Sunday, 14 February 2016

Recommended music: 'The Life of Pablo' by Kanye West

The title changed four times. The tracklist was re-written over and over again. Even after it was launched on Thursday it still took another 2 days (and yet more changes) to be with us. Now that it's finally here (and by here I mean exclusively on Tidal, at least for the next week) what can be said about 'The Life of Pablo'?

In the sonic sweep of Kanye albums, it probably sits somewhere between 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' and 'Yeezus', with a bit of '808s & Heartbreak' thrown in for good measure. As you might expect from a record that's been worked and reworked for so long, it lacks something of a central vision, an overall sense of purpose - unless that purpose is just to convince you that Kanye absolutely just makes the records he wants to make and he really, really doesn't give a fuck what you think about that. Like his last two albums, it'll take a while for the bulk and scale of this to sink in - there are 18 tracks, guests ranging from Kirk Franklin to Rihanna to The Weeknd, and a whole heap of producers that will take a month of reading through the credits to work out. Take Hudson Mohawke, who said this morning that he produced Famous, Freestyle4, Waves, FML and "potentially a couple of others depending how the credits lottery works out". Currently he's not got a credit for Famous, so it'll be interesting to see if that changes on Tidal any time soon.

You'll have heard some of these tracks already I'm sure, while others have been the stuff of rumour and legend for some time. Opening with 'Ultralight Beam' is a bold powerful move which totally pays off. The track that sounds most like his recent singles, it backs up Yeezy's quote about this being his 'gospel' album. It's uplifting and glorious and surely proves his credentials as a legit composer for once and for all. The fact that he follows it with some of the usual cringe-worthy lyrics on 'Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1' just proves his flawed genius. 'Pt 2' is much better and is back more in Teezus territory. A brief moment follows that sounds like 'O Superman' by Laurie Anderson before Rihana does her stuff on 'Famous', which sounds more like a Jay-Z cut than a Kanye track (dodgy lyric about Taylor notwithstanding).

'Feedback' is a bit of a throwaway but features the first mention of Pablo on the record (which one indeed?). 'Low Lights' is a God-focussed preview to 'Highlights', which is definitely about Yeezus rather than Jesus - again these two track show that West could teach a lot of current r'n'b producers about how to make a good track. Ironically the rap of 'Freestyle4' is nowhere near as good as the knowingly meta lyrics of 'I Love Kanye' - 45 seconds evidencing that he does have a sense of humour, even if it's misunderstood a lot of the time. Honestly, no-one else could get away with a track like that - haters will hate him even more for it but like I said, he doesn't care.

It was worth holding the album up for a day to put 'Waves' back on it as it's one of the best here, with great production from Hudson Mohawke. In contrast 'FML' seems less than the sum of its parts - there's nothing wrong with what Kanye & The Weeknd do with it, but there's no real spark to it. You'll probably here a lot of it though as it seems tailor-made for joint appearances at award shows and the like. The last minute of it, with the sampled and distorted vocals, is pretty good though.

'Real Friends' is another of those darker beats that he does so well these days, although the lyrics aren't as good as they might be. It's good to hear the return of Frank Ocean on 'Wolves', a track which is a great example of how a little less bombast can sometimes make a song a whole lot more powerful.

'No More Parties In L.A' (on the album, then off, then on again) which features soon to be multiple Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar, is a more 'old skool' hip-hop track than Kanye's made for some time. '30 Hours', which precedes it, couldn't be more different in feel and is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the record. With a brilliant Arthur Russell sample it feels like a proper 21st century rap record. The record ends with a proper house beat, sampling Louie Vega on 'Fade' and you're left reflecting on the journey you've taken to get from Ultralight Beams to here.

Overall then, it's a bit muddled, mostly great, occasionally brilliant and partly puzzling. Sounds a lot like a description of West himself doesn't it? Not so much the life of Pablo, more the life of Kanye perhaps.

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