Kanye West chided the capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, near the end of his “Yeezy Season 3” fashion show/listening party for his new “The Life of Pablo” (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam) album.
“Y’all shouldn’t be acting like [this] is regular, man,” he said after a trailer for his new video game, “Only One,” about his late mother’s ascent into heaven, got only a lukewarm response. “That was hard to do, bro.”
That applies to the album as well. “The Life of Pablo” is not regular. It’s amazing — but not always in a good way.
There has never been an album launch where the problems have been so publicly aired. While artists often change their mind about album titles and what songs should be included, West does it for all to see on his Twitter.
And when “The Life of Pablo” finally arrived early Sunday instead of Thursday, at 18 tracks instead of 10, the songs, for better or worse, reflected that same unfiltered ’Ye ideal.
First things first, it sounds incredible. West and his team have built this album as a step back from the harsh, avant-garde sounds of his 2013 album “Yeezus.” It’s in a well-conceived middle ground that pushes the envelope oh-so-slightly, while returning to the chopped-up soul and undeniable grooves that landed him so many pop hits.
Take the controversial “Famous.” It’s a fascinating song — no, not because of the line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that [expletive] famous,” which, like so many lines on the album, is West unnecessarily getting in his own way in the name of “artistry.” (He knows it too, which is why he quickly tweeted that the lyric had Taylor Swift’s “blessing” when confronted with opposition.) That line aside, “Famous” is brilliant, starting with Rihanna’s emotional take on “Do What You Gotta Do,” by Bayville’s Jimmy Webb, floating into a sample from Sister Nancy’s reggae classic “Bam Bam” and then drifting into Nina Simone’s version of the Webb song. West uses that as a backdrop for his twisted, but not necessarily inaccurate, tale of how fame makes you immortal in some ways and how so many people want to get famous through him, but fail.
Throughout “The Life of Pablo,” a reference to Pablo Picasso who West often compares himself to, he makes the argument that people are always trying to take what is his, that his successful life has created so many problems. On “FML,” which he suggests has many meanings including “For My Lady,” he discusses how he remains faithful despite all the hot women around, because he would “lose half of what I own.”
Oddly enough, West is self-aware enough to know how this sounds, as his a cappella freestyle, “I Love Kanye,” suggests. (“I hate the new Kanye, the bad-mood Kanye, the always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye,” he says, before jokingly confiding, “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”)
He even tries to be uplifting at times. On the opening “Ultralight Beam,” he mixes gospel with hip-hop, using the great Kelly Price and a gospel choir to deliver the soul and serenity he is searching for in his rhymes.
Though he tosses in a prayer for Paris and a passing reference to police brutality in “Feedback,” his world is definitely far more ’Ye-centric. The most memorable line of “Feedback” is: “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
Actually, that line of thinking is where West’s shortcomings actually come into play. If you listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which has 11 nominations in Monday’s Grammy ceremonies, his lyrics are far more universal, far more righteous and worthwhile than West’s, even though “The Life of Pablo” is sonically more intriguing.
No album will likely beat West’s from a musical standpoint this year. However, there will be, no doubt, many more likable, more listenable albums than “The Life of Pablo.” I miss the old Kanye.