In 2002, Kanye West totaled his Lexus and almost died in a car accident. Fortunately for all of us, he survived, had his mouth sewn up and continued to work through the wire. The accident is an often-overlooked catalyst for his career, and there’s no guarantee that we would be hearing the same Kanye West today had he not almost died at 25.
Near-death experiences have a funny way of realigning priorities; you exit the other side more conscious of your privilege of just being here. You take your pursuits more seriously, because you know you almost had the opportunity taken from you. You fight your oppressors more aggressively, because the force that almost took your life is the great equalizer. You express yourself to the fullest extent, because there’s a heightened awareness that the same force will inevitably return, and next time it won’t miss.
Records about self-actualization are always difficult, because no one wants to be set on their ass. No one wants to be reminded how much work is left, or hear a Black man from the Southside of Chicago bridge the gap between actual self and ideal self. The Kanye West Experience inherently presents a challenge, and though the packages have varied over the course of his sprawling seven-solo-album discography, the message has remained the same.
On Late Registration’s “Gone” he rapped “They say you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone / I know I got it, I don’t know what y’all on.” Fast-forward eleven years, and on “Freestyle 4” he drunkenly snarls “Y’all motherfuckers only live like half of ya level, half of ya life.” He considers the prospect of “fucking right now in the middle of this dinner table” and whether or not everyone else would follow suit. Kanye is confident that they would, and he’s right. Where most are hesitant to act on impulse, what Pastor ’Ye ultimately preaches on this “gospel album” is to live fearlessly. When someone addresses the elephant in the room, it opens the floodgates.
The biblical tone of the album seems a natural development for an aging West. We’ve seen so many artists grow more reflective as they get older and produce increasingly autobiographical works; much of Pablo juxtaposes a return to traditional Midwest values with the Blackness of Southside ’Ye. We get gospel, but we also get a reminder he’s “from a tribe called ‘Check-A-Hoe.’ ” Beware of the culture vultures who laugh along when he jokes as “ghetto Oprah” at the end of “Feedback,” but call him crazy when he wilds out at the end of an SNL performance.
Pablo is as Black and unapologetic as West himself — divine album opener “Ultralight Beam” makes way for a sermon from a Black toddler. Even gospel singer and choir director Kirk Franklin makes an appearance on the intro. Clunky, mechanical drums pound away at growling synths while Kelly Price howls a melody as soulful as anything else you’ll find in Kanye’s discography. And then, there’s that Chance feature.
Two years ago I was in the crowd with Chance at Kanye’s 2014 Bonnaroo performance, and I remember watching him spaz to every cut from The College Dropout. The intro to his breakout mixtape, Acid Rap, even samples a soulful trumpet melody from an early Kanye tape. Point being, Chance is a “real soulful dude,” and his fingerprints are all over the feel-good soul of “Ultralight Beam.” He drops an absolutely show-stopping verse (arguably the best of the album), where he finally intertwines his narrative with Big Brother: “I made ‘Sunday Candy,’ I’m never going to Hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.” You can practically hear how giddy he is to share the stage with ’Ye, and it’s great to see “Lil Channo from 79th” make the most of the occasion.
The intro segues directly into two-part whirlwind, “Father Stretch My Hands.” The song moves at breakneck speeds, transitioning from stretched-out soul samples, to Metro Boomin tags, to lyrics about “bleached assholes.” By the time it doubles in tempo for “Pt. 2,” Kanye frantically drops pixelated raps about his 2002 accident, his mother’s death and his father’s financial losses in the market. Oh, and the song completely transforms into Brooklyn-emcee Desiigner’s “Panda.” Yes, a totally different song, which ’Ye had no affiliation with until now (though it should be noted that Desiigner has just signed to G.O.O.D. Music). No rules. In the first 10 minutes of the album we’re completely sucked into the schizophrenia that’s driven so much of West’s most dynamic and troubling work.
While Kanye has a lengthy repertoire of music that raises red flags for mental health concerns, there’s something about his recent public behavior that has an element of genuine, bona fide craziness. In just one week he’s publicly defended Bill Cosby, begged the founder of Facebook for funding via Twitter and turned his Madison Square Garden album listening session into a Kanye & Friends Show and Tell.
There’s an overall air of incompleteness and sloppiness about the album that just doesn’t seem to matter. He answers a goddamn phone call while recording “30 Hours” and yet nothing feels out of place. He stitches together samples on the latter half of “Pt. 2” with the seams uncharacteristically showing. Most interesting, though, is how he simply decided that the album rollout is an indefinite window. The tracklist grew 80% in length the day after the scheduled release, and he’s just announced that the album will never be for sale. The rollout itself has become a performance art piece.
The general consensus in America has been that this “New Kanye” is crazy, and that the “Old Kanye” is the one we all know and love. The Old Kanye rapped about stealing khakis from The Gap, called the president racist and interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs. The New Kanye just announced that he still thinks he and Taylor will have sex. He has been stepping on our toes for over a decade; there’s nothing “new” about this Kanye.
If you approach this album expecting Kanye West to be your Lord and Savior, and are disappointed to find elements of humanity, perhaps you need a moment of self-reflection. His shameless transparency has defined the zeitgeist of the past decade precisely because of his willingness to broadcast his flaws. He’s already told us that everything he’s not makes him everything he is. He is, and always has been, the life-affirming car accident you never had.
Pablo is cluttered with evidence that his cultural martyrdom will outlive him. He looks around and sees “so many Kanyes,” and some of them are even recruited for the album. On “FML,” The Weeknd makes an appearance to let us know that all the hate isn’t helping his already self-destructive lifestyle: “Even though I always fuck my life up / Only I can mention me.” Synths jerk around asymmetrically, making the song feel like one of those violent bathroom-meltdown scenes; Kanye even recalls a specific episode he had in Mexico while “off his Lexapro.”
“Highlights” features the preeminent weirdo-rapper of the moment: Young Thug. You can’t help but feel that the post-verbal rap we’re seeing from Thugger wouldn’t be so widely accepted had ’Ye not already kicked the door in for eccentrics in hip-hop. Unsurprisingly, Thug sounds right at home in the middle of the orchestral accompaniment, triumphantly shouting “Tell my mama that I want my whole life to only be mine!” Their public respect for one another shouldn’t be surprising given that Thug “goes motherfuckin’ viral” every time he redefines what a rapper looks like. Ten years ago that was ’Ye in a pink polo and backpack.
Away from his fledglings, the realest moments on the album have Kanye noticeably shaken and rattled — like when he confesses to paying his cousin a quarter of a million dollars to get his stolen laptop back, on “Real Friends.” Ty Dolla $ign’s voice cracks and eventually breaks under the weight of the occasion. Kanye pauses to collect his thoughts, and the beat leaves him behind.
He used to be so proud of his animalistic work ethic, shamelessly boasting the months spent locked away in his room. Yet even after gaining the family he yearned for on spiritual-prequel “Welcome to Heartbreak,” the intensity of his aspirations has left much of Life still elusive to the “number one rockstar on the planet.” Brother Kanye obviously practices what he preaches, but on Pablo he comes to terms with being human.
Even if Kanye never releases another album again, he can rest easy knowing that his canon of work will be revisited as the definitive arbiter of our time. His public obsession with emulating Michael Jackson brings to mind a specific quote of his that could have just as easily belonged to Mr. West: “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it — my music, I know I will live forever.” Rooted in the Black Experience of being denied the human right to express, the inherent permanence of Kanye’s art is more than enough justification for him to scream at us.
Kanye’s screaming is as imperative for us as it is for him. Just as Kirk Franklin says on the prayer that closes “Ultralight Beam”: "Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels that they’re too messed up. For everybody that feels they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times. You can never go too far when you can’t come back home again … That’s why I need faith!”
We need Kanye for all of the same reasons; his music imparts conviction onto anyone that’s willing to listen. Like the car accident that spawned it, The Life of Pablo is a jarring call-to-action. It reaffirms Kanye West’s status as the single most polarizing artist on the planet, and while the man himself won’t be here forever, he knows his work will outlast him: “Even if somebody go away / The feelings don’t really go away / That’s just the wave”.