Generally speaking, Kanye West’s “unfinished” album The Life of Pablo is a hot mess. It’s not just the so-called “Yeezy Season 3” listening party at Madison Square Garden, which aired on a TIDAL video stream beset by buffering problems; nor is it his insistence that the album isn’t actually finished. It’s how he encourages Andre 3000 to hum the chorus to “30 Hours” for minutes on end, and then interrupts the melody when his cell phone rings with a call from manager Gabriel Tesoriero. It’s how “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” is nothing more than West shouting over Desiigner’s previously released single “Panda”. It’s how “Low Lights” is nothing than more than DJ Dodger Stadium, Mike Dean, and West’s remix of Leedia Urteaga’s a cappella vocal from Kings of Tomorrow’s “So Alive”. In other words, it’s how West manages TLOP with an artless ineptitude that belies his well-deserved reputation as one of the most inspired musical conceptualists in recent memory.
West’s newfound carelessness hasn’t kept us from picking apart TLOP’s entrails through wild overpraise and countless essays. His sometimes illuminating but often frustrating exercise in self-indulgence has yielded erudite meditations on his fashion sense (or lack thereof), his bro-ish followers, his genius, and his possible mental issues.
Does West’s lyrical allusion on “FML” to going crazy when he stops taking Lexapro suggest he suffers from manic depression? Frankly, I don’t care. Certainly, I don’t wish any harm on the man, and I hope he and his family enjoy a long, happy and prosperous life. My only real concern is whether he can make compelling art. On that front, TLOP is West’s worst album to date, not counting his irredeemably overwrought label showcase GOOD Music Cruel Summer.
Yet the commentariat seems hesitant to declare that this Yeezus has no clothes. For all his endlessly documented demerits, he is a spectacle, actual substance be damned. So West continues to jerk our chains like he’s flushing a toilet bowl with his batshit tweets, and we happily partake in his antics, like his all caps support of alleged sex offender Bill Cosby, and his rancid claim on “Famous” that, “I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex / Why? / I made that bitch famous.”
It’s a dynamic that haunts rap music: the biggest elephant makes the biggest splash. In most cases, there’s nothing wrong in turning to a handful of thought leaders to guide our conversations on the changing nature of hip-hop culture. Yet some of the major label-branded exercises we’ve heard in the past few months should make us question our addiction to Pop Maximalism as a dominant aesthetic. Far from the sparkling uncut diamonds promised on its artwork, Drake & Future’s What a Time to Be Alive is a louche display of two friends goofing off in the studio. Emboldened by that project’s quick ascent to the top of the Billboard album charts, Future doubled down with EVOL, a slop pail of incoherent murmurs about “shooters” and “Xannys.” So here comes the biggest rap star of the 2010s with a project that swagger-jacks Future’s would-be Dadaism, all the way down to a slapdash rewrite of Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” as “Facts”.
Some of the major label-branded exercises we’ve heard in the past few months should make us question our addiction to Pop Maximalism as a dominant aesthetic.
West is a brilliant composer, so while TLOP isn’t exactly The Basement Tapes or Smile, it has value as unfinished songs inspired by his usual thematic concerns, such as the crisis of black spiritual life in a secular, consumerist society (a topic he’s mined ever since The College Dropout, despite erroneous claims that TLOP is his singular “gospel album”); and a conflicted relationship with 50% of the human race that often materializes into unrepentant misogynist boasts. “No More Parties in L.A.” is a Madlib-produced whirligig freestyle session between Kendrick Lamar and West that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1990s broadcast of the Stretch & Bobbito show. “Feedback” is a simple yet intoxicating slice of oscillating noise over which West calls himself the Dennis Rodman to Jay Z’s Michael Jordan, and shouts, “Name one genius who ain’t crazy!” “Real Friends” is a haunting autobiographical note about how West’s celebrity has ruptured his connections with his pre-fame family and friends.
Shorn of the noise surrounding its gestation and intentionally chaotic release, TLOP bears modestly erratic delights. But in our insistence on confusing media narrative with musical content, we’ve mistaken infatuation with West’s self-described “spazzing” for a lucid estimation of his recordings. True, it’s hard to overlook his fleecing fans to the tune of $20, which looks suspiciously like a massive fraud. If any other person had convinced thousands to spend money on an admitted substandard product (or, in some reported cases, only to receive no download at all), that person would be looking at civil lawsuits and possibly criminal charges. Instead, West is being lauded for his “living, breathing creative process,” as the New York Times praised, and his uncanny ability to transform TLOP into “an unending data stream.”
Perhaps we’re too enthralled with our idols to notice that even without West’s oversized presence, rap in 2016 teems with interesting work.
Perhaps we’re too enthralled with our idols to notice that even without West’s oversized presence, rap in 2016 teems with interesting work. On Islah, Kevin Gates continues to blend machismo and disarming sensitivity in an iconoclastic singrap voice. Migos furthers their “dab”-assisted comeback with Young Rich Niggas 2. J Cole’s Forest Hills Drive: Live from Fayetteville, NC is a fresh entry in the remarkably small subgenre of rap concert albums. Some are listening to Vic Spencer & Chris Crack’s Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer?, while others dig into Lushlife’s Ritualize. Regardless of your opinion on these disparate releases, they cumulatively prove there is plenty of vital rap being produced. We don’t need the Monsters of Rap to properly entertain us.
Yes, the genre’s bottomless depths remain an ongoing problem, particularly for those who just want to hear a good, new rap album, and don’t have the patience to plumb a zillion trend-spotting stories, SoundCloud links, Vimeo clips and DatPiff loosies. But the notion of the big-budget rap album as a paradigm-shifting cataclysm seems like a tired and inconsequential response to this decades-old problem of assessing and classifying a dense and possibly overpopulated culture that nevertheless teems with exciting and under-explored narratives. Now that Kanye West’s portentous and overripe The Life of Pablo has made a mockery of the event album, perhaps we should start looking for better ways to appreciate the boundless plenty that is post-millennial rap music.