After years of anticipation (followed by a few extra days of delay) and one totally insane hybrid fashion presentation and listening party at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Kanye West’s eighth studio album, The Life of Pablo, is here. The set, including eight tracks unheard last Thursday, is streaming exclusively on Tidal for the next week, and is available for download on West’s website.
Whatever Pablo is — and it is many things: a gospel album that journeys through grief, a meditation on internal wounds, and an unapologetic assertion of where ‘Ye believes his rightful place is in the world is (which, lest you forgot, is right at the top) — it’s not Yeezus, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s not 808s & Heartbreak, Graduation, or The College Dropout. It’s entirely new and entirely different. Its 18 songs are full of memorable moments. Here are EW’s first-listen highlights.
1. Pablo’s soul-gospel opening
West told fans it would be a gospel album and he makes good on his promise immediately. “Ultra Light Beams” opens the set and features a young girl’s testimony, a congregant’s call back, some heavy-handed preaching, a choir, and West speak-singing “This is a God dream / This is everything / This is everything” — and we might just say the same.
2. Chance the Rapper’s insane guest spot
In June 2014, Chance the Rapper was scheduled to perform at Bonnaroo right after Kanye. He’d never met West but was a longtime fan and tweeted: “Playing #Bonnaroo2014 Friday right after Kanye, which mean I might finally meet dude. #PrayThatChanceMeetsKanye” It took until September of that year for the two to link up and who knew that we’d all end up as happy as Chance. “This is my part, nobody else speak,” he says here, over just a trap-kit beat during his guest spot on the second half of “Ultra Light Beams” and lucky for us, no one else does. “Ultra Light Beam” is a collision of gospel-soul influences — choirs, congregants, preaching — but Chance’s flow, hopeful and uplifting, redemptive, is as holy as anything else.
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3. The features, in general
There is not a single guest spot on Pablo that disappoints. The-Dream, Chance, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla $ign, Desiigner, Travi$ Scott, and gospel icon Kirk Franklin collaborate with the star in ways that elevate them, West, and the piece as a whole.
4. The absolute bombast of it all
There is exactly one artist who could subject a child to its first public beratement, slut-shame an ex, mock a peer — as he did all in one day just two weeks ago with a flurry of inflammatory tweets — and then drop an album that begs and earns forgiveness. Pablo is somber, meditative. And much of what seems to concern the Chicago rapper is protecting his family and being good enough for his family. He fears weakness, and as a result abhors his own shortcomings, especially the temptations that surround him. He is, often, paralyzed by doubt. But for every moment of plain and profound soul-searching there’s a comment about how he hopes he doesn’t get bleach on his shirt from a model’s recently bleached rear, how he made Taylor Swift (referred to as “that bitch”) famous, or a 45-second freestyle where Kanye raps about Kanye, how he invented Kanye, and how he “loves you like Kanye loves Kanye.” It’s not a balance, it’s a collision of Kanye’s, all of which prove fascinating.
5. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”
This is a perfect — nay, the most perfect — Kanye West lyric, right there on “Freestyle 4.”
6. West namechecks Ray J
Kim Kardashian, West’s wife and the mother of his two children, famously has a sex tape. The tape, which features Ray J (best known for being Brandy’s brother), took the budding reality star from reality star to “did you hear about that reality star?” many years ago, and while her fame has grown to cloak an empire that involves apps, emoji, covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone, and social media dominance, that tape has never been forgotten — it turns out, least of all, by West. “I bet me and Ray J would be friends if we ain’t love the same bitch,” he raps on “High Lights.” “Yeah he might have hit it first, only problem is I’m rich.”
7. The production
This entry should be assumed by 2016. There has never been a Kanye album with anything less than excellent production — the time he spent helming the records of Jay Z and Cam’ron before he took the mic ensure it. Here he favors unpolished beats and sparse, compelling atmospherics. Even feedback, a rare utility in rap, gets a time to shine. There are no club bangers in sight — there may not even be a radio song in sight — but the songs, in their raw, occasionally even intentionally messy, composition, stun.