I feel compelled, because of the controversy surrounding this album right now, to give a disclaimer. I’ve heard a lot people dismiss this album based on his perceived misogyny or sexism, and others have told me personally that they believe Kanye has some kind of serious mental illness, so he should be either guarded from criticism or given more slack. I’d just like to make it clear that I’m going to do my best to avoid all of that, mostly because I’m not concerned with it. I care about Kanye’s music, and that’s what I’m reviewing. Anyways, on with the judgments and pretension.
In terms of Kanye West fans, I would say I’m on the outside. On the surface, it may not seem like it; far and away my favorite record of his is The College Dropout, and I despise 808’s and Heartbreak just as much. Where I begin to differ is my total disinterest for not only Yeezus, but also the universally-beloved My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. However, any negative inclination I had towards Ye’s music was washed away when he dropped “Real Friends.” The beat was so bare, the piano line so haunting, and his verse so intimate that I couldn’t help but get my hopes up. So, when The Life of Pablo was released late last Saturday night, I was ready for it.
The record begins on a very high note: “Ultralight Beam.” The dynamics on this track are masterful. Synths stab through silence as Kanye half-sings his away into gospel choir harmonies. R&B songstress Kelly Price delivers some legitimately fantastic singing (especially compared to what goes down later in the track list) but the real star of the show is Chance. He comes through with his trademark wordy, nasal flow, and his happiness and charisma are so infectious that you can’t help but smile while listening to him.
After the opener, though, things get questionable. “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1″ and “Pt. 2” are the first in a series of songs that utilize pitch correction and vocal effects in unspeakably irritating ways. As I said, 808s is my least favorite of Kanye’s, and for that very reason. When the man gets behind an auto-tuner, bad things tend to happen. The Life of Pablo is no exception. As soon as his unintelligible, mechanized “singing” comes through on part 1, all emotion and musicality that was established on “Ultralight Beam” disappears. The features aren’t helping, either. Desiigner’s verse on “Pt. 2” made me cringe at the thought of sitting through 14 more tracks.
Unfortunately, moments like that are not hard to find. “Highlights,” arguably the worst track on the record, should win an award for worst use of auto-tune in history. Truly, it’s that bad. And even though Kanye gives up on singing about a minute in, Young Thug carries on in his absence, garbling away under Ye’s half-baked lyrics. His verse features such gems as, “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had GoPro/So I could play that shit back in slo-mo.” Sure, this is one of the worst individual lyrics on the record, but the standard isn’t very high. Save for a few (albeit noteworthy) exceptions, Kanye’s verses are boring, egomaniacal clichés. But then again, is anyone really listening to his albums for the heady wordplay?
Even when tracks aren’t as downright unlistenable as “Highlights,” they’re often just dull and uneventful. “Low Lights,” “Waves,” and “FML” are totally forgettable, despite celebrity features like Chris Brown (who ruins “Waves”) and the Weeknd. Even if the production is decent (and it is,) it’s usually monotonous. With uninspired and off-pitch vocals, a two minute song can feel like eternity. And the two intermissions, while funny, feel equally pointless.
Luckily, we’re able to salvage some pieces from this disjointed shipwreck. On the front half, we get “Famous” and “Feedback” back-to-back, which definitely kept me listening. The former showcases groovy production with some great vocals from Rihanna. Even though Kanye’s lyrics still aren’t great, his flow is on point, and he rides the beat with swagger. The “Bam Bam” sample at the end is unexpected and a little wonky, but oddly enough, it works really well. “Feedback” aims for a very different sound, and feels like a more refined cut from Yeezus, with its sharp keyboard hook and hard-hitting snares. Again, Kanye comes through, sounding absolutely ferocious.
Besides the opener, the best two tracks are the singles that got dropped together: “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in L.A.” As I’ve already said, “Real Friends” is what got me excited for this album. And, ironically enough, the lyrics are what really clinch this track for me. Kanye’s vulnerability and captivating anecdotes manage to keep me interested from start to back. And, what’s more, his verse is also what makes “No More Parties” so engaging. He delivers a four minute barrage of flow, rhyme schemes, and references to everything from Lauryn Hill to Mulholland Drive. This would be enough on its own, but when preceded by a dizzying Kendrick verse, and strung over a sample-heavy Madlib beat, it makes for one of my favorite Ye tracks ever. I’d love to include “30 Hours” among these highlights, as it includes another introspective verse and production by the fantastic Karriem Riggins, but unfortunately the back the half of the track is essentially Kanye rambling on about nothing. Oh, well.
The final two tracks on TLOP have me about as conflicted as the record does in its entirety. On the one hand, the beat on “Facts” goes pretty hard (the album version is much better than the single,) and the synth bass line on “Fade” is damn catchy. On the other hand, between two Kanye verses, a Ty Dolla $ign verse, and one from Post Malone, no one says anything at all; which is a fairly accurate summary of the album. The production is fairly solid throughout the track list, with excellent spots here and there. For the most part though, Kanye says very little of note. This is without mentioning the inconsistencies and abrupt transitions, beats that feel unfinished in parts, and… well, I won’t say any more about the singing.
Maybe I do miss The Old Kanye. So what? The first five tracks on College Dropout are better than this entire fucking album.
Written by Preston Fulks