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‘The Life of Pablo’: a year in review

“This album has been out for more than a year.” “There’s nothing new to say about TLOP.” “A record can’t have parts that are bad on purpose and still be great.” “Aside from “Ultralight Beams,” this is easily one of Kanye’s worst records.”

OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to take another look at Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo,” because I am convinced that it is one of the most interesting hip hop albums of the past five years.

First, I’d like to say that I love the allure that surrounds the release of any new project from an established artist or entity—the sense of shared anticipation. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the insanity and excitement that preceded the seventh Star Wars movie. Another example that comes to mind is the livestream that introduced the world to Frank Ocean’s “Blond.” Both the trailers for “The Force Awakens” and Ocean’s return to our ears were perfectly crafted, pristine rollouts that successfully captured attention and built hype for the products on the brink of release.

“Pablo’s” rollout, on the other hand, was the opposite story.

After changing the name of the album from “So Help Me God” to “Swish” to “Waves” and getting into a twitter feud with Wiz Khalifa, Kanye announced that he’d settled on a new title and would be premiering his album on Thursday, Feb. 11. For everyone who wasn’t present at the sold-out Madison Square Garden performance, there was no mention of when or how we’d be able to listen to “The Life of Pablo.”

Then the tweeting started, first at critics of the track “Famous” (Kanye would be vindicated after audio released this summer showing that he did, in fact, request Taylor Swift’s permission to use intentionally controversial lyrics), and blaming Chance the Rapper of all people for getting him to change the album at the last minute (leading to the lack of a release). Finally, that Saturday, after tweeting that he was $53 million in debt (the details of that fiasco have yet to be revealed) and ranting backstage at SNL, Kanye finally announced that his album was available to stream exclusively on TIDAL. “The Life of Pablo” was finally free from the clutches of Kanye West, or so we thought.

Listening to the album, it became clear almost instantly that the incoherence present in the album’s release was intentionally reflected in the music. That said, “Pablo’s” first track is arguably its best. “Ultralight Beams” impresses even the harshest critics of Kanye with a true return to the gospel sounds of Kanye’s first project, “The College Dropout.” There’s a fantastic guest verse by Chance the Rapper, and Kanye sounds the most sincere and in touch with his roots in years. But the sincerity and vulnerability of “Ultralight Beams” is immediately broken by the absolutely over-the-top “Father Stretch My Hands,” in which Kanye delivers one of the most tacky, vulgar lines of his career. On the other hand, this song did give the world “Panda,” so I’m inclined to let it pass.

But that’s the thing about Kanye: He’s a walking contradiction. One day he’s a total spazz, ranting on Ellen and upstaging Taylor Swift, and the next he’s intricately crafting an album like “Yeezus,” trailblazing into a new sound after obsessing over every beat for hundreds of hours. Kanye West is clearly a man of God, a devout Christian, and someone who has proclaimed himself God. The first two tracks on “Pablo” finally find Kanye embracing his contradictions as man of faith and a rockstar, simultaneously.

This self-awareness reaches a peak on the aptly titled “I love Kanye,” dropping the fantastic line “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.” Other standouts include “FML,” “No More Parties in LA” and “Real Friends.” Another contradiction, meanwhile, is that “Pablo” has some of the worst moments of Kanye’s entire discography: The voicemail that is “Siiiiiilver Surfer Intermission” is awful, as is the pseudo-diss track “Facts” (on which Kanye raps about Bill Cosby’s innocence and Kimoji). But again, this is an album that’s meant to be as incoherent as its artist, and just as there are aspects of Kanye that make me uncomfortable, there are tracks on “Pablo” that I always skip. This isn’t Kanye’s masterpiece; this is a representation of him. You can take it or leave it.

But just as we were all settling into the sound of “The Life of Pablo,” mysterious changes appeared. It started with the addition of Sia and Vic Mensa to the song “Wolves,” elevating the track to one of the standouts on the album and making it the emotional focal point that Kanye intended. Suddenly, the chorus of “FML” had vocals that made it sound all the more eerie. Because “The Life of Pablo” could only be streamed, not downloaded or purchased on CD, Kanye was able to fix and tweak the contents post release. Finally, in June, he added the track “Saint Pablo,” which probably is not as good of a closer as “Fade,” but again finds Kanye at both his highest and his lowest. Regardless, these post-release changes further cement “The Life of Pablo” as a work in progress, as much of a mess as its maker.

Kanye West is, without a doubt, past his prime. The intentional incoherence of “Pablo” is directly tied to this sad fact. If you’re not a Kanye fan, or at least interested in his contradictions, “Pablo” probably isn’t for you, and you’d be better off listening to just the highlights and delving deeping into “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” or “College Dropout.” I’d also argue that the influence of this record can be seen in the much more wholesome and crowd pleasing “Coloring Book” by Chance the Rapper, and if you’ve ever enjoyed “Panda,” you really can thank “The Life of Pablo.” But for the rest of us, for the fans and those already invested in Kanye, “The Life of Pablo” is the best representation of just who Kanye West has become, and likely will always be.

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