Adam Theisen: The beautiful dark twisted Life of Pablo
I always thought it was weird how many people I talked to would name “Lost in the World” as their favorite Kanye song. Don’t get me wrong — it’s an amazing track that scales incredibly huge heights— but all things considered, it’s just another major highlight of an album with about a dozen of them. “Lost in the World” is a coda to one of the greatest records of all time, but as a non-single, the enthusiasm I’ve heard for it over the years was a little perplexing.
I have yet to form a solid opinion on Kanye’s latest: The Life of Pablo. I want to hail Rihanna singing Nina Simone over a sample of “Bam Bam” as some of the best music I’ve ever heard, but I need to forget about those opening Taylor-Swift-referencing lines to do so. I think “No More Parties in LA” is one of Kanye’s best songs ever, but it’s sandwiched in between two of his most mediocre. When I was walking to class this week I always thought about trying to pick a song from the album to listen to, but I usually found that I’d rather listen to something like Acid Rap. When I can give it my full attention, though, and I’m not just looking for pleasant songs I love in between lectures, I’ve been poring over Pablo, trying to make as much sense of it as I can. But I’m still completely overwhelmed by Kanye’s vision. The Life of Pablo is hip hop’s answer to James Joyce — genius-level intellect and never-before-thought creative ambitions fully realized to a hysterical extent that’s astounding yet impenetrable. This album is Kanye’s fickle impulsive genius brain made painfully public in the most tangible way possible, but to even call Pablo an album and put it in the same category as the millions of traditional collections of songs out there in the world doesn’t feel quite right.
But as I listened to TLOP, I found my mind going back to “Lost in the World.” Kanye’s verse on this song is one huge contradiction, as he speaks to this “you” who seems to represent every gigantic idea, good and bad, in the entire universe. And when I hear Pablo, I hear all of the ideas in Kanye’s head trying to become tangible and fit together, with no filter and nothing holding them back. The art Kanye creates is everything he is and all he wants to be, layered one on top of the other and relentlessly captured from every possible angle. Music is his devil, his angel, his heaven, his hell, his now and forever, his freedom and his jail, his lies and his truth.
Now listen to “Father Stretch My Hands” off Life of Pablo. Kanye’s two-part track incorporates soulful backing vocals like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, features classical composer Caroline Shaw, a Future sound-alike, a Metro Boomin’ drop, his dumbest lyrics (the bit about the bleached-asshole model on part one) and some of his darkest (everything he says on part two.) Kanye throws all these pieces into a vortex and expects us to make sense of whatever the final composition turns out to be. “Father Stretch My Hands” is a song that not that long ago wouldn’t have even registered as music. It’s an enourmous contadiction of sounds that tests your patience and pounds at you and purposely evades anything comfortable or familiar, and it’s endlessly fascinating even if it’s not entirely satisfying.
I obviously have no idea what Kanye West’s actual mental state is now or has ever really been, but unlike some critics and fans, The Life of Pablo and the circus surrounding it don’t make me personally worried for his long-term sanity. In that SNL audio, I just heard a really stressed-out dude finally losing it after days of non-stop work; in his tweets, I just see cries for attention and experimentation (“what happens if I say this?”) mixed with occasional smart lucidity; in the music itself, I just hear a mostly self-aware Kanye trying to be as real as possible, not self-editing or holding back any of his ideas, stretching himself as far as he can go.
Kanye’s music has always strived for this childlike state — one where all dreams are possible and society’s norms are meaningless and the worst thing someone can do to you is lie—and more than ever that young creative ideal is what I hear on Pablo. Being a kid, there’s always a conflict between maturity and immaturity — multiple interior parts of yourself duking it out as you try to figure out who you are and what kind of person you’re going to become, and in Kanye’s broken experiments and regrettable phrasings and glorious, inspired combinations of sounds, that’s exactly what I hear.
And so as I try to figure out what Life of Pablo will mean to anyone months or even years from now, I’m seeing it more and more as a record for kids and teenagers — one that stretches the realms of possibility and acts like the choking, authoritarian mainstream world is of no consequence and has never even existed. Kanye is Van Morrison creating tender, beautiful, nine-minute odes to drag queens on Astral Weeks or Wilco smashing the typical clichéd rock album to pieces on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but of course, he’s none of these things, because Kanye’s mind is truly unique and only he can approximate it to us through music.
If Kanye defines success as how real he can make his fantasies, Life of Pablo pushes him even higher. If he’s not untouchable, he’s at least in Beatles territory, continually forcing us to expand our definition of hip hop and pop music like the Fab Four did for pop and rock with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Listening to Life of Pablo, it’s obvious Kanye is still lost in the world, using his art and ambition to search for meaning in the disorienting darkness of life. He’s not successful all the time, but along with Pablo’s garbage fires, the album also features a few peak Kanye moments (namely “Ultralight Beam”) where you can feel that enlightenment just centimeters away from his outstretched fingers, and it makes for the most incredibly thrilling and challenging music I’ve ever heard. I hope Kanye never gets found.