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Kanye West Blends Sacred and Profane on Startling, Gospel-Inflected New LP

Rapper’s long-awaited ‘The Life of Pablo’ juxtaposes goosebump moments with crass misogyny.

Rapper's long-awaited 'The Life of Pablo' juxtaposes goosebump moments with crass misogyny.

The last era-atomising, margin-stalking, race-commentating auteur to commandeer local movie theatres with an unprecedented event ended up falling flat. That was Quentin Tarantino during the 2015 Christmas holidays, with his 70mm Panavision Roadshow engagement of the slight genre exercise The Hateful Eight, which did not cause much of a ruckus at the box office or on social media or anywhere else, for that matter. Such was not the case with Yeezy Season 3, Kanye West‘s livestreamed Madison Square Garden debut of his new album, The Life of Pablo.

Kanye’s theater takeover — I watched with a full house at the Regal Brier Creek Stadium 14 in Raleigh, North Carolina — was far more festive. In fact, as I got out of my car, two young white gentlemen who appeared to be college students put their arms around each other and shouted, “All Hail Yeezy!” The anticipation of hearing actual new Kanye West music had wiped clean the offensive inanity of West’s recent outbursts on Twitter, America’s national dry-erase board of brain farts.

Intro-ing the album, which he played from a laptop next to the soundboard on the Garden floor, West said that if we liked any of the songs, “please feel free to dance,” but that might’ve been the strangest thing he said all night (even more strange than that whole winged-mom video-game digression) because Pablo, except for one outlier — the house-music blur of “Fade” — is a stark, sparse, ghostly journey of mourning (and weakness) from a wounded, searching artist who insists on painting himself as a Barnum-blowhard marketing genius and martyr. As demonstrated on Pablo, he remains a peerless, fascinating retro-futurist romantic who practically yanks feels out of drums and wires.

Like Yeezus, the album has 10 songs and clocks in at around 40 minutes, but the mood it carefully sets is decidedly less abrasive or declamatory. West contends that it’s a “gospel” album, and the opening track, “Ultra Light Beams” even enlists gospel crossover superstar Kirk “Stomp” Franklin to heighten the intensity of the occasion. But for West, gospel basically means forgiveness and family, regret and betrayal. He’s the sinner who’s always “apologin’,” as he once put it. And as a result, there’s a somber, swooning ambience to The Life of Pablo.  

What’s striking throughout is the swirl of voices, both colliding and collaborating. On “Ultra Light Beams,” a little girl deliriously testifies, a female congregant responds (“Yes, child!”), West himself speak-sings, “This is a God dream,” answered by a choir, as bursts of synth and bass circle. He overtly says, “Pray for the parents”; The-Dream croons about persecution and God’s protection. Honestly, it’s pretty startling, and discombobulating, this immediate, solemnly spiritual call engineered by a guy who was slut-shaming Amber Rose and exposing a child to reckless slander just two weeks ago. But that’s Kanye — he’ll repeatedly spout dumb shit about women, while asking forgiveness in the same breath. Luckily for him on Pablo, he’s got the music to persuade you to empathize.

On the song’s second part, Chance the Rapper says more with the eager, hopeful humanist inflections of his voice than with his precisely enunciated rhymes, though they are spectacular. “This is my part, nobody else speak,” he asserts. The voices return, a simple trap-kit beat staggers on, a preacherly invocation by Kirk Franklin builds and builds and crests and then the music cuts. Gasp. The colloquy of gospel-soul voices continues on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & Pt. 2,” over a meditative 808 trap flutter from Future producer Metro Boomin’.

Kanye chants, “I didn’t wanna feel liberated” and “If I instigated, I’m sorry” and then dips our feet into a sketchy after-hours Tribeca tryst that features at least one punch line that probably should’ve been edited out after the Twitter #bootyhole situation. Suddenly it kicks into “Pt. 2,” an urgent orchestration of glossolalia — Kanye’s remembrance of his father’s life struggle, Travis $cott’s disorienting escapades, snatches of shouts and trills, and more (Auto-Tuned) cries of forgiveness. Though Kanye adopts Atlanta’s stuttering decadent ooze, he could never replicate Future’s woozy melancholy. He’s too dogged, too inquisitive, too convinced that he can figure out the world or at least bullshit his way out of trouble.

There are hypnotic interludes and goosebump moments galore, whether it’s Ye simply yelling, “Wake up, nigga, wake up!” on “Freestyle 4,” while a synth warps and curdles, or the elegantly glorious entrance of Rihanna’s rasp on the chorus of “Famous,” or Kanye’s deliberate incantation, “I’ve been living/Without limits/As far as/My business/I’m the only one that’s in control,” framed beautifully by delicate chiming. As on Yeezus, the production points to its cut-and-paste quality, so you can marvel at the seams and feel the abrupt shifts, both in rhythm and tempo. It echoes what seems to be the constant whirl of Kanye’s brain. If the cast of emotions from Inside Out tried to keep up with him, the entire staff of Pixar would be on Lexapro or passed out in the parking lot. Life comes at Kanye fast on Pablo, but would he have it any other way?

And that’s really the theme of Pablo and of Kanye’s career, in general: He’s out here fucking up right and left working hard and struggling to be an iconoclastic artist who changes the world and people are always gonna get hurt — well, women and children and parents are always gonna get hurt. But it’s art and he means no harm and besides, he’s sampling Nina Simone, and believes in God’s grace.  That’s the deal. At one point, Kanye asks if we ever knew any artists who weren’t crazy, like that’s not something every Kanye fan thinks about constantly.

‘The Life of Pablo’

Frankly, years from now, this album may sound like timeless genius. And it mostly sounds like that now. It’s an astonishing, dazzling piece of work. But how believable or sympathetic is the man at the center of it all? His objectification of women only seems to get worse, if that’s possible. Taylor Swift’s young fans might be shocked when he says that he wants to have sex with her and that he “made that bitch famous,” but the rest of us are cringing and wondering what level of insecurity goes into such a mindlessly creepy, so-called punch line. How much emotional depth can you project onto a guy who continues demanding, “I wanna know right now if you’re a freak or not” and “What if we fuck right now?”

The darker suite of songs toward the end — “FML,” “Real Friends,” and “Wolves” — are such an entrancing display of goth queasiness and get-what-I-deserve pathos and paranoia that you can’t help but get caught up. Though we may never have to pay a deadbeat “cousin” $250,000 to get back our laptop full of beats because we were out fucking bitches, the dilemma has a jolt of preposterous truth. The final track, “Wolves,” which has been kicking around for at least a year in other versions, appears here with Frank Ocean guesting, and hints at an epic narrative: Mary meeting Joseph in the club. Surrounded by thugs. Damn.

But really, it’s the Temptation of Kanye. Again, voices reverberate, parents hover above, counselling that the child is too wild. He wails back that he needs them, or he needs a Mary. Only a historically stoic listener wouldn’t reel with more questions: Does he really wanna be in the club? Does he have a real-life Mary? Does it really mean anything for him to claim that his wife’s love means too much for him to mess around “with these hoes”? Why is it always “these hoes”? Haven’t we seen this movie before? Yeah, but does it still sound like real tears?