I don’t know who Kanye West is in 2016. After more than a decade in the industry, the Kanye we’ve come to know, love, and sometimes despise feels long gone. The Kanye who made My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so compelling and Graduation so joyous has disappeared, replaced by either a creative genius in transition or a man and artist in flux, unsure of where to go to next.
That's never been more apparent than now, as the frenzy surrounding Kanye's latest record, The Life of Pablo, continues to unfold. The record is his most unstructured yet. Moments of brilliance pepper the album, but overall it feels and sounds more like a work-in-progress than a bona-fide release. Pablo is a transitional work of art by a man grappling with the excesses of his ambition and mind.
In fact, Pablo and its week-long release have been so non-cohesive they warrant a deconstructed review. Below are eight observations culled from the latest project by Chicago’s most controversial superstar.
1We’re witnessing a creative mind at work.
Despite the many ways in which I disagree with Kanye West—how he interprets the world, his flagrant misogyny, and his questionable idea of style among them—I can still relate to his feelings on distribution of art. Anybody keeping an eye on Kanye’s frantic tweets sees a creative mind wrestling with his ideas. From Pablo's multiple name-changes to its hyper-edited track lists, there's no part of Kanye’s art that feels neglected. Any creator, whether a painter or musician or writer, can relate to this internal push and pull of what's “right” for a piece of work. But not everyone could display those creative vulnerabilities to the world.
2 Kanye’s ego still matters.
Kanye’s seemingly impenetrable ego feels no longer like a mystery but a necessity. There is a level of justifiable fire in everything he does. Kanye's claims that that Pablo is the greatest album ever is not only an insecure crack at trumping himself but a challenge to the world.
3 Kanye still loves Chicago.
I can’t say for certain, but I imagine Kanye fell in love with Chicago native Chance the Rapper’s still-emerging creative genius at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival. Chance’s festival-closing set was a Kanye-grade cultural experiment, testing not only whether a South Side rapper could enthrall a picky festival audience, but have them embrace the bombastic showmanship of gospel star Kirk Franklin. Chance's set was a resounding success, and conceivably earned him his spot on The Life of Pablo opener “Ultralight Beam,” a near-flawless tune. Chance's verse coupled with Kelly Price’s powerhouse vocals, and Kirk Franklin’s rapturous voice, make the track a stunning opener that seeks to define the album.
4 Kanye as curator?
The Life of Pablo's strongest tracks rarely feature Kanye as a ringleader. The star is merely a blip on the aforementioned “Ultralight Beam." He mumbles lines here and there, but mostly kowtows to his guests. It's difficult to tell whether this is deliberate. It's possible Kanye is just creating work like normal, but it's also possible he's resigned to curating sounds he enjoys rather than leaving his own stamp on the finished product.
5 Early Kanye were the golden years.
Kanye’s previous works have always been something special, but now they feel timeless. In the wake of Pablo—and album, which mostly feels like a platform for other artist's ideas—the 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sounds near-flawless. Despite its blend of foreign styles and genres, the album still yielded Kanye's pained, regretful vision. And while impactful lyrics were never his strong suit, and a compelling flow was never his selling point, he made himself into a celebrity—a veritable pop star—by defining himself distinctly against peers who sounded more like trends than true artists.
6 The new Kanye is not fully formed.
Pablo bounces around from sound to sound, yielding his least cohesive project. That might be a result of his numerous last minute changes, additions and deletions from the final product. Some songs, like “Wolves,” which audiences heard earlier versions of last year, make perfect sense. But others feel unfinished, like ideas that haven’t fully formed or been shaped by people outside of their creator.
7 Pablo may not be fully formed, but it is a very, very current record.
From references to Kimoji—Kim Kardashian West’s version of emojis—to Steve Harvey calling out the wrong name during the Miss Universe pageant, The Life of Pablo sounds less like a project perfected than a project evolving. Who knows what could have been on the record if Kanye had kept tinkering?
8 Laughing at Kanye is not the solution.
Outside of the music, Kanye’s increasingly nonsensical statements on Twitter feel less like sparks of genius and more like a man crumbling under the pressure of himself. Among the many tweets he's fired off since Pablo's release, Kanye has revealed personal debt of more than $50 million, sought Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook’s financial help, and revealed that this latest release (available only on Tidal) might not even be the final version. The album references going off his Lexapro and various personal losses. Speculation is crass and unnecessary, but Kanye is changing, and I don’t know that anybody should it so publicly. As a fan, I don’t think I can listen to The Life of Pablo on repeat without wondering what exactly is going on, but I hope it all turns out for the best.