Review: Kaleidoscope of Kanye

What is there left for Kanye to do? Depending on how you feel about a few of his albums, he has made somewhere between five and eight classics. He’s had world-beating hit songs and critically acclaimed albums that no one bought. He’s won 21 Grammys, been a universally beloved pop culture figure, and a universally despised one as well.

“The Life of Pablo” is being classified by some as the album that drove Kanye West to insanity. To me, the album sounds much more like a product of insanity than a cause of it. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is the type of album that would drive a person to madness: an elaborate renaissance piece of art that stands so delicately that every piece must be placed perfectly.

“The Life of Pablo” is chaotic, and not always in the controlled ways its predecessor “Yeezus” is. It’s manic and unruly — astoundingly beautiful at times, and unusually mean at others. It contains a lot of great music — some of the best Kanye has made — but is packaged in a way that seems random and unconsidered, something you could never accuse a previous album in his discography of doing.

If it’s not true that TLOP drove Kanye insane, it certainly did the trick for me. Between the waiting, the false starts, the confusing musical directions and the waiting some more, the years between album 6 and 7 consistently tested my admittedly rabid Kanye fandom. The album is finally here, but it has failed to wash all of my concern away.

Kanye is still tweeting constantly about things that people find funny, offensive, unsettling, or a combination of the three. He’s regularly performing the antics that people have felt this way about in the past as well: his SNL performance and his MSG show were both riddled with controversy.

Given my own public declarations of love for Kanye, I can’t really leave the house or unlock my phone without a conversation sparking up about these issues. The difference though is that the conversation around TLOP has been the first one of Kanye’s career that I haven’t found fun. I’ve never been one to separate art from those who make it; I think it’s counter-productive and often illogical. When I have defended Kanye’s outrageous actions in the past, it hasn’t sounded like, “Oh, Kanye did that? Well I don’t care cause the music is dope.” It’s been more like, “Oh, you think Kanye is a completely untalented, un-self-aware jackass who has nothing to contribute? Well, how did he make this intricate, sensitive, gorgeous piece of work then?”

His unstable and outrageous public persona has always been like a second-screen experience to his music. His generally abrasive aura was contrasted by his sensitive and insightful music, and complemented the darker “Yeezus”-type music he produced. He took the concept of multiple personas that rappers like Eminem implemented and expanded on it, making it a part of his everyday life. He even went so far as to marry a woman whose entire life is performance.

Maybe the TLOP-era of his career is a result of walking these many intersecting lines for a whole career. Maybe instead of feeling disappointment in the way these ideas seem to all be crashing down around Kanye’s head, I should feel even more astounded he was able to make something so ambitious and dynamic succeed so consistently for so long.

The conversation around Kanye has always been an important part of the Kanye experience. People being upset or confused over everything he was about was an essential piece of his art. Part of the reason this worked was because for years now, the people who have been upset have almost always been wrong. But that case is not as confident as it has been in the past. The rampant misogyny on this record certainly doesn’t help. With calling Ben Carson brilliant, saying he was discriminated against at fashion week because he’s not gay, and referring to racism as a “dated concept,” Kanye has made me start to doubt everything I have always known about him.

The era of Kanye masterfully weaving together every facet of his life into performance art very well may be over, and it’s unfortunate, because the era of him being one of the most talented and interesting musicians around is definitely not. While TLOP struggles through more problems than maybe any other Kanye record, it is still a beautiful and impressive achievement. Kanye, whose 2016 behavior has screamed “incredibly sleep-deprived” or “genuinely unwell,” somehow managed to sow his spinning kaleidoscope of ideas into an album that is a consistently thrilling — if flawed — listen.

TLOP sports the same manic unease that Kanye has shown in his most recent years. It’s arguably the most accurate snapshot of his mental inner workings that he has released. It makes sense that the other album you can say this about, “808s & Heartbreak,” is just as unruly and difficult to digest. TLOP is a better record than 808s, and includes performances from Kanye that are more energetic and engaged than he has been in years. He raps much more than he does on “Yeezus,” and while the bars aren’t as sophisticated or elegant as those found on MBDTF, they are funny, poignant, and expressive.

Much of the album feels improvisational, which sometimes leads to beautiful experiments like “Wolves,” interesting if abrasive digressions like “Freestyle 4,” unhinged thematic rambling like “Low Lights,” and incomplete pieces like “Fade.” Every track is centered around an interesting idea at minimum, though the same could be said about all of Kanye’s work since, I don’t know, 2004.

Illustration by AJ Parry

The strength of the album is, of course, when Kanye is focused enough to bring those ideas to complete fruition. “Highlights” brings forth Kanye’s “Graduation”-era pop expertise, updated with a necessary dose of Young Thug grime. You can catch me reciting Kanye’s opening riff— “Sometimes I’m wishin that my dick had GoPro/So I could play that shit back in slo-mo/I just made an amateur video, I think I should go pro”— around my apartment anytime between now and the release of the next Kanye record.

“Ultra Light Beam” opens the album with as ambitious a musical declaration as anything in Kanye’s discography. It makes it clear why Kanye referred to TLOP as a “gospel album” two names ago. It is a life-affirming and beautiful experience, culminating in a Chance the Rapper verse that stands as tall as anything Kanye spits on the following tracks. “Father Stretch My Hands” is a two-part track that starts with a Metro Boomin drop into a Kid Cudi chorus which will go down as one of the brightest and most inspiring moments of my life.

The Rihanna-featuring “Famous” would be a standout even if it were comfortable being simple. Rihanna’s hook brings out everything she does best and Kanye provides some of his best bars on the album. It’s the cut to a triumphant sample of “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy that sends the song into the stratosphere and makes it an instant classic of Kanye’s discography. “Feedback” is a great pop song. “FML” is the darkest song here, and it succeeds with a beautiful hook from The Weeknd. “I Love Kanye” is a hilarious interlude which essentially tells you everything you need to know about Kanye in 45 seconds.

Any issues from this album are not from a lack of talent — Kanye is as sharp a rapper and producer as ever. He also enlists the most impressive collection of talent he has ever worked with. Problems come from the aforementioned lack of focus — the album is 18 tracks — and sketchy lyrical content, certainly. But the album — which will almost definitely contain three of my ten favorite songs of the year— suggests its creator is wildly unsure of his identity and his direction. With every album, it has been so clear how Kanye wants us to perceive him. On TLOP it’s clear he never made up his mind.

Kanye tried to blend every character he has ever played and every style he’s ever produced into one statement, and as lacking as it is in cohesion, I find myself tempted to label it a success. It certainly could be better, and will not receive the universal praise to which Kanye is accustomed. It’s weird and silly and very well may mark the end of Kanye as pop culture’s most central figure. Considering how difficult this whole process has been, it may mark the end of him as the most central figure in my life as well. I know that would be healthy for me. It will probably be healthy for pop culture as well. The only question mark is if it will be healthy for Kanye. We won’t find out until he blesses us again.