Critic’s Note: On Thursday I attended and reviewed a streaming of Kanye West’s “Yeezy Season 3,” the debut of his latest fashion line and seventh studio album “The Life of Pablo.” Twenty-four hours after filing my review on Friday, West had still not made his album available to the public and once again changed his release plans. Multiple tracks were added to the album that were played at the Madison Square Garden event, so in order to do a review of the album justice, I decided a second review of the CD quality version of “TLOP” was necessary.
Chance the Rapper walked out onto the “Saturday Night Live” stage to a very receptive audience this past weekend. His audible contributions on Kanye West’s seventh studio album, “The Life of Pablo,” were, however, restricted to one song: “Ultralight Beam.”
West debuted the intro track to his album on “SNL” last Saturday. After gospel artist Kirk Franklin delivered a prayer of sorts while Ye laid spread out and motionless on the stage, West went berserk. He jumped up, and in a flurry of words, he dropped “mother f—–” on live television and announced that his album was available on the music streaming service TIDAL exclusively.
This somewhat ended a yearlong flurry of album title changes, indecisive track listings and a cloud of mystery around a piece of paper that kept fans guessing which artists would be included on the LP. Yes, a CDQ version of the album is finally available to listen to, but not without subscribing to TIDAL. For music fans not wishing to give in to West’s demands to join the streaming service, the album is supposed to be made available to the public sometime next week.
But as the past week has taught us, West could release a whole different album next week, or he could even decide to not release it to the entire public at all.
Right now, however, we have 18 tracks’ worth of an LP to dissect and discuss, which is currently the closest thing to a fresh, completed Kanye album.
There’s an extremely strong parallel within Ye’s “SNL” performance: Chance grew up a Chicagoan admiring the backpack raps and clever name drops that were littered all over West’s first two LPs, “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration.” West caught fire with these projects almost immediately, as he consumed the spotlight unlike any other musician before him with no filter and a copious amount of controversy.
Now the spotlight is on Chance, who views West as a mentor despite them both becoming fathers around the same time. Even though they are nearly 15 years apart in age, they are going through a pivotal stage of life together.
Because of the delay before the release of “TLOP,” many thought they were getting a finished product at the end of the “Yeezy Season 3” reveal. Apparently Chance fought hard for a song titled “Waves” that he composed to be included on the album. He won out, and along with Kelly Price, he helped delivered a very powerful and moving performance minutes before the album was released.
And that’s exactly what West hyped up the album to be: the ghetto gospel. And he delivered, even though the lyrics lacked substance at times.
If you thought “Yeezus” was a little too depressing and irate, West nearly did a 180 with “TLOP.” Ye drifted down a darker path starting with his fourth studio album, “808s & Heartbreak,” around the same time his mother passed. A great overall representation of West’s seventh album for Ye stans would be the result of the rapper having the mental mindset he did while making “Graduation” but the musical mindset of “808s.”
Great examples of this particular sound mentioned above were displayed on the Rihanna-featured “Famous” and “Good Life”-esque “Highlights,” which was also debuted on SNL. “Good Life” arrived with the first wave of auto-tune rap songs in the mid-2000s, and “Highlights,” featuring the malleable vocals of Young Thug, fits right under that category.
“Famous” can also be described as an autotune-heavy “Graduation” cut. Although this track has been garnering attention because of a possible diss on Taylor Swift, the production quality and daring erraticism are what drive this song and the album as a whole. Around the two-minute mark, Ye loops in a staple sample of dancehall jam “Bam Bam.” Tricks like these are what give this album the positive vibes that truly make one want to move his or her body.
Although no one Kanye album really sounds like another, his past work is layered throughout his modern sound. “Yeezus” attempted to grab at this concept but instead stood out as a brash and bold masterpiece. “Feedback,” the fifth track on “TLOP,” sounds like part of the scraps that were left over from West’s 2013 release. “Freestyle 4” contains “Yeezus” remnants as well: over-the-top lyrics paired with an eerie backdrop and consuming bass hits.
The album’s low point comes one song from the finale. “Facts,” a track that rung in the new year, is a play on Drake and Future’s “Jumpman.” Even Metro Boomin lends his hand on production, making this song no more diverse than anything else currently on hip-hop’s Top 40 chart. It’s a slight at Nike, but the song really only serves a purpose to West.
“TLOP” is packaged as a Kanye West album, but he seems to have fallen back into the director role. This is by no means a negative; it only explains why Ye chose the features that he did. Artists like Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla $ign, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean provide a smooth, cloud rap-like texture that make the album a uniform listen from front to back.
Most of the emotions portrayed on “TLOP” are not depressing, but there are a few reflective tracks. The previously released “Real Friends” flips the script on the family memories Ye has been known for rapping about in the past. His fame has isolated him from his blood relatives and has also brought leeches – or, as Ye describes them, wolves – into his life. On “FML,” which features The Weeknd and has the potential to accumulate many radio spins, West raps/sings: “Pour out my feelings / Revealing the layers to my soul.”
Over Kanye’s career many have come to know that there are many sophisticated layers to the Grammy-winning rapper. His latest comments and social media outbursts have had people questioning if he is really all there in the head. The answer can be found when Kanye is heard rapping on “TLOP.”
Although a lot of the tracks are three minutes and contain a few four- to eight-bar verses, Kanye is not afraid to flex his lyrical skills this time around. On the G.O.O.D. Friday releases “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in L.A.,” West drops nearly 150 bars over old-school beats provided by Madlib and frequent J Dilla collaborator that give illusion of listening to the songs on wax. There’s no question whether or not West can still rip the mic, but his heart right now is in making music that can inspire others, and that involves mellowing down the raps.
Track placement is pretty on point for this album, but the outro leaves listeners expecting more. “Fade” is a heavy dance track: light on the lyrics and driven with an overpowering tempo. However, the song ends on an awkward beat, which is disappointing considering Kanye album closers are some of his best work (i.e. “Gone,” “Lost in the World”). For that reason, the mysterious “Wolves” is better suited for the role of album closer. The track is a pretty concise collection of Ye’s overall thoughts on when fame fuses with fatherhood and complements the sensations produced and voiced on “Ultralight Beam.”
“Ultralight Beam” is by far West’s most spiritual song in his discography. The contrast of inappropriate and misogynistic language on subsequent tracks, however, make his religious claims seem counterfeit. Life is a marathon, though, and judging just one leg of someone’s race does not come close to telling their whole story. Actions like claiming that Bill Cosby is innocent makes the public question if Kanye’s motives are truly genuine, but we have yet to see if he can do the good he has been promising to the world upon receiving sufficient funds.
“TLOP” was being hyped up as the ghetto gospel, and it came extremely close to being something just as vulgar as it was uplifting. The soundscapes have the power to move crowds and make fans put their hands to the sky, thus meaning that “TLOP” accomplished a common goal for musicians: embedding emotions within the audience. Kanye did just that, and for that reason it stacks up with previous records of his that are considered classic.