"The Life Of Pablo" has made me totally reconsider how I view Kanye West.
Around the time the Graduation came out, I developed a philosophy for media consumption that I called the “Kanye rule.” Its premise was simple: judge art only for the contents within, not for the extraneous actions of the artist. I used it to justify my adoration for Ye’s first two albums in the face of his controversial public image, which at the time amounted to his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” quote and a few early award show capers (which now seem like small potatoes compared to the more infamous incidents that followed). As a teenager, I applied this “Kanye rule” to other artists whose work I enjoyed: Michael Jackson despite allegations of child molestation, film director Roman Polanski despite statutory rape charges, rock musician Elvis Costello despite his racist comments about James Brown and Ray Charles in 1979.
Kanye’s first three albums are easy to enjoy without accepting his personal baggage— while largely honest and autobiographical, his boasts on wax (“I can stand there in a Speedo and be looked at like a fuckin’ hero," “Now everybody loves Kanye, I’m almost Raymond,” “Most you rappers don’t deserve a track from me”) paled in comparison to the statements he’d make in interviews and rants. But from 808s & Heartbreak on, each ensuing Ye album became exponentially more inseparable from the outspoken, brash side of his personality. By the time Yeezus arrived, he made it impossible to enjoy his work while rejecting the Kanye who says shit like “I am a God” and “Eatin’ Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce,” because he was actually saying those things on his albums! At that point, six years after Graduation, the “Kanye rule” had already begun to erode for me as I realized that I couldn’t cape for people like R. Kelly, Phil Anselmo, or Chris Brown, no matter how much I enjoyed their music. Still, I didn’t give much thought to West’s egotistical and/or insensitive Yeezus lyrics, writing most of it off as a new father’s attempt at exorcising the last traces of his wild youth.
The Life Of Pablo arrives after a monthlong shitstorm of a rollout process in which Kanye dominated the conversation due to pretty much anything but actual music. Constantly-changing tracklists and titles, vicious attacks on Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, an awkward denial of assplay, that “album of the life” quote, the fake Rolling Stone cover, public defense of one man’s word against 50 women who’d accused him of sexual assault, and finally, interminable delays all weighed down on his seventh album before the (incomplete) Madison Square Garden listening party even began. If I was to ignore all of this when it came time to actually hear the damn thing, I’d have to play dumber than ever.
I ended up being shocked by what seems like TLOP’s most obvious attribute: it was made by the exact same dude who’s been wyling out in the past few weeks. And when I say exact, I mean that I really can’t detect a single instance of restraint or self-censorship on the album. Here he is, recklessly calling out Taylor Swift and Amber Rose, singing dumb shit about bleached assholes, asking “do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby,” still editing the tracklist four days after release day, essentially boiling down his recent Twitter presence to 59 minutes of music. TLOP is great, and not in spite of these things, but because of them. His actions, persona and public reputation are key features of this album, which is a more complete portrait of a human being than almost any other full-length record in history.
The struggle between his Christian faith and basest instincts has always been central to Kanye’s music, and TLOP is almost a straight-up concept album about that. Whereas Yeezus’ biting lyrics were backed up by grating, metallic electronic and industrial music, TLOP’s are thrown into sharp relief by only the most spiritual forms of black music. Whether it’s Kirk Franklin and Pastor T.L. Barrett’s gospel, Nina Simone’s soul, or Kings of Tomorrow and Larry Heard’s early house music, most of the samples on here seem chosen for their uplifting and redemptive qualities (if you don’t think house can be spiritual, you’ve never heard Fingers Inc's “Can You Feel It”). Selection based on mood rather than style and sound definitely yields a more eclectic album than Yeezus, but TLOP seems more cohesive than most early reviews are giving it credit for. Sure, the tracklist may still be a work in progress, and the transitions aren’t as smooth, but it all (with the possible exception of “Facts”) feels of a distinct piece.
Lyrically, West leans further into the repetitive, almost amateurish style he pursued and was criticized for on Yeezus, again disappointing those who longed for #BARS. This is clearly intentional though. That same subset of fans rejoiced when "No More Parties In L.A." dropped, some even proclaiming that Ye "washed" the far more gifted lyricist Kendrick Lamar in a verse that included the line "I know some fans who thought I wouldn't rap like this again." The difference between that verse and "Freestyle 4"'s jarring "What the fuck right now?"/"Would everybody start fuckin'?" passage is stylistic and not at all dictated by Kanye's actual abilities (remember, he's got access to the best ghostwriters in the game). TLOP is the sound of someone wrestling with their innermost moral conflicts, and thusly, polished, flawless rapping wouldn't get that point across half as well as bugged-out fits of verbal diarrhea. It's every bit as integral to the album as its sloppy, abrupt transitions.
As someone who pays more attention to his public image than perhaps anyone else in hip hop ("Everybody gon' say something/I'd be worried if they said nothing"), Kanye has no doubt heard the complaints of those who haven't liked anything past Graduation. He responds to all of this brilliantly in the brief "I Love Kanye," which to me is the fulcrum of TLOP. He lays out the two sides of my own personal "Kanye rule" divide-- the inspirational, prodigious talent versus the spazzy, rude, "bad mood" Kanye-- and when I first heard it, I felt like he was rapping directly to me. But I imagine that most Kanye superfans felt that way; dude knows exactly how he's perceived from every angle. I never fell into one side or the other on the New vs. Old Kanye debate, but whereas early on I was content to be a fan of the whole package, I've realized that my consumption of Ye's latter years has been more of an a la carte experience.
TLOP is the moment when West throws down the gauntlet and says, "That's it: you either fuck with the entire package known as 'Kanye West,' Twitter rants and all, or you don't." There's no picking and choosing this time around. Although I still don't think I'd particularly enjoy meeting him in person, I respect the hell out of him for that. For plenty of privileged white people (myself included), rap has the potential to be an a la carte interest. Having distance from the neighborhoods, people and culture that produces it means that you can select the parts of it you enjoy (turning up, feeling "hard," trunk-rattling beats, street slang, #BARS) while completely ignoring others (violence, misogyny, performative machismo). As long as you don't rap along to the n-word parts, you'll be fine!
But this is really unfair, and more broadly, part of a pattern of systemic cultural robbery that's defined the history of American culture. It's wearing a tribal headdress at Coachella. It's The Beatles and The Rolling Stones becoming a hundred times more famous and wealthy than the black artists who wrote the songs that became the bands' first hits. It's a "Pimps & Hoes" themed party at a fraternity. The ability to consume or emulate certain aspects of a culture while ignoring others-- the actual significance of headdresses to the few Native American tribes that wear them, the fact that Chuck Berry was serving time thanks to a racist judge when The Beatles' cover of "Roll Over Beethoven" was released, the abuse that sex workers often face-- is what cultural privilege really boils down to.
It took me way longer than it should have to realize this, but enjoying Kanye the musician while ignoring Kanye the person is part of this very same pattern. Being able to say, "Yeah, that dude's saying some wild shit on Twitter, but damn, his new song is fire" is missing the point, especially with an artist as committed to weaving his personal life into his music. The vast majority of Ye's "controversial" moments center around race, regardless of whether they're brought on by his ego or a concern for others. Obviously, it didn't take me too long to recognize the racial undertones of the botched Hurricane Katrina response (which prompted Ye's George Bush comment), but I'm still struggling with the "BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!" tweet being more about the history of black men being declared guilty before trial, than the denial of dozens of women's testimonials. That's a good thing though. Just as Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly forced white people to "take a metaphorical seat" (to crib a phrase from my personal favorite review of the album), the past six years of Kanye's career have been impossible to reconcile for those of us who used to treat his career like a produce section, taking pristine songs and albums home with us while leaving the ugly, bruised parts behind. Many have responded by calling him crazy, saying he fell off, or pining for the "old Kanye." He knows that, and he doesn't give a fuck. That's why, despite whatever personal disagreements we may have if we ever met face-to-face, I love Kanye.