It’s hard to believe, but Kanye West‘s The Life of Pablo has now been with us for a full two years. Though his now-infamous album unveiling at Madison Square Garden feels like it happened yesterday, the world is a far, far, far different place now than it was when Ye dropped his seventh full-length unto us on Valentine’s Day, 2016.
How has Pablo aged? Overall, rather well. However, Kanye’s vision of a “living, breathing” album subject to changes as drastic as adding additional songs months after its release feels gimicky in hindsight, and it is inevitably the root cause of the album’s weaknesses. It is indeed a bit too long; there is filler that could have used a serious edit in the studio. But who are we mere mortals to question the sacraments being delivered by the savior? We can only receive and give thanks (and write an analysis or three).
In light of its second birthday, we dusted off The Life of Pablo and examined it with fresh ears. The result? A comprehensive, detailed ranking of the album’s 20 tracks ordered from worst to best.
20. “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”
Considering this interlude contains not a single note of actual music, it seemed fair to slot this at the lowest rung of the ranking. But setting aside that technicality for a moment, let’s consider how odd this minute of the record is. It is a voicemail from rapper Max B, who lets loose a word salad of ‘good vibes’ before French Montana blurts out ‘silver surfer’ repeatedly until Max repeats it himself. It seems doubtful anyone who wasn’t in the room when recording this track actually knows what the shit is going on – and in an already-bloated record, this is an entirely superfluous addition; it should have been cut.
19. “Freestyle 4”
Over a string section straight out of a black and white horror film, Kanye delivers a verse constructed entirely from three to four syllable ad-libs before spiraling into a delirious rant about his sexual frustration. Worthwhile for the lyrical realization that Kanye – in all likelihood – actually asked Kim to fuck at a Vogue party, but the sonic template is a half-ass sketch of production done twice as better elsewhere on the album.
18. “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”
In 2012, Kanye spat a very memorable guest verse on 2 Chainz’ exercise in absurdity, “Birthday Song.” “Facts” bears more than a few sonic similarities to the Hair Weave Killer’s anthem for aging, but it is entirely lacking the fun, sense of humor, and witty lyrics that make “Birthday Song” so delightfully bad (in a good way). Which leaves “Facts” as bad (in a bad way).
17. “Low Lights”
As as the palette-cleanser before “Highlights” – and responsible for introducing its melodic motifs – the placement of “Low Lights” on the album is both essential and invaluable. On its own though? It’s nothing more than a sample over a bleep-blooping synth and a piano line. Snooze.
16. “Pt. 2”
‘Wait,’ you might be thinking, ‘how can they put “Pt. 2” so low on this ranking when it gave the world Desiigner’s “Panda”‘?! It did indeed introduce us to Desiigner – who proceeded to warble his way to the top of the game in 2016 – but it is also an extraneous exercise in an album now famous for being full of extraneous exercises. Two minutes of Bowser’s Castle music followed by an out-of-nowhere faux Imogen Heap breakdown? We’ll pass, thanks.
15. “Frank’s Track”
Two lines of questioning here: 1. What does it say about our cultural addiction to Frank Ocean that he can turn in a 30-second long studio demo and it becomes an essential part of someone else’s album? 2. What does it say about the Kanye songs on this album that are demonstrably worse than a 30-second long studio demo from Frank Ocean?
14. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
Of the many collapsing Autotune hooks on this record, “I just wanna feel liberated” is one that sticks in the brain like glue. It’s a sentiment full of yearning that contrasts nicely with Kanye’s musings about the pleasures of digging into a bleached asshole. And though it is far more subtle than some of their previous outings, this track is another welcome addition to the catalogue of Kanye and Kid Cudi collaborations.
The Weeknd gives a massive assist on this guest spot, but by song’s end his refrain becomes a bit whiny. Still, there’s a lot to love here, particularly in Ye’s lyrics. This is the song that gave us the much-talked about line involving skipping his Lexapro, which – as far as revealing mental health diagnoses in rap form goes – is delivered with shocking aplomb, even by Kanye-standards.
12. “I Love Kanye”
Of the many (many) surprises to be found in The Life of Pablo, this 45-second interlude is among the most ingenious. Spitting rhymes a cappella, Kanye reminds us that he still has a sense of humor by addressing the myriad of critiques of his narcissistic nature with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. It is post-modern, it is perfectly-executed, and it is one of the most inspired oddities he has ever put on tape.
11. “30 Hours”
“This is the bonus… my favorite albums used to have like bonus joints like this” Kanye clarifies at the end of “30 Hours.” Not that he needed to; after the dark, dense journey of Pablo, it is immediately clear from the first note that the pace has changed. This track effortlessly glides, cramming in his date plans with wifey, an appearance from André 3000, and the immortal realization that “a blowjob’s better than no job” without breaking a sweat. It’s so brazenly casual that it ends with Kanye on his phone dismissing the very song we’re listening to as just another “adlib track.”
Around the time of the first delay of Pablo‘s planned release, Kanye blamed Chance the Rapper for pushing him to include and tinker with “Waves” on the album. And thank goodness for that. “Waves” is a blinding moment of triumph and joy; the part of Ye’s self-described gospel album that most sounds like ascending to heaven with a choir of angels at your back. And as much as it pains us to heap praise on an objectively-garbage human like Chris Brown, his vocal hook is one of the bravura performances on the album.
9. “Saint Pablo”
Added over four months after the release of the album, “Saint Pablo” is a surprisingly cohesive coda – one that inevitably made for a stronger, more fitting closing to the record than “Fade.” Sampha unsurprisingly delivers unbridled emotion with his flawless vocals, but Kanye matches him feeling for feeling in rhyme form, commenting on his financial troubles and crumbling relationships in a way that feels honest without falling victim to self-pity.
8. “No More Parties in LA”
In which the two greatest MC’s alive do their thing over a lo-fi, ’70s groove and simply enjoy the pleasures of their own otherworldly talents. Both of their individual verses contain about four times more words than half the other songs on this record, necessarily taking up almost the entirety of the track’s six minutes. If Kanye and Kendrick ever come together for their own Watch the Throne-style collab album, expect it to sound a lot like this.
There are several albums happening simultaneously in The Life of Pablo‘s ungainly sprawl, and one of them is the spiritual, sonic successor to 2013’s landmark Yeezus. “Feedback” is perhaps the best example of this category, a track that – like much of Yeezus – manages to be jarringly-paranoiac and irresistibly-catchy simultaneously. The industrial whine of Mike Dean’s guitar is the stuff of nightmares, as is Kanye’s completely in-earnest challenge to “name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
First of all, the beat of “Highlights” is flat-out, first-degree murder; this is a bop that is lethal in its singular groove. Secondly, these are some of the most immediately-memorable (and the kind of Kanye-absurd that only Kanye can pull off) lyrics on the record. Even before we get to the instantly-iconic chorus of Ye cruising his neighborhood Equinox gym, he has fat-shamed his brother-in-law with a joke about his sex life and trashed Ray J for being both poor and bad in bed. In other words, it’s peak Kanye.
If the beat of “Highlights” is flat-out, first degree murder, than “Fade” is a beat made from witchcraft capable of waking the dead and restoring rhythmic life to every corpse it touches. The image of Teyana Taylor turning into a panther/tiger/woman/thing while working on her fitness is seared into the brain, but even without such a handy visual reference, this track is pure, elastic movement.
4. “Real Friends”
Grappling with the real-world of costs of mega-celebrity has been expressed in seemingly every way imaginable across Kanye’s catalogue, but “Real Friends” manages to wring new meaning from the proverbial well. Rarely has Ye been so clinical in his dissection of failed relationships, offering heart on the sleeve admissions with clear-eyed bravery. “Like I ain’t go enough pressure to deal with,” rasps the most untouchable man on the planet, a kiss-off that cuts deep, no matter how much wealth and privilege he accumulates.
While restaging the Virgin Mary and Joseph’s courtship in a club is… questionable, to say the least, “Wolves” is among the most potent pieces of songwriting on Pablo, or indeed, in Kanye’s entire oeuvre. The synth line that lurks around the track plunges into the eardrums like a dagger of ice in its opening moments, while Sia injects the whole enterprise with true diva-power; managing to blend seamlessly with the many other disparate elements that populate this fertile soundscape.
2. “Ultralight Beam”
For all of Kanye’s attempts to classify Pablo as his ‘gospel album,’ there is only one moment where that description entirely fits the bill, and it is right here in the opening track. “Ultralight Beam” sounds as if Kanye is live-conducting in the studio; in one corner stands a full choir with Pastor Kirk Franklin at the ready, in the other is Chance the Rapper, waiting patiently to be queued for his big moment – the single most profound guest spot of 2016. Ye lets each member of his orchestra have a moment, punctuating each one with hushed silence. This is a God dream that only he can fully realize.
When I compiled Highsnobiety’s list of the Best Songs of 2016, I spent a great deal of time figuring out whether I would give the top spot to “Ultralight Beam” or “Famous.” I went with the latter, which many commenters were quick to point out was a decision they would have made differently. It is immensely satisfying to find that two years later, I came to the same conclusion again (commenters, come for me).
“Famous” is a union of form and function unparalleled in Kanye’s career. It somehow manages to compress his God-sized hubris and his complex insights into celebrity culture within the confines of a proper pop song (the first time he has bothered to execute a song according to this structure since at least “Heartless”). Like all his best work, it deploys a sample that becomes not the backdrop of a track but an independent actor in dialogue with the song’s other components. And it, of course, is tied together with the most instantly-quotable couplets Pablo has to offer. That Rihanna is also present is a cherry on a sundae already loaded with them.
For more rankings, take a look at our tally of every winner of the Grammy for Best Rap Album right here.
- Cover Image: Thomas Welch/Highsnobiety