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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

“To be accepted for who you are and loved no matter what”: The Life of Pablo

JASON PERSSE / FLICKR
JASON PERSSE / FLICKR

Kanye makes his newest album his personal Tumblr

“To be accepted for who you are and loved no matter what”: The Life of Pablo

What a difference a popular fashion line makes.

Kanye’s success in music has afforded him the freedom to do as he pleases on his album 808s & Heartbreak. Until recently, that success hasn’t awarded him with the same creative freedom in other avenues — most notably fashion. Hitting this upper-class glass ceiling has been a major point of emphasis for West over the past few years, and it’s been one of the paramount driving forces of his recently released music, for better or for worse. If he has as much freedom as it appears,Yeezus’ absence of accessible melodies and cacophonous textures was the musical equivalent of the kid who brought all the games and extra controllers to the sleepover and unplugging the console when he started losing.

Fast forward three years and add a fashion deal with Adidas, two successful sneaker releases and a fashion show at Madison Square Garden, and you get So Help Me God Swish Waves The Life of Pablo, an album/living, breathing, changing creative expression whose first half celebrates his recent success and puts his fight for creative freedom in a more populist language.

Yeezus took the implicit approach to projecting West’s angst and frustration by making the album sound painful with crunchy synths, auto-tuned Ye screaming into the mic, making graphic sex references (the infamous “civil rights sign” line on “I’m In It”). On the other hand, TLOP takes those frustrations and explicitly puts them in the music and lyrics. Instead of putting the frustrations of confinement into the textures of the album, TLOP’s first half is a musical expression of the joy of creative and spiritual liberation.

What better source for laudatory, impassioned music about self-empowerment, acceptance and freedom than Black Gospel itself? Ye’s use of gospel samples is interesting in that the music and lyrics are ostensibly secular, but those same lyrics espouse the philosophies of Christianity.  Of all of his self-proclaimed talents, his ability to bridge the gap between disparate styles and genres (or in his words “[bringing] Mos Def to the studio with Jay-Z”) is most palpable in regard to the use of religious overtones on the album. TLOP bridges the gap between the sacred and the secular. There’s no coincidence that Kanye’s first hook after a Kirk Franklin prayer is “I just want to feel liberated.” It’s truly “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it.” By putting gospel music in a secular context — juxtaposing the sacred and the profane — the samples on the album transcend their original purpose and become general themes of the album that can relate to anyone, regardless of religious affiliations (or lack thereof). Consider, for example, “Lowlights” and “Highlights,” the sixth and seventh tracks on the album. By splitting the tracks, the testimony becomes a song in itself, espousing the main theme of the album’s first half.

 

And then there’s “Freestyle 4.”

The beat knocks, and Ye’s delivery gets me turnt everytime I hear it. The crunchy, Yeezusesque distortion of the instrumentals combined with his vocals make it gleefully menacing. But it does serve as a microcosm of one of the larger issues on the album; the quality of bars is inconsistent. For the past few years, Kanye’s been on a futurist/minimalist wave with a heavy emphasis on youth culture. As such, his rapping and lyricism have changed, especially since his pre-written lyrics on MBDTF and Watch The Throne. Most of the verses on TLOP are short and direct, not dissimilar to a passage from Hemingway, or even a tweet.

Minimalism is a double-edged sword, however, in that when it lands, it hits hard, but when it’s bad, it’s all the more noticeable. “Freestyle 4” is the culmination of this dichotomy. When he screams about “living half of your level,” it’s great (I finished this review after listening to it), but the same can’t be said about the extended bars about a potential orgy at a Vogue Party. This isn’t to say that the only good Kanye verses on the album are about liberation and overt positivity (“Feedback” is almost strictly about flexing and it’s good), it’s just that short and direct sex/drugs/money raps over hard beats have been done better by younger artists (see: Jeffrey Williams, Nayvadius Wilburn, and Aubrey Graham). Ultimately, there is a level of self-awareness about how stark of a tonal shift the song is from the album’s first half, placing it as the first song in the album’s second half and next to the first meta-freestyle “I love Kanye.”

Following in line with “Freestyle 4,” the album’s second half is entirely different from the first. While the first half of The Life of Pablo is the expression of the ego that makes Kanye Kanye, the second half subverts and explores what the dark side of fame in the 21st century feels and sounds like.

When you can get yourself and your family out of poverty by being famous and maintain your new lifestyle by staying relevant, you’ve willingly put yourself in a position to face the inconveniences most people don’t. “I remember Amber told my boy no matter what happens she ain’t going back to Philly,” Kanye raps in “No More Parties in L.A.” Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls star, and Ye’s fellow Chicago native, had a particularly depressing quote about fame when asked about it following his MVP Season in 2011. Rose, an introvert relative to your Lebrons and Kobes, said, “it seems like the better I play, the more attention I get. And I can’t get away from it. You play great, you get attention. But I hate attention. It is weird. I’m in a bind. The more you win, the more they come.”

You set yourself up for a lot of attention, both needed and unneeded when you’re a professional athlete, but if you’re a famous artist who compares yourself and your ideas to Steve Jobs/Walt Disney/Pablo Picasso/A God, you set yourself up for a lot more.

While Kanye gained his fame through his music, the way he uses his celebrity and ability to remain culturally relevant has been his argument for having creative control outside of music. It’s the reason he can say with a straight face that he and his wife are more relevant than the first family. It’s the reason you can write about his album two months after its release. But can the not-so-rich and not-so-famous listener still relate to songs about the pitfalls of fame?

 

For an answer to this question, look out for Part Two of Rashad’s write-up of The Life of Pablo, coming soon.
Written by: Rashad Hurst – arts@theaggie.org

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