I have been a Kanye West apologist since 2003. Like my fellow elementary school kids, the song and video for “Through the Wire” was seemingly like nothing I’d ever seen. The sped-up Chaka Khan sample! Punchlines every other second! His jaw is wired shut! I was enamored. Early the next year, I had the lyrics printed out to “All Falls Down” in my sixth grade lift lid desk so I could try to learn the lyrics while I gathered my folders. I was what the kids would call today a “stan.”
Not long after his debut, the world truly met Kanye West as he presented himself: loud, brash, basically shameless. Hurricane Katrina. Award shows. Taylor Swift. Increasingly, it became hard to defend Kanye the man while appreciating Kanye the artist. After all, he won 21 Grammys in eight years. He is one behind Stevie Wonder. At points, it was hard to tell whether or not it was all a performance.
After watching the rollout of “The Life of Pablo,” West’s seventh album, from a plush seat in a movie theater in Harrisburg, I can confirm: it’s all a show.
The hype surrounding the album was a rollercoaster in and of itself. It’s astonishing to think that we’ve been actively waiting for an album to drop from the sky for over a year. Was there a “Can we get much higher?” moment bigger than when it was announced that West had recorded numerous collaborations with Sir Paul McCartney? Those songs, “FourFiveSeconds,” “Piss On Your Grave,” and “Only One” were scattered to the wind (To nothingness, a Travi$ Scott album and a video game, respectively. More on the last one later.) More singles, like “All Day” and the Big Sean-as-Kanye “Blessings” came and went.
In January of this year, things started ramping up in earnest on West’s Twitter with the appearance of a notepad with a tracklisting scribbled on it.
Not long after that, West’s wife announced a return of the lauded G.O.O.D Friday series of releasing a new song every Friday. Part of what made his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so incredible was the weeks building up with tracks that would or wouldn’t be on the album. The same wouldn’t happen this time around with the great “Real Friends” being the only song to technically come out on a Friday. After a week and change, the Kanye West/Kendrick Lamar dream collaboration “No More Parties In L.A.” dropped and the hype train was off again.
After that song, G.O.O.D Fridays died without a peep and things started taking a turn. West’s high-profile Twitter beef with Wiz Khalifa threatened to overshadow the whole album release. If it didn’t, West’s unfortunate tweet revealing himself as a Bill Cosby apologist probably would. But still, West swam all around the controversy as he always seems to, leading up to Yeezy Season 3, the sold-out Madison Square Garden hybrid album release/fashion show.
Around 4:45, West triumphantly walked a back-from-the-dead Lamar Odom to his seats with the Kardashian klan and took his spot at a sound table. Flanked by G.O.O.D. Music associates like Pusha T, Big Sean and 2 Chainz, West plugged in his laptop via an aux cord into the Madison Square Garden sound system. In my theater, the lights were still up until West raised and lowered his arms. As the lights went down in sequence, I wasn’t sure if it was impeccable timing or merely the wondrous effects of a Yeezy season in full bloom. After a brief intro, we were off.
Opening track “Ultra Light Beam” fulfilled the promise of West promising a “gospel” album. Flanked by choirs and promises of a “God dream,” Chance the Rapper laid down the first and arguably best verse of the entire album right at the beginning. According to the ever-changing tracklist, this song was originally last but there’s no way it would have worked as well. Say what you will about West’s musical output, but he is 7/7 for opening tracks. The dichotomy of Kanye is perfectly in affect with the first two tracks. “Ultra Light Beam” almost couldn’t be more uplifting, ending powerfully with a full choir almost yelling “FAITH” right at you. The next track, “Father Stretch My Hands Pts. 1 and 2” opens with a quintessential Kanye joke line regarding the follies of not letting hair dry.
The theater I was in laughed, and I can only imagine all of MSG erupted as well. Starting with the second track, previously-tarped off areas were pulled back to reveal hundreds of models all looking dead-eyed. Between songs, the audio would switch back to MSG for crowd reactions, which were usually very positive. The artistic end of the fashion show went over this reporter’s head. It was jarring to see Kanye and crew dancing and having a good time then cutting back to models all standing in a line with emotionless expressions. At some points during the show, the camera would catch tears falling from the eyes of models while lines like “Sometimes I’m wishing that my dick had Go-Pro/Just so I could play that shit back in slo-mo.” echoed. Much of the show went like this.
Watching the release in the theater allowed me to concentrate on the music as opposed to getting distracted by something else. Musically, the album has bits and pieces of the soul of every one of his previous releases. Soul samples, harrowing synths, orchestration…it’s all there. The aggression of Yeezus is scaled down drastically, but it’s clear that the making of that album still had effects that lingered on The Life of Pablo.
And about that album title…
It’s clear that this was always the title, or at least recently. According to Twitter, MSG was filled with Pablo merch, even down to the “I Feel Like Pablo” sweatshirt West rocked for the occasion. SWISH/WAVES was (presumably) a red herring. You can even hear Sir Paul himself discuss one of the Pablo’s influences on the song that eventually became “Only One.”
The album closed with a new version of “Wolves,” subbing out Sia and Vic Mensa for returning MVP Frank Ocean. Interestingly, the show didn’t end there. West premiered the trailer for his new video game(!) which involves his deceased mother flying through the gates of Heaven(!!) The audiences in both Harrisburg and MSG laughed, not sure what to think. So Kanye played it again. Further pushing the absurdity, West unplugged the aux cord from his laptop and passed it around, with friends and proteges Young Thug and Vic Mensa both premiering new songs. Nothing made me laugh harder than watching Vic Mensa desperately try and seek the approval of rap-dads Kanye West and Pusha T. West got the aux cord back eventually and started playing previously-released tracks that didn’t make the album. As “All Day” began, the feed cut out and was replaced with a blank Direct TV screen and lite-jazz playing. Everyone in the theater booed, hoping for more Yeezy time. It was not to be.
It’s now Friday and the album still isn’t out. At this point, anything could happen with the album. But that’s what drew 20 million people to the Tidal livestream (which is still viewable on Tidal here without an account) and countless more in theaters around the world. Just Kanye West, a laptop and an aux cord. No apologies necessary.
UPDATE 11:30 am: For the third time in six years, all people can talk about in terms of Kanye West is Taylor Swift. Specifically, this line from “Famous”: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.” Now, just reading the line divorced from the song paints it as pretty bad, right? Not that the word “bitch” can really be read as anything other than derogatory. However, West took to Twitter this morning to defend the line, saying that not only did he clear the line with Swift but that she potentially suggested it. He also suggested that the outcry is why music is watered-down today and that he “misses that DMX feeling.” MORE IMPORTANTLY, the album jumped from ten tracks to seventeen, complete with a brand new piece of notebook paper. To top it off (and directly conflicting with what I wrote above) G.O.O.D. Friday apparently has come back from the dead, complete with “30 Hours,” a track scrubbed from the album. Truly, Yeezus has risen.
The album is being mastered and will be out today… added on a couple of tracks… pic.twitter.com/6lBxcd83N2
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 12, 2016
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