On February 11, 2016, rapper Kanye West launched his new fashion line, Yeezy Season 3, at Madison Square Garden, in a show coinciding with the first public presentation of his new album, The Life of Pablo. Getting here has been quite a journey. The album, which was first announced as So Help Me God, has gone through what feel like countless iterations, titles, and handwritten, tweeted tracklists, before arriving yesterday as The Life of Pablo, with what Kanye said was the final tracklist and album art. Today, he released yet another tracklist, this one including songs like “No More Parties in LA.”
Throughout this period, the rapper has been unusually active on Twitter. From beefing with Wiz Khalifa to shitting on Puma, his feed has crackled with contentious activity over the past few weeks. This took a dark turn on February 9, when he tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” With the hubbub surrounding the presidential primary that night, and West’s new album stream two days away, the comment hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves, buried as it was under the hype of millions of fans. Still, it was with uneasiness and mixed feelings that we sat down to watch Kanye’s album stream on Thursday.
The show got off to a rocky start, with many reporting problems streaming on Tidal. Though the album was slated to begin streaming at 4 p.m. EST, the show didn’t get rolling until around 4:30, when the Kardashians sauntered into Madison Square Garden looking like blinged-out marshmallows.
After more than an hour of music (not all of it Kanye’s) and several impromptu speeches, it’s fair to say that any suspicion that Kanye is “over” has now been proved false. TLOP is a hugely ambitious album, surprising and innovative — in other words, what we’ve come to expect from Kanye West.
West tweeted on January 27 that his forthcoming LP was “actually a Gospel album,” and there’s evidence of that from the first track, “Ultra Light Beams,” where choirs sound like they’re descending directly from the heavens. Fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper drops an excellent verse here, taking center stage. At the peak of this song’s spiritual drama, the billowing hills of curtains covering the center of MSG finally descended, revealing platforms of models standing statue-like, bedecked with West’s designs.
With TLOP, Kanye may have reached his most extreme form, both musically and in his personality. His tweets over the last few weeks were a portent of what was to come: Many lines on the album seem designed to provoke or offend. This begins on the second track, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1/Pt.2,” where he sneers “Fucked this model/She just bleached her asshole/If I get bleach on my shirt/I’m gonna feel like an asshole,” sending a clear message to the haters that Kanye will tone down neither his vulgar insults nor his propensity to rhyme words with themselves.
On the sure-to-be-controversial “Famous” (featuring a hook from Rihanna), West reopens his now-legendary beef with Taylor Swift, rapping “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/I made that girl famous.” As that song ended, the ping of a new email rang out across the Garden, surely from a publicist or manager who was losing their mind. (The line drew Kanye back to Twitter this morning: “I did not diss Taylor Swift and I’ve never dissed her…/First thing is I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship/2nd thing I asked my wife for her blessings and she was cool with it/3rd thing I called Taylor and had an hour long convo with her about the line and she thought it was funny and gave her blessings/4th Bitch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word Nigga/5th thing I’m not even gonna take credit for the idea… It’s actually something Taylor came up with…/She was having dinner with one of our friends who’s name I will keep out of this and she told him/I can’t be mad at Kanye because he made me famous! #FACTS”)
West continued his diss spree on the lush, multi-layered “Highlights”: “I bet me and Ray J would be friends/If we ain’t love the same bitch,” he raps, referring to his wife’s ex, with whom she made a notorious sex tape. “He might have hit it first/Only problem is I’m rich,” he continues. The word rich echoes through the track. It’s the kind of shit-eating, mic-drop moment that Kanye’s fans love.
The fan-fodder continues on the hilarious, sparsely produced “Feedback,” where Kanye evaluates himself in the third person. “I used to love Kanye,” he raps, presaging what hip-hop fans everywhere might be saying over drinks at this very moment. “I even had the pink polo/I thought I was Kanye.” But the most-quoted line from “Feedback” will inevitably be his proclamation that “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye,” a fan-created meme he seems to have reclaimed.
As the album wears on, the vibe gets darker, and Kanye’s verses become self-reflective. The trio of “FML,” “Real Friends,” and “Wolves” is as dark as anything off 808s and Heartbreak. Musically, these tracks are most indebted to some of the Weeknd’s early work, and it’s not a coincidence that the r&b star sings the hook on “FML.” That track finds Kanye opening up about mental illness, namechecking Lexapro as wails cascade in the background. It might be West’s best song about self-hatred since “Runaway.” In this context, “Real Friends,” which was released as part of the GOOD Fridays promotional blitz prior to the album, feels less frivolous (though the story about his laptop-stealing cousin does lighten the mood a bit).
Kanye fans often disagree vehemently over the rapper’s best work, whether it’s his backpack-rapper soul-infused early days or his last album’s Rick Rubin–produced edge. All of these factions should be pleased by aspects of his new album, which draws from the strongest parts of his earlier work and mixes them into something new. We get the gospel and soul samples of The College Dropout, the sad-robot auto-tune of 808s and Heartbreak, the maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the industrial influences of Yeezus, sometimes all on the same track. This kaleidoscope of new ideas isn’t always brilliant, but it’s certainly never boring, and it’s not hard to imagine some of these songs as future classics.
Moments after the album’s end, Yeezy looked earnestly into the crowd. “Tell me how y’all feel? Did I deliver on my promise on that album?” he asked. The crowd erupted into cheers — it was obvious they were happy. Equally obvious was that this wasn’t enough for Kanye, that nothing will ever be. His insecurity is his greatest strength as an artist. It means that no matter what direction his work takes him, we’ll never get something that’s phoned in. Every Kanye album is the greatest album of all time, even if it’s not. And that’s just how we like it.