We expect Kanye West to write controversial lyrics. We expect Kanye West to tweet controversial things. We expect Kanye West to hand-deliver controversial headlines to salivating tabloids the world over. We expect all of this as much as we expect to be surprised by West every once in a while, and he snared us once more on Saturday Night Live, but not with the typical hysterics and pomp and circumstance of his celebrity. West is the rare talent who can operate a spotlight just as surely as he basks in one, and the one that shone on Saturday Night Live wasn’t trained on him, exclusively. This is why West — who’s been toeing the ledge of likability’s deep end lately — will always, always dodge the question of relevancy: He is not simply the master of give and take, but of giving and taking just enough, at the perfect time, and for an audience thrashing for it like sharks do for fresh chum. (We will, indeed, need a bigger boat for the duration of The Life of Pablo‘s cycle.)
Madison Square Garden delivered The Life of Pablo and the West who thrives on oversaturation and overstimulation. Saturday Night Live gave us a glimpse of a deeply flawed artist at work and all the awkward notes and abrupt transitions that betray a process in progress. What West gave in spades at both performances was a platform for the company he keeps, and this is why The Life of Pablo and West on the whole can’t be written off just yet. At this point in his career, West appears happiest and most at ease when he’s working with talent he respects, and this genuine, demonstrated appreciation for artistry is enough to accept the fact that this man contains motherfucking multitudes — problematic, obnoxious, slut-shaming, abuser-defending, tastemaking, invigorating, inspiring, enlightening, boundary-pushing multitudes. We continue to voraciously follow his every move because his actions ultimately return to the art. West doesn’t only get by with a little help from his friends. He is saved by them — or at least he is as far as The Life of Pablo is concerned.
Let’s revisit February 11, the day that the songs of The Life of Pablo received the listening-party treatment before an intimate crowd of 20,000 or so fans at the MSG presentation of Yeezy Season 3. Pusha T, Young Thug, Kid Cudi, Travi$ Scott, and others rounded out Kanye’s entourage; they were either modeling Yeezy threads themselves (Young Thug) or flanking West behind his laptop (Pusha T et al.). West’s god complex is less of a biblical bent and more of an Olympian flavor these days, or at least that’s the image he’s pushing. It’s a stark contrast to what we saw in both his live show and his Saturday Night Live performances that transpired in the wake of Yeezus. For the Yeezus Tour, Kanye scaled manmade mountains, was followed by a furry, voiceless creature, and navigated a small sea of faceless dancers onstage at various points throughout the show, never surrounded by his peers. On SNL, “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” were very much solo endeavors, his only company the animated faces of snapping wolves in the background. The crew at MSG for Yeezy Season 3 was one thing, but the insane roster of performers he brought to Studio 8H Saturday night — which included a gospel choir, gospel musician Kirk Franklin, Young Thug, El DeBarge, Chicago’s reigning prince of hip-hop Chance the Rapper, and r&b titans Kelly Price and The-Dream — further prove that West isn’t interested in performing the songs of The Life of Pablo by himself.
He is also uninterested in performing the songs of The Life of Pablo particularly well — or less focused on his performance and more on dancing alongside his collaborators. He was enthusiastic, sure, and West’s metallic precision at the mic is still enough to move the listener to nod in time. On the whole, West’s verses throughout “Highlights” and “Ultralight Beam” were Auto-Tuned abrasions, especially when shouldered up against the lithe vocals of Price and The-Dream, or the earnestness of Chance, or the straight-from-the-pulpit intensity of Franklin. Rightfully, West hung back for the majority of the latter track: He gets full credit for bringing such a transcendent assembly into being (and for styling them before such a cool backdrop, too!). This is where his give-and-take skills redeem him: Kanye West was booked on SNL, not Kanye and Company, and few artists understand the economy of exposure the way he does. West, clearly, gave few fucks about how garbled and awful he sounded — even before he sloppily crowed about how The Life of Pablo was streaming on Tidal immediately following SNL — because he was too busy beaming over the verses brought forth by his colleagues. West looked out upon the God Dream he had created, and he decided it was good. He also decided that he wasn’t to be the best part of it, and that’s what’s brilliant and confounding about The Life of Pablo and West as we know him in 2016.
He can pique the world’s interest (and outrage) with a line about Taylor Swift knowing full well he’ll use SNL to buoy the voices of others before an unsuspecting (and likely hate-watching) audience two days later. He can present himself as the ultimate egomaniac one minute and then pass the aux cord to his pals in a packed arena or fall back and let Chance soak up a few precious moments of airtime the next. He can be both the most self-absorbed rapper and a benevolent conductor at the same time, and he can do it while rocking a Balmain for Yeezy pearl-studded jacket, too. Kanye West is hip-hop’s current Jekyll and Hyde, the only one who dares to encompass redemption and damnation to such extreme degrees. We are exhausted, but we are enthralled, and we continue to circle, waiting to sink our teeth into his genius.
After SNL, Kanye had to go and drop the damn album, so naturally the internet went ballistic. He said The Life of Pablo would be ready on Tidal just before he dropped the mic on SNL, and then it wasn’t on Tidal, and Twitter got mad.
When Kanye said his new album was now on Tidal and on his own website. Twitter was like https://t.co/DbKy7Rcmvv
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) February 14, 2016
Kanye got us playing where’s Waldo for his album
— Anthony Figueroa (@AnthonyyFig) February 14, 2016
Day 3 no Kanye Album, things are getting out of hand, we are running low on food and water
— Brett Best (@bestbrettt) February 14, 2016
Twitter was also upset about Auto-Tune —
wow this Kanye song is awful. have the autotune guys done the GOP debate yet?
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 14, 2016
— and that Balmain jacket:
Kanye is dressed like a fancy pillow. #SNL
— Anne T. Donahue (@annetdonahue) February 14, 2016
Why’d Kanye steal my Grandma Harriet’s jacket though? #SNL
— beth kushner (@bekushner) February 14, 2016