The road to The Life of Pablo was rocky one no doubt. A trio of commercially successful tracks that were eventually left off the record alongside Sir Paul McCartney himself, numerous album names and album covers, along with tracklist changes, and an admittedly flawed live album showcase that ended up not even being the final version of the record. In the end, we got an unfinished record that was three days later than originally anticipated. Anything that goes through this much development turmoil is bound to have a few kinks. This goes for The Life of Pablo tenfold, as it is Kanye’s most inconsistent, mixed bag of a release to date.
Things couldn’t have started off better than with “Ultralight Beam,” one of the best Kanye openers to date. The immense gospel choir featured on the song not only bring the strength of an ox to the instrumental, but also helps convey the religious themes expressed in the track through both Kanye’s and Chance The Rapper’s verse, the latter bringing some of the best bars on the entire record. Based on this track alone, it seemed that The Life of Pablo may be the calm after the egotistical storm that was Yeezus and would show a more (comparatively) down-to-earth, likeable Kanye West. However, the track that directly follows “Ultralight Beam” contains one of the worst lyrics West has ever put to record. The sheer stupidity of this one line indicates the possibility of a changed Kanye can be thrown out the window. Instead, a good amount of the record matches the absurdity of Yeezus, but lacks the moments of introspection and ferocity that made his ego-driven music actually interesting in the first place. “Famous,” “Highlights,” and “Freestyle 4” all follow this trend of lyrical trash set to beats that do their best to make up for the rest of the track, but production alone can’t carry a track in this case. Rarely do all the stars align where the lyrics, rapping, and production all deliver to form an overall solid track, so you’re left hanging onto at least one of them, hoping it’ll hold your interest. More times than not, it doesn't.
While there are only a few highlights, the batch that stand above the rest rank as some of Kanye's best songs in years. West is able to pull off the polar opposite of the aforementioned “Ultralight Beam”’s praise of life with the Yeezus-esque “Feedback,” where the charming absurdity of that album actually translates over to this record successfully, unlike the rest of the tracks on here that attempt these shock tactics. This is mainly due to Kanye’s wonderfully cocky delivery on this track, especially on the hook, that is absent from multiple songs that required such a delivery to work. A beat that’s equally experimental and hard hitting backing up his bars makes it all the more rewarding. However, you’re going to have to skip all the way to the penultimate track to reach the next, and final, highlight within the albums 13 tracks. While the other highlights relied on sheer power and grandiosity to project their greatness, “Real Friends” takes a completely different approach. A much more introspective, somber Kanye makes a rare yet welcome appearance, also coming with West’s best rapping and lyrics on the record. On the track, he deals with his struggles with his friends and family, as his fame and persona makes it incredibly hard to connect with people whom he was once dearly close to. This topic isn’t necessarily new for West after 808’s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it’s a welcome change from the first half of The Life of Pablo’s lyrical bilge.
Unlike the real car crash that has inspired much of Mr. West’s music for the past 12 years, The Life of Pablo is more of a metaphorical car crash of an album. Various ideas, styles, and elements violently collide with each other in a messy, unfocused clutter. Some of the results come out fine, others are utter disasters, and many come out injured but still fighting for life. This is apparent in the fact that many songs have wonderful ideas within them, but they are never developed quite enough to their greatest potential. Many features on the either had potential to be wonderful (Frank Ocean, Sia), or actually met that capability, but were let down by the song surrounding them (The Weeknd, Chris Brown). Strokes of genius are so close, yet so far from Kanye’s grasp even when he's the main focus, whether it be on production or lyrically. The beat change on the back end of “Famous” nearly makes the low-brow lyrics about Taylor Swift worth it, and the deeply personal lyrics that Kanye opens with on "Pt. 2" are botched by a choppy flow that loses all the emotion that could've been pulled from those lines. Just like the development of the record and the final album cover that disappointed many, The Life of Pablo is a total mess that might have some merit to its chaos, but not enough to make it anyone’s dark, twisted fantasy.
*NOTE: THIS REVIEW COVERS TRACKS 1-13, EXLUDING THE BONUS TRACKS