The Life of Pablo - A Sonic Graffiti

The roll out of The Life of Pablo (TLOP for short) was an enduring and at times frustrating three years. Originally scheduled for an early 2015 release, the vision of the album as well as the title changed four times. The ordering of the track list changed numerous times in the space of two weeks. Kanye West was feeling the pressure to outdo Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly. It was a messy three years. And to top it all off, Kanye, in an unpopular move, released the ‘demo’ version of TLOP exclusively to Tidal in February. For an almost two month period the uncompleted album was exclusive to TIDAL. He would continue to refine the album before eventually finalizing TLOP and making it available on all services on April 1st.

It is this frantic rollout that ironically epitomizes the aesthetic of TLOP.  West’s seventh studio album has an absence of a clear sonic blueprint in comparison to his tightly constructed solo works of the past. However, this somewhat disorganized compilation of songs and sounds is the most appealing, unique and enjoyable aspect of the album.

The colorful and abstract works of Pablo Picasso are synonymous with the hour long, kaleidoscopic journey that TLOP affords. On the whole, TLOP has a softer, more emotional core in comparison to his 2013 LP Yeezus. However, the abrasiveness of Yeezus is a component revisited and adapted upon by Kanye under the Pablo Escobar ethos, notably in “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”. West’s new music can take uncomfortable and sudden emotional turns whilst all at the same time feeling alive and vibrant. Through these abrupt emotional and sonic switches, from the misogynistic lines of “Famous” to the somber, reflective “Real Friends”, West invites the listener to evoke different opinions of him. He hilariously addresses these public opinions of himself in the “I Love Kanye” interlude.

"If you can pinpoint your favourite Kanye record of the last 12 years you will no doubt find components of it on TLOP."

West brings his renowned sampling genius back on TLOP with a gorgeous, soulful sample on the outro of “Famous”. The Rihanna-assisted “Famous” is a perfect track with a catchy, ringing beat that I find myself listening to on repeat. Swizz Beatz also lends a hand on the vocals and production of “Famous” and the song has elements reminiscent of those heard on West’s fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in which Swizz was heavily involved.

West opens “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1” with another beautiful gospel/soul sample. He then transitions into an incredibly produced trap beat by Metro Boomin overlaid with more soul and choral samples and stunning vocals from long time collaborator Kid Cudi. Then we shift into the second part of the song, “Pt 2”. Kanye samples Desiigner’s banger, “Panda” to create the most amazing, feel-good track and probably first gospel-trap infused song ever. Amazing.

Some more of my favourite moments on TLOP include the powerful choral/gospel arrangements in “Ultralight Beam” and the guest verse from West’s fellow Chicago native, Chance The Rapper. The closing track, “Fade”, has a fun deep house beat to bump and vibe to. “Freestyle 4” has a haunting violin riff backed by an awesome bass heavy beat, a song that could easily be on the soundtrack of the next big horror movie. “FML” is my favourite track on the album. A dark, chilly and sparse backing arrangement accompanied by a sensational hook sung by The Weeknd, Kanye delivers a beautiful, melancholy track. Kanye wonderfully revisits the introspective lyricism and minimal, sparse beats of his 2008 record 808s & Heartbreak in the 3-track transition between FML-Real Friends-Wolves. Kanye even managed to find the, quite literally “Lost” artist Frank Ocean, who sings the outro for the futuristic “Wolves” track.

Whilst TLOP is instrumental heavy and not as vocally consistent as previous albums, West finds the time to deliver powerful, meaningful verses and his good-humored lyrics that he has been celebrated for. Kanye has arguably changed the complexion of the hip-hop genre with the unique sounds of each of his solo albums and will continue to do so with many new, unheard sonic elements on display in TLOP. In saying this, if you can pinpoint your favourite Kanye record of the last 12 years you will no doubt find components of it on TLOP. At times, TLOP feels like a collection of Kanye’s greatest hits with elements all the sounds he has utilized throughout his career. Where Kendrick may be pushing the boundaries of modern rap with his lyrical content, it is clear that Kanye is challenging the sonic aesthetic of hip-hop in his latest venture.

Words by Michael Gianarakis
Photos by Tim Salisbury