Album review: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is a beautiful mess

The Life of Pablo is both messy and concise, odious and tender, selfish yet humanist in its approach to share art. To sum it all up: it’s pure Kanye West.

The Life of Pablo

Kanye West

Def Jam/ G.O.O.D Music

Three-and-a-half stars

Listening to a Kanye West album is often a depressing exercise – it reminds you how narrow hip-hop has become, with its incessant bandwagon-ism, generic sonics and subject matter.

Each album by the 38-year-old is approached as a conceptual piece, a vessel to impart something – no matter how outlandish.

The flip side of such a curated approach is that it relies on West having something to say. On this score, despite The Life of Pablo's many high points, West's lack of message ultimately fails his seventh album and his missionary zeal to change the game.

But having said that, it is a rather beautiful failure.

Where the album's venomous predecessor, Yeezus, was 40 minutes of barely contained rage, this hour-long follow-up is pure psycho-drama.

The gospel-tinged opener, Ultra Light Beam, shows the dichotomies inherent in West the person and West the artist.

Over lush keys he serenely prays to “deliver us serenity, deliver us peace, deliver us loving, we know we need it”, before a choir unceremoniously crashes in to declare “I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more”.

More is an apt description – each of the 18 tracks is crammed with a fistful of ideas.

In the cinematic two-part Father Stretch My Hands, West is almost Jekyll and Hyde. In a moment, he details his hedonistic exploits before guilt creeps up to unleash a torrent of memories about his father's struggles.

In the highlight, Famous, the team of producers – including West, Swizz Beats and Mobb Deep's Havoc – take the vocal loop of Sister Nancy's Bam Bamm to create a swaggering beat that has West dropping a few truth bombs: "I've been outta my mind a long time. I've been saying how I feel at the wrong time."

In Highlights, West returns to using auto-tuned vocals. However, he is not interested in perfecting his delivery. His unrestrained vocal lines are used as wild and vibrant brush strokes over the subdued production.

Waves is a thing of beauty. West and his team use staccato synth lines and busy drum patterns to create a dense yet uplifting backdrop for troubled guest vocalist Chris Brown to deliver a heartfelt chorus refrain, "waves don't die, let me crash here for the moment, I don't need to own it".

Too bad not all of West's declarations are so poetic. In his collaboration with The Weeknd, FML, the navel gazing is nauseating as West drawls over a creeping piano about "revealing layers of my soul" before declaring "only I can mention Me".

30 Hours seems like a lost opportunity. Guest vocalist André 3000 doesn't do much here other than hum away at what is, at best, a placid beat.

The Life of Pablo is both messy and concise, odious and tender, selfish yet humanist in its approach to share art. To sum it all up: it's pure Kanye West.

sasaeed@thenational.ae