in time who would rather take a new, younger artist under the wing than be forced to bow his head to a rap legend of his caliber or greater.
I don’t want the old Kanye, although this will be the retort at the tip of every Stan’s tongue throughout reading this review. I don’t want the old Kanye so much as I want the current Kanye to be an improved, evolved version of the old Kanye as opposed to an uber-pretentious, fever-dream version of him. All change or weirdness is not evolution. In a climate where veteran rappers are encouraged to pander to the kids or fall completely off the map, Kanye has managed to become more childish with each incarnation, eschewing the idea of maturing in his music or public persona with each album. This works for the current era of loyalty to whatever’s hot for the moment, but doesn’t do much for the breadth of Kanye’s legacy as an artist.
The Life Of Pablo isn’t an excellent album, but it certainly has its bright spots. However, it seems like critics have lowered the standard for great to include albums with weak points that they are even willing to point out themselves. TLOP is a hodge-podge of different ideas that don’t ultimately come together to form the masterpiece people have come to expect from Kanye, but I think Stan culture will continue to encourage disjointed projects like this to ooze out of Kanye’s attention factory for a long time. West has announced a subsequent summer release for this year, the results of which may provide the other solid joints we didn’t get on TLOP and just drive home the fact that quantity over quality is the order of the day. In a nutshell, The Life Of Pablo would have made an excellent instrumental album, but we all know Kanye isn’t the kind to let his work speak for itself. He’s gonna run his mouth too…which I think gets in the way of the all-time great entertainment he’s constantly telling us he’s capable of.