Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is indulgent and messy – and occasionally brilliant

I’m not sure what advanced technological displays I expected from the Madison Square Gardens livestream, but I was still surprised when Kanye simply pulled a laptop out of nowhere and plugged it in.

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The build-up to the realease of Kanye’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, has been marred by so much hype, preemptive disappointment, backlash, controversy, and more hype, that I’m not sure where to begin. First came the endless speculation about when it would actually be done, then the constantly changing album names and shapeshifting tracklists. There were promises of greatness; Twitter beef involving trouser envy, confusion over drug slang, and the gross slut shaming of his ex Amber Rose; and, worst of all, open disbelief of Bill Cosby’s victims.

Misogynistic and self-important: it was Kanye at his worst. At the same time, he sold out a preview of his new album and clothing line at Madison Square Gardens, as well as live broadcasts in cinemas around the world. I spent £20 on a pair of tickets to one such screening (specifically, at the Hackney Picturehouse), shortly before it was announced that the show would also be streaming for free on Tidal. Resentfully, I went.

The first half an hour of the experience was an odd experience: people walking in and out of a busy cinema screen, making low-level chatter, whilst watching people walking in and out of a busy concert stadium, making low-level chatter. There were some key differences between Hackney’s screening and the Madison Square Gardens audience: mine was a visibly less committed, less excited, more white crowd. Stewards wandered around reminding people that they were not to use their phones during the performance, and I’m sure I saw the desperate desire to tweet telepathically flick across faces (ok, maybe that was just me). It was approaching 10pm before anything actually started to happen, and the screen had a general air of nerves, restlessness and tipsiness.

The phenomenally ostentatious entrance of a white fur-clad Kardashian clan signalled the beginning of the show: Kim, North, Kendall, Kylie, Khloe, Kourntey, Kris and Caitlyn slinked in wearing custom Yeezy x Balmain, looking just the right amount of utterly bored by the enormous spectacle around them. Kanye followed to cheers from inside Madison Square Gardens. (The strange thing about being part of an audience at a remove is that you want to join in with the reaction of the immediate audience, but it feels inappropriate: Hackney’s cinemagoers sort of clapped limply at Ye’s arrival.)

I’m not sure what advanced technological displays I expected from what is essentially a glorified album listening party, but I was still surprised when Kanye simply pulled a laptop out of nowhere and plugged it into the soundsystem. And The Life of Pablo began.

The album’s first (and possibly best) track, “Ultra Light Beams”, follows through on Kanye’s promise of gospel influences. Lyrically and emotionally an exploration of faith and doubt, it sampled an Instagram video of a 4 year old praying, featuring the voices of gospel singer Kirk Franklin and GospoCentric artist Kelly Price. At the song’s climactic end, models wearing the latest season of Kanye’s clothing line, Yeezy Season 3, were revealed. The nude palette, skin tight silhouettes, leggings and bodysuits from previous seasons remained, but with injections of pattern, warm reds and oranges.

Of course, TLOP is not a gospel album, but these strains do surface repeatedly: Pastor T.L. Barrett’s “Father Stretch My Hands” and Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” also make appearances, but undercut by the harsher, electronic vibe of later albums like Yeezus. Knowing references to Kanye’s early preoccupation with reworking soul records provide a commentary on this: Kanye teases fans obsessed with his “good old days” in lyrics: “I miss the old Kanye, shit from the gold Kanye / Talking ’bout the soul Kanye, set all his goals Kanye [...] I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye”.

Choppy is not a bad way to describe TLOP, which features a huge range of producers, guest verses, vocals, samples and references: including Young Thug, Sister Nancy, The Weeknd, Post Malone, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean and Oprah. Naomi Campell even made a surprise entrance (during the song “Famous”, obviously). Like Yeezus, the album swerves between textures, tones and genres with an abruptness that can be disorienting.

 

This was perhaps suitably mimicked visually by the discord between stoic models, trying valiantly to either avoid or maintain eye contact with the camera, and the exuberance of Kanye’s friends and fellow artists. Every time the camera cut to Kanye enjoying his own music, the cinema audience laughed heartily. Perhaps this was good-natured look at happy!Kanye laughter, but it felt close to lol, arrogant dickhead, this isn’t even that good!!! laughter, which is a response that, despite everything, still baffles me. If you’ve paid £10 to get a first listen of Kanye’s album ironically, then I can’t help but think the joke is on you. There were some undeniably funny moments (the final lines of “Feedback” – “ I love you like Kanye loves Kanye”; Kanye still talking about his Yeezys – “I mean, it’s the number one shoe!”), but tears of hysterical laughter at a preview of the (admittedly unusual) video game featuring Kanye’s dead mother left me squirming in my seat.

Of course, the album sometimes also made for painful listening. Too often veering into straight-up misogyny, Kanye’s lyrics made battlegrounds of women’s bodies at several points. “I bet me and Ray J would be friends / If we ain’t love the same bitch,” he says on “Highlights”, referencing his wife’s sex tape. The already-infamous lines about Taylor Swift in “Famous” (despite her team releasing a statesment saying she disapproved of the lyrics, Kanye has since protested that she approved them) seemed an unnecessary kick in the teeth when he and the singer had already publically made up, but also dragged all of Kanye’s past partners through the mud:

I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why?
I made that bitch famous
God damn
I made that bitch famous

For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West
If you see ’em in the streets give ’em Kanye’s bests
Why?
They mad they ain’t famous
God damn
They mad they’re still nameless

TLOP revisits well-trodden Kanye concerns: money, fame, creativity, blackness, love, faith, sex, and, of course, insecurity about all of the above. For every embarrassing, immature lyric, there is a great one. The verse of “Father Stretch My Hands” that Kanye shared on Twitter is a poignant mediation on inheritance in all its forms.

The album closed with familiar tracks “Real Friends” and “Wolves”, before basically descending into NYC’s biggest Thursday night party, with rappers scrambling over the aux cord and models dancing and singing along to Rihanna’s “Work” and Beyonce’s “Formation” – cinemagoers began to shuffle out at this point. Indulgent, spectacular, messy, uncomfortable: the show was insane, with occasional flashes of brilliance, and impossible to look away from. “I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow,” goes a lyric on the album’s final track. I wish I could unfollow Kanye West.

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Now listen to Anna discuss Kanye West on the NS pop culture podcast:

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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