Let’s clarify one thing from the off: Kanye West – surprise surprise – isn’t the genius he thinks he is. Neither is The Life of Pablo ‘one of the greatest albums of all time’. Having said that, it’s still largely demonstrative of what an exciting auteur Kanye can be, excesses and all, even if it’s far from his best work.
Take the opener Ultralight Beam for example. It’s a meandering, segmented introduction that is heavily indebted to gospel sound; in fact, within minutes that very sound provides the album’s first goosebump moment. There are very few people out there who can balance the light and shade of mournful verse (“Pray for Paris, pray for the parents”) with something akin to a church opus.
It’s a surprisingly low-key and spiritual opener from Yeezy, so obviously it needs to be offset with something as obnoxious as Famous (you know, the one with the Taylor Swift line). This is the sort of style that Kanye often falters with on Pablo – it often feels like there are too many ideas crammed into one song, to the point that the tail-end feels completely different to the sound you started off with. More to the point, it’s never backed up with the acerbic, quotable rhymes that we’ve come to expect from the man – this is a mellower Kanye, one with a dulled fire, perhaps so complacent in his own greatness that he seems content to take a pointless detour during Waves or phone it in on FML.
There’s a degree of reclamation in the record’s final stretch, with Real Friends, 30 Hours, and No More Parties In LA (in which Kendrick Lamar steals the damn show) but for a Kanye West album, it all feels disappointingly subdued. If Yeezus was a self-penned hagiography, The Life of Pablo is a portrait of a Kanye West we don’t really recognise.