Exactly a year ago, the world was puzzling over what to make of the new album from Kanye West, a work that after multiple title changes settled on The Life of Pablo. It has been in our lives for a mere 12 months, but it is undoubtedly the most divisive effort of West’s career. In our own assessment of the album, we placed it among the top 10 Best of 2016 while simultaneously heralding it as his “messiest, most careless [and] downright worst album.” Both viewpoints remain valid.
Examining The Life of Pablo on its anniversary has, if anything, raised far more questions than it has answered. Its complexities and contradictions have only grown with time, despite this period of time being quite short in the grand scope of West’s artistic output. Both artistically and thematically, the album is nothing short of a cultural earthquake, the aftershocks of which are only just now beginning to be felt. And even the briefest examination of Kanye West’s life in 2016 shows it was just as much of a personal rupture as it was societal.
So on its first birthday, it seems fair to ask: what is The Life of Pablo‘s legacy?
The album’s premiere has already become a flashpoint in the annals of pop culture. After nearly a year of broken promises, continual delays and the aforementioned revolving door of album titles, Kanye knew that it was time to deliver. And when he delivered, it had to be nothing short of a masterpiece; coming on the heels of his previous two albums, the critically-acclaimed juggernauts that were My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, the stakes were just too high.
So being Kanye, he decided to raise these stakes even higher, so high that if he were sitting at an actual poker table he would be politely told that he’d had too much to drink and should withdraw. He booked Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena,” and announced that the album’s world premiere would occur as a live listening session that would be the centerpiece of his latest fashion collection presentation. You know, basic stuff.
True to his word, the listening party cum YEEZY Season 3 fashion show was an event. It was the culmination of West’s decade-long quest to fuse highbrow and lowbrow culture and remake it in his own image. His art deserved to be appraised by both Anna Wintour and the viewers at home watching a terrible quality TIDAL live-stream in equal measure. The premiere was his attempt at creating a singular monocultural moment, united in praise over the opus that was The Life of Pablo. He succeeded.
Reviewing the circumstances in which Pablo first hit our ears (which for many of us was said terrible quality TIDAL live-stream) is critical to understanding its function as a whole. In creating a three-ring circus of publicity the size and scope of which had never been seen before, Kanye ensured that his new album would be delivered unto us as his most important, ambitious statement in a lifetime full of important, ambitious statements.
This decision is most likely explained by the notion that Pablo is, arguably, West’s most personal record to date. His formative early albums were revolutionary in their intimate depictions of his personal life, but they were marked by a nostalgic positivity. But with Pablo, Kanye has writ large the devastating turmoil occurring in a mind now addled by anxieties of fame, family life, mental health and middle age. The album functions as both a confessional and a cry for help, and its delivery needed to ensure that it would not be taken lightly.
Nor is it even addressed lightly. 2013’s Yeezus was the darkest Kanye has ever sounded on record in his evisceration of society’s numerous complexes on greed, race and sexuality. But Pablo‘s darkness far exceeds it, as it is essentially Kanye turning this razor-sharp critical eye inward, ferociously gutting his sense of self and his choices. A line from the song “FML” for instance (one oft-cited in the wake of his mental breakdown at the tail-end of last year), states “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than this n*gga when he off his Lexapro.” Has any musician with an audience the size of Kanye’s ever made such a blunt admission of their issues with clinical depression?
Perhaps the darkest, and certainly most troubling, aspect of Pablo’s thematic content is Kanye’s evolving portrayal of the women in his life. The blissful romance that was portrayed in the visuals from Yeezus-cut “Bound 2” is utterly absent. It is replaced with blatant resentment of his role as a family-man, which in turn make his moments of sexual braggadocio into moments of palpable discomfort. Lyrics such as “Second class bitches wouldn’t let me on first base,” “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had GoPro so I could play that shit back in slo-mo” and, of course, that Taylor Swift line seem far less amusing when directed toward the mother of his two children.
The result is a Kanye at war with himself. For the first time in his career, he has been forced to reckon with the fact that his persona which has dictated his life up to this point can no longer remain intact with the new responsibilities and expectations thrust upon him at this stage of his life. And though he rages against it, he is far from blind to this newfound duality in his very nature. It is why the exact center of his album is a self-aware spoken word piece titled “I Love Kanye” extolling his previous philosophies and aesthetics, and why the initial album art for Pablo featured the phrase “Which One?” stamped numerous times over its lower half.
This idea is expounded upon even further in the album’s sonic elements. Where each one of Kanye’s previous albums helped dictate (if not transcend) the direction of their respective genres, The Life of Pablo rejects this notion entirely. It is the sound of each one of his previous works collapsing in on themselves and competing for attention. The melodic synth-pop of “Waves” makes it sound like a B-side from Graduation, the eerie, industrial sounds of “Feedback” and “Wolves” are pure Yeezus, while the ambitious live-recordings of “Ultralight Beam” hearken back to the lush orchestral arrangements he oversaw for Late Registration. We have seen many Kanyes since his rise to fame, but Pablo is the first glimpse of a self-referential Kanye, an artist looking backward and editing versus an artist looking ahead.
Which, on the subject of edits, brings us to what may in fact be the most revolutionary, most effective piece of Pablo‘s legacy: its refusal to conform to the structure of the album itself. To today’s date, no authorized physical copy of this album exists, in any medium. And his ability to tinker and tamper with the album over half a year after its initial release is truly uncharted territory. In that respect, it may be the first work of art of its kind; an entirely digital, constantly-evolving piece of music than can bend to every whim of its creator at a moment’s notice.
The Life of Pablo remains Kanye West’s most confounding work to date, but it grows ever more clear that this is precisely its intent. Its legacy then, is one that indeed should carry the hallmarks of its technological wonderments, its unprecedented lyrical content and its sonic complexities. But above all, one year later, its ultimate legacy is that it captures our generation’s biggest star for what he is: a deeply-flawed, downright disturbed man who is teetering on the brink of sanity. It is ugly, it is transgressive and it is not something we are likely to see or hear again.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
If this didn’t satisfy your Kanye West craving, perhaps you should take a look at our list of the 13 Best Lyrics from ‘The College Dropout’ right here.
- Cover Image: Thomas Welch / Highsnobiety.com