The Breakdown: The Life of Pablo, by Kanye West

Micah: There’s a lot being said about this album and the marketing surrounding it. Let’s just focus on the music.

Henry: I agree, although part of Ye’s aesthetic is, I think, that he demands us to consider his entire persona as a sort of addendum to his music, which is somewhere between a theme and a marketing strategy that has become more pronounced with each successive album. I’ll also say that I’ve liked each successive album less than the last one, until now. But enough generalizing. let’s get into it.

1. Ultra Light Beam (featuring Chance the Rapper & Kirk Franklin)

Micah: This is a fantastic opener to the album. The minimal instrumental allows Kanye and the features to stand out in front of played-backwards samples, punctuated with a lush gospel choir. Fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper spits the best verse on the entire album, bringing the choir to a peak in a flurry of harmony and bars. Chance’s Arthur the Anteater line is especially dope to me. Great build of energy that not only sets the tone, but lets the listener know this album will be a return to form for Kanye, who is again trying to embrace his gospel roots.

Henry: Yeah, Chance has a way of stealing the show on any project he’s involved with. This is my favorite track on the album, which is bittersweet, because as much as I like it, I know that it’s mostly downhill from here.

 

2. Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 (featuring Kid Cudi) / 3. Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2 (featuring Desiigner)

Micah: Not thrilled by this sequence. I like the way the song starts and Kanye comes with quotables, but the song feels unfocused and disjointed to me. I know this is the era of the beat-switch, but that is not an excuse to string together unrelated fragments of songs. Maybe there is an aesthetic Mr. West is going for here, but I’m not really feeling it.

Henry: Can’t really get past the bleached asshole line. It’s hilarious, but also feels like a big dick slap in the face after Chance’s uplifting choral crescendo. You thought this album was gonna be inspiring and soulful and shit? Nope. Bleached assholes. I think the intention of this project is in part to embody the contrast between those two extremes, but to what end? 

 

4. Famous (featuring Rihanna)

Micah: This song is nothing special. A waste of a Rihanna feature and a Havoc co-production. The Sister Nancy and Nina Simone samples feel forced and don’t add to the song in any meaningful way.

Henry: Not my favorite, not my least favorite. Thanks to twitter this song has mostly become a vehicle for people to get all up in arms about Kanye saying he feels like him and Taylor Swift might still have sex, because “[he] made that bitch famous.”  All aboard the uproar train. I doubt Nina would approve.

 

5. Feedback

Micah: I really like this song. This is what Yeezus should have been. Harsh industrial beats and Kanye bringing charisma in a way only his big head could. Kanye’s rapping is the most natural it has been since before 808s. “Feedback” is short, but I enjoy the hell out of the whole thing. What would a Kanye album be without excessive, braggadocious bars?

Henry: I agree that this is what I wanted from Yeezus, and although I’m not a big fan of this style of Kanye’s I think this is one of the more successful tracks on the album.

 

6. Low Lights

Micah: More of an interlude than anything else. A nice intro to highlights.

Henry:  There’s a kind of disjointed religiosity to this album which I assume is intentional, given the juxtaposition of the two photos on the cover and the repeated text reading “which/one.” The sermon on this track is a nice sound byte, but like much of the religious imagery and allusion on this album, it doesn’t seem to amount to much beyond a general grasp toward something that can stand in opposition to Yeezy rapping about bitches with bleached assholes and how he wishes his dick had a go pro. 

 

7. Highlights (featuring Young Thug)

Micah: Good to see Thugger getting some shine. The song’s hook and vibe is on point, but the instrumental backing keeps it from being something incredible. It’s in rotation, but is pretty middle of the road for Kanye. This song feels a lot like Young Thug’s feature on Jamie xx’s 2015 project, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s kinda summer-y, but still could work as a club anthem. I wish the drums and bass hit a little harder, but I have come around to enjoying the openness of the instrumental.

Henry: I like the progression but the autotune isn’t doing it for me. It feels like a throwback to an era of hip-hop that I’d rather forget.

 

8. Freestyle 4 (featuring Desiigner)

Micah: Dare I compare it to “Backseat Freestyle” from Kendrick’s second album? It’s the high energy, go crazy, make mistakes kind of track with that hint of Kanye-paranoid-psychedelia that I can really get down to. A perfect song for driving around really fast and hitting mailboxes with baseball bats. I love the opening line “Closed eyes / See things,” it seems weirdly ratchet-spiritual to me. Kind of like the entire album.

Henry: “Backseat Freestyle” works for me contextually as an example of the persona Kendrick puts on when riding with the homies. Its placement is very deliberate within the narrative arc of GKMC. I like “Freestyle 4,” but The Life of Pablo has no discernable narrative within which any of the songs fit. Still, this is near the top of the album for me in terms of listenability.

 

9. I Love Kanye

Micah: I really do love the self aware Kanye. Flows nicely into “Waves.”

Henry: This is my favorite Kanye verse on the album because he’s coming right at people like me, who wish he would just keep making College Dropout forever. I like the jab, but it doesn’t change how I feel.

 

10. Waves (featuring Chris Brown)

Micah: I may be biased but this would have been phenomenal if it featured Frank Ocean instead. Chris Brown is cool and everything, but this song seems out of place on the album. In a way this song feels like a glossy outtake from My Dark Twisted Fantasy. What I’m trying to say is this song needed some of that vulnerable genius, Frank Ocean. Or maybe I’m just hurting for an album from him. “Waves” is an okay song, but I don’t see it making it in my rotation.

Henry: Yeah Frank Ocean would be better on this, I think because he’s able to take this kind of poppy production and squeeze a kind of honesty and depth out of it that most people (ahem) can’t quite reach. Much album for me feels like a series of man, this could have been so much better if’s, which is kind of a bummer.

 

11. FML (featuring The Weeknd)

Micah: This song is great. Kanye sounds great. It seems like each guest brings their whole sound with them and it gets all twisted in Kanye’s process. “Ultralight Beam” sounds like it could be the intro to Acid Rap 2, “Famous” has obvious caribbean influence, and now “FML” has that luxurious, yet hollow feeling I got on Beauty Behind the Madness. I hope these two continue to collaborate, it seems to force Kanye to be more melodic.

Henry: This album does feel like an amalgamation of styles from Ye’s various guests, which I think is why it’s so hit or miss for me, and so many of the other people who’ve talked about it. I like the production here, lyrics are passable, the Weeknd does his thing. Solid track.

 

12. Real Friends (featuring Ty Dolla $ign)

Micah: This is the best song on the album. Problem is, it’s been in rotation for a few weeks already and I keep forgetting how fresh it sounds. “Real Friends” is the closest I’ve heard any song come to capturing the vibe of Drake’s “Pound Cake.” On top of that, we get some of Kanye’s best rapping and songwriting in years. He’s captivating, revealing, and clever as ever. By the way, I love the concept of a deadbeat cousin.

Henry: Definitely one of the strongest offerings, though I think I prefer the Chance feature. Still, great beat and Ye holds it down. This is one of the few songs on the album that sets out with a clear idea and follows through on it.

 

13. Wolves (featuring Frank Ocean & Caroline Shaw)

Henry: Again, Yeezy goes for the religious reference but it seems confused and kind of shoehorned in: “What if Mary was in the club / but she met Joseph round a bunch of thugs? Who does Kanye see himself as in this hypothetical? Joseph? God? The sweet baby Yeezus? I’m not sure he even knows.

Micah: I could take or leave this song. It’s haunting, features heavily modulated vocals from Kanye and a very barebones instrumental. I got real excited when I saw the Frank Ocean feature, but his part just seems like it was tacked on to the end of the song with a strange sort of transition. Maybe this is a part of Frank’s new reclusive persona. Frank Ocean, please don’t turn into the next Jay Electronica.

 

14. Silver Surfer Intermission

Henry: Classic rap tape rambling voicemail interlude. I like the Silver Surfer reference. Nothing more to say bout this one, really. Shouts out to Max B. Much love.

Micah:  Very wavy. Yadda yadda yadda.

 

15. 30 Hours (featuring Andre 3000)

Henry: Three Stacks, can you help me out? I wish we actually got the feature that’s promised, instead of a barely perceptible Andre singing along to the hook, tucked back in the mix. Also, don’t bonus tracks usually come at the end of the album? This song feels like the victim of a haphazard rearranging of the track order.

Micah: Oh god, I love these drums. I could put this song on repeat and drive to Chicago straight-shot. The fullness of the kick and the razor-thin hi-hats just put me into a meditative state. Andre’s backing harmonies are almost chant-like and only add to the hypnotic way the track barrels forward. I could use one hundred more songs just like this.

 

16. No More Parties in L.A. (featuring Kendrick Lamar)

Henry: Another of my favorites on this album, but Kanye has basically nothing to do with it. His verse works but Kendrick effortlessly upstages him, and Madlib’s production shows up the rest of the project. That’s the issue with this whole album for me, really. Kanye has assembled something that’s good at points, and I credit him for the assembly of it, but most of the high points aren’t his own doing.

Micah: Bless Madlib for his work on this one. This one sounds like a more polished version of Otis off Watch the Throne. A great soul-based loop, but with a better bassline and fatter drums. Although Kendrick definitely outrapped Kanye, I think Kanye had more quoteables. Maybe because that’s because his verse is extra long. The most rappity rap song on the album, unless you count “I Love Kanye,” and it sort of adds to the hodge-podge collage Kanye’s got going on.

 

17. Facts (Charlie Heat Version)

Henry: I like the idea of this song more than I actually like listening to it. The concept of Yeezy reworking “Jumpman” into this cynical ultra-capitalist anthem is good, but it’s tough to discern exactly where Kanye himself stands as either an agent for or a critic of global capitalism and the fashion industry. Since “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” he’s tried to have his designer wedding cake and point out its dehumanizing machinations too, and I’m never quite sure what to think. Regardless of whether or not this song works as a statement, I’m not really a fan of how it sounds, and I that fact is only accentuated by its questionable penultimate placement following “No More Parties in L.A.”

Micah: Not feeling this song. It’s got the appeal of a soundcloud freestyle, but doesn’t seem to deserve to be an album cut. I hope Nike comes with a response. I like the idea of Kanye’s brand being so influential that it’s competing with Nike and the entire fashion world. Not sure if that’s actually happening though.

 

18. Fade (featuring Post Malone & Ty Dolla $ign)

Henry: This is a bizarre choice of an ending. Why not “No More Parties in L.A.” or “30 Hours,” the song he says is supposed to be the bonus track? Choices like putting “Fade” last really undermine any sense of intentionality to the composition of this album as a whole. Track order is really important if you’re going to try and make something as seemingly disjointed as this project, and the last two tracks, arguably the most important two position-wise seem like huge blunders in that regard to me.

Micah: The album started out in an amazing way, which makes the conclusion so perplexing. Perhaps not wrapping everything up into a neat bow at the end of the album could be some kind of artistic statement about how life doesn’t come in nice little packages, but I think that point could have been made better. A missed opportunity.

Henry: Yeah, I think an artistic statement like that is a cop out. Sorry. That being said, I like this album the best of Kanye’s projects since Graduation. The sound is less consistent throughout, but the high points shine bright enough that I don’t mind having to skip some songs.  There’s been talk of Kanye releasing another version or fixing some songs or something? Not sure what to believe on that front, but I’m kinda over it speculating about it. If he does I’ll give it a listen, but I don’t know how I feel about a world in which artists can keep re-doing their releases ad nauseum. Also not sure how I feel about the exclusive deal with TIDAL, yet another music streaming service that I am not trying to sign up for. The endless renaming and reworking of this album have become a kind of statement on the act of releasing music in the modern age. Maybe that’s the real artistic statement here? I’m not sure. This one leaves me alternatively nodding my head and scratching it.

 

In rotation: Ultralight Beam, Feedback, Highlights, FML, Real Friends, 30 Hours, No More Parties in L.A.


Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain