by Adam Rothbarth
Kanye West has released four albums in the past 10 years. Sometime early in this tetralogy, he struck a vein in the cultural libido, releasing a phenomenon he has sought to mediate through increasingly disjunctive production and release techniques and progressively erratic behavior in public and on social media. He sublimated this discharge elegantly in his reinvention albums 808s and Heartbreak (2008) and My Beautiful Dark Fantasy (2010), as well as their follow-up, the aggressively forward-looking and potentially revolutionary Yeezus (2013). From the standpoint of production, form, lyrics, samples, and even selection of guests, Yeezus was a leap away from the worst tendencies in postmodern hip-hop. In many ways this move was a step in the direction of the avant-garde. Much of the content on the latter record is so original that it has almost no point of reference outside of the samples used on it. The phenomenon that West seems to have tapped into is none other than the essence of social life today.
West‘s trajectory is unique because, unlike most musicians, his work actually gets better the closer he gets to what one would call conventional stability. Jay Z’s music certainly lost its dramatic edge after he both married Beyoncé—whose career has continued to ascend—and became New York’s superlative rap mogul. Jeff Tweedy’s music suffered after he entered rehab for painkiller addiction; although his band’s 2015 Star Wars was excellent, Wilco will probably never produce another record as alienated and brilliant as A Ghost is Born, a work that opens with the sonic depiction of an anxiety attack and closes with a lamentation about a fabled lost song that no one will ever hear. Yet the closer West advances toward the American dream—becoming an entrepreneur and starting a family with Kim Kardashian—the more masterful and estranged his music becomes. To witness this type of intersection of convention and alienation in art today is sublime. What this sublimity actually means is that, through his last two records, he has essentially dispelled the notion that one needs to somehow be outside of the mainstream or antagonistic towards societal processes to create great art (if such a thing is possible). What West rightly shows is that it is only from within that one can offer this kind of critique.
The Life of Pablo is West’s most dissonant record, literally and figuratively. Any critical aspect in postmodern or popular music would have to proceed first and foremost from an attention to form, which West pursues vigorously on this record. As far as tonal popular music goes, Pablo is a compelling and lonely work, following in the footsteps of other contemporary vanguard composers such as Oneohtrix Point Never and Swans. This record is highly modular, meaning that it rapidly shifts mood, tempo, mode, etc., actively discouraging passive listening. The record is most interesting when West pursues beautiful, monumental passages and cuts them off with subsequent dissonant moments. “Famous,” for example, begins with a solo vocal line sung by Rihanna, one that implies the major mode. When the music comes in, however, it is in the minor mode, taking up a decidedly more sinister vibe. The subsequent three minutes traverses major and minor modes and includes multiple samples, which degenerate from Rihanna’s iteration into the original Nina Simone sample from “Do What You Gotta Do” (originally by the Four Tops). The major mode sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” only amplifies its exuberant quality in relation to the preceding controversial passages about Taylor Swift. These references and lyrics are all bound up together in quick progressions of the positive and the negative. On “FML” West counterpoints a pressing anxiety with his feelings about his family and success with extremely ambivalent-sounding, out of tune text from Section 25’s “Hit”: “See through the veil/And forget all of your cares/Throw them, throw them away.” The song concludes with a jolting modulation to a distant key for a few bars before it fades out. “Freestyle 4” is possibly the weirdest track on the record: it begins with ominous, chromatic strings and a man growling, and when the freestyle actually begins, West imagines a brief scenario in which he has sex on a dinner table during a party. The beat doesn’t enter until 1:15, and only lasts for about 30 seconds, at which point the song’s bizarre, syncopated, percussion/synth outro begins. This is some very splintered music. On “Fade,” which some have dismissed as a failed club track, West rises to the apogee of his abilities as a producer. Through his use of four core samples from primarily house and club tracks—Fingers Inc.’s “Mystery of Love (Club Mix),” Hardrive’s “Deep Inside,” Ms. Barbara Tucker’s “I Get Lifted,” and Rare Earth’s “(I Know) I’m Losing You”—West succeeds in abstracting the songs’ most compelling moments and using them in counterpoint. Through this he reaches the ideal of sampling: to create something new by transforming something old. With the clear juxtaposition of “I get lifted, yes” and “Your love is fadin’/I feel it’s fadin’,” West concretely exposes one of the primary thematic contradictions of the record: the oscillation between faith and despair.
The record’s vocals are dazzling, containing soaring melodies and virtuosic mastery of auto-tune, which West has come to prefer because, he has said, it actually brings out his bad notes. In fact, he utilizes many different vocal qualities on the record, from straight rapping to talking and singing with various programmings of auto-tune, ranging from tender to aggressive. He sounds different on almost every track; in this way the record can be seen as the fulfillment of his experiments with vocal techniques on his last three records. It is an extremely diverse record, not from the standpoint of identity politics, but from that of actual musical technique. It pulls off this diversity very well, managing to be simultaneously fragmented and integrating, a rare phenomenon in contemporary popular music. The only things actually consistent on the record are the motifs of profound suffering and supreme confidence and hopefulness that run throughout.
This new record has been compared to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly in its scope, but the two could not be more different. Where Lamar deals primarily in appearances of socio-political issues, West seems to be reaching for something deeper and more proximal to the nucleus of culture: real alienation. It is true that West is political in his music, but not in the same way as Lamar. West’s music is political not exclusively from the angle of identity politics or blackness, but from the standpoint of the social activities and particular modes of exchange in which all people participate. It is these activities and modes of exchange that produce the particular forms of social relations that Lamar misguidedly (but necessarily) seeks to work through in his own music. On The Life of Pablo West takes this critique beyond social relations and identity and deals with experience through engagement with universal themes such as family, business, sex, going to church, staying in touch with friends, taking medication, etc. Topically, this is his most “normal” album yet, and that should not be overlooked. The discrepancy here is that Lamar is trying to get the listener to think like a black person, whereas West is trying to get the listener to think like a bourgeois subject, even if this is operating on a level beyond his own consciousness.
Conversely, it is the ideological and political aspects of Kendrick Lamar’s music that abate its critical potential. Lamar’s Butterfly is infinitely more cynical than The Life of Pablo, primarily in its inability to imagine through content or form any alternative to the status quo. It never moves past dealing with the appearances of injustice and inequality, and, even more so, deals with these topics on a non-dialectical, oppositional level. His message is stale and out of touch with the processes that would be necessary for actual emancipation from these problems. One of his most famous lyrics from the record is “We’re gonna be alright!”; unfortunately, there is nothing happening in politics today to indicate that this is or could be true. West and Lamar can be seen as the two protagonists of the rap game, the psychological and the anti-psychological, the essence and the appearance. In a sense the most potent political statement one can make in music today is that of a critical engagement with popular forms, and from that angle, West’s music is more offensive than Lamar’s, for while Lamar’s music aims to be offensive on the level of content, West’s is aberrant on the level of form. This is a central point, as art today can likely only be great if it is offensive to some degree; if art today isn’t offensive, it isn’t radical, and if it isn’t radical, it isn’t critical.
In the end understanding the success of The Life of Pablo would mean understanding the ways in which its supporters are (or are not) in touch with the record’s avant-garde tendencies and its social meaning. For it is not a wholly vanguard work, nor do I believe that West is operating entirely consciously of the record’s contradictions. So the question is actually quite complicated, but also somewhat simple: how can we understand the listener’s enjoyment—and aesthetic experience—of this album? To be sure, people enjoy his beats, his production, his social comportment in public and on the Internet; these things are not abstract from the idea of the record. I wonder whether the success of this album is bound up in some ways with West’s communion with the collective unconscious, with the alienation of life today, with the fact that these are things we all experience (or want to experience), but that only a few are truly conscious of. The thematic blend of simultaneous hopefulness and hopelessness is one that is easy to connect to; furthermore, I can imagine that the album’s undercurrent of religion is attractive to many. If Lamar’s “We’re gonna be alright!” can be understood as a prayer instead of a concrete prognostication, I must say that, even as an atheist, I prefer West’s “We on an ultralight beam/This is a God dream/This is everything.” It seems like less of a lie than telling me I’m going to be alright, which is something I have no reason to believe. What an album like this would need to do to be truly successful on the level of aesthetic experience would be to work even harder to make the unconscious conscious, to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.
Suffice it to say, West is not beyond dishing out reified consciousness—he believes in the ideals of progress, innovation, and capital. In fact, considering his obsession with Steve Jobs and numerous other entrepreneurs and fashion icons in his music, he could be said to be the consummate reified consciousness artist. West, because of his essential conflation of business and art, has exposed the authentic appearance of the artistic genius under capital: the entrepreneur. And he could be said to have, through his last few records, entered the aesthetic reach and influence of his idol Steve Jobs. The Life of Pablo’s Madison Square Garden release saw the most complex confrontation of these two aspects of West’s cultural identity yet—art and business—and we likely haven’t seen the end of this phase in his career. In the end West’s alienation and dissonance have found their clearest expressions in the songs of The Life of Pablo, making it both his most challenging and most fulfilling record to date.