He walked out in a cranberry long-sleeve shirt: on the front, "I feel like Pablo"; on the back, "We on an ultra light beam / This is a God dream." Gray pants, signature Yeezys, a black "Yeezus" baseball cap and a flash of a chain poking out of his otherwise casual attire.
He is risen.
On February 11, 2016, Kanye West delivered us from our two-and-a-half-year, purgatorial wait for his seventh studio album. His third Yeezy collection for Adidas debuted at Madison Square Garden to the soundtrack of his highly anticipated and thoroughly outstanding new album: The Life of Pablo (or at least one version of it).
To fully appreciate TLOP, it needs to be considered in its artistic context:
Kanye West's musical career consists of his initial ascent (the "college trilogy") of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, a painful rupture with 808s & Heartbreak and rises to maturity in his two latest albums. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, in my humble opinion, the musical equivalent of high Renaissance art: it is complete, balanced and simply stunning. After that high watermark, Kanye changed course, venturing into new territory. Yeezus marks a significant change in his intentions and style: having achieved perfection (MBDTF won the Grammy for "Best Rap Album" in 2012), he put together grating and industrial sounds in order to subvert expectations and create something entirely independent of his former works.
Based on the Madison Square Garden exposé, The Life of Pablo brings together the authenticity that originally captured audiences in The College Dropout, the existential angst of MDBTF, and the innovative production that defined Yeezus. All this is forcefully executed and wrapped up in the surprising-but-also-no-so-surprising package of a gospel album. Kanye is nothing if not ambitious.
The following is a review based on Tidal's stream of Yeezy Season 3:
1. Ultra Light Beams
While MDBTF asks, "Can we get much higher?" and Yeezus warns, "Yeezy season approaching," the opening track of TLOP confirms, "This is everything" amidst gospel sounds, heavy beats, and reverberation. To begin the album, this track's production is incredible. When Chance The Rapper enters, he confirms West's status at the top: "I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail" and weaves in some Christian iconography for good measure: "my ex looking back like a pillar of salt." Goosebumps.
2. Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 & 2
Reminiscent of 808s, Kanye covers sentimental ground on this track with the help of detached auto-tune. He comments on his relationship with his father, his mother's death, and his jaw-shattering/life-changing car accident over a solid trap beat and rattling cymbal. Rapper Desiigner (who sounds remarkably like Future) contributes a lyrically uninspired verse, but his sound deepens the record significantly.
3. Freestyle 4
"Ay ya heard about the good news? Y'all keep sleepin' on me, huh? Had a good snooze?" This song demands we take Kanye seriously as a rapper (not simply as a producer, which his last album demanded above all else, often to the detriment of its lyrical integrity). Ambient and industrial, "Freestyle 4" sounds like a more agreeable version of "Yeezus." While referencing the ongoing fight for social justice in the U.S.A. ("Hands up, we just doin' what the cops taught us") and owning his Chicago heritage, we are also blessed with the first (and only) mention of that enigmatic Pablo. Kanye references Pablo Escobar, legendary drug lord, and his $70,000 Rolex.
Rihanna provides the hook for "Famous," but it fails to live up to what one would expect from a Rihanna-Kanye collaboration. The opening line regarding Taylor Swift has been attracting media attention and causing the requisite level of controversy for a Kanye record. Yeezy throws back to Graduation as "Wake up, Mr. West" plays in the background. He picks the Sister Nancy reggae sample"Bam Bam" to round out the edges.
5. High Lights
Collaborating with Young Thug (who appears as a model in Yeezy Season 3), this track could have easily opened the album with its first line: "tell my baby I'm back in town." However, a rather excessive introduction praising the glory of God wouldn't be terribly palatable for the casual listener right off the bat. In typical Kanye fashion, the gospel ambiance gives way to gorgeous strings and a beat change for the final verse, in which Mr. West discusses Ray J (of course) and his pop-culture power ("21 Grammys, superstar family, we the new Jacksons"). This track wouldn't be out of place in MDBTF.
"Feedback" begins with isolated, spooky strings that are punctuated by the same "RAH" from Yeezus' "Black Skinhead." It evolves to include some wild, bouncing production, over which Kanye raps about sex to the point of excess in the first verse and then about himself to even greater excess in the second. In between, Kanye includes a hook of "I need you right now" that recalls "Yeezus"' "On Sight." I'm not crazy about it, but his allusions to his prior work are compelling.
Kanye is simultaneously self-destructive and vulnerable in this track, calling upon The Weeknd's dreamy voice to spill a devastating/devastatingly beautiful hook. It is profoundly reflective; simple piano evolves into minimalistic production while West reveals gems like "you ain't seen nothin' crazier than this -- when he off his Lexapro" and "I been thinking bout my vision, pour out my feelings, revealing the layers to my soul."
8. Real Friends
"Real Friends" has been around for a while, so I don't feel inclined to comment on it too fully. It's introspective: "when was the last time I remembered a birthday? When was the last time I wasn't in a hurry?" We listeners know that Kanye is always rushed: "Hurry up with my damn croissants!" from "Watch the Throne" is one of his more memorable lines. While this track played, some models raised their fists. A beautiful February to be alive, isn't it?
"Wolves" was released back in 2015 featuring Sia, but this alternative version uses Frank Ocean in a beautiful outro. Continuing the theme of religious iconography, Kanye equates himself to Joseph and Kim to Mary, their children to Jesus. This is a marked deviation: since dubbing himself Yeezus with his last album, he has fathered two children. Has parenthood turned Yeezus into a mere mortal? Or perhaps he is simply raising the next messiahs.
While Kanye himself doesn't rap on this final song of the event, Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign take up the challenge. When the beat kicks in on this track, it is simply magic. Malone's auto-tuned contribution is incredibly worthwhile, and the line "I think I think too much" contrasts sharply and nicely with the finishing lines "I feel it, I feel it, I can feel it."
After the album finished, he said, "If you're going to be an artist, you've just got to do what's in your heart and fight for every dream that you may dream, whatever discipline it may be." He isn't speaking from a place of hollow encouragement -- he has lived this struggle to create, to go beyond the boundaries of expectation. Kanye, expectedly, brings it back to himself: "I mean, it's the number one shoe." Not only does Yeezy create phenomenal albums, he also extends his talents to fashion and footwear.
Before returning to his family, Kanye turned to his thousands of disciples filling Madison Square Garden and declared, "I just want to bring as much beauty to the world as possible." With "The Life of Pablo", he does just that.