After three name changes, numerous raucous twitter rants, a packed Madison Square Garden fashion show and a compulsive chopping and reordering of the album’s tracklist, Kanye West finally released his highly anticipated follow up to Yeezus (2013), The Life of Pablo. Upon the album’s release, discussion about its title exploded on social media and music blogs. Who is Pablo? Why is he important enough to have a Kanye West album named after him? What does Pablo’s life have to do with Kanye’s music and persona?
Music critics and Kanye West fans alike have put forward several theories about the identity of the mysterious Pablo. Some have said it might be Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who wrote about love, heartbreak and longing. It was also rumored to be named after Pablo Escobar, the narcotics kingpin who has become a staple of rap culture and the patron saint of hustlers. West hasn’t commented on who the Pablo of The Life of Pablo actually is; however, he did state that Pablo might be St. Paul the Apostle, who, on Twitter, West referred to as a “powerful messenger of the first century.” Most likely, though, the Pablo that West is referencing is Pablo Picasso, the father of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. In a speech he gave at the University of Oxford, Kanye expressed praise for Picasso, foreshadowing that the artist might have served as direct inspiration for the album’s title. Kanye’s proclivity towards art and design would also explain why he chose to name his album after the life of Picasso.
The speculation about who Pablo is has led to various characterizations of Kanye West as an artist, a hustler, a designer, a business man, a poet and a man of God. Kanye fits all of these labels, and this album is a testament to that. The ambiguity about who Pablo is might be Kanye’s way of sending listeners a message about his persona and his music. The album title’s ambiguity also speaks to the diversity of sounds that exist within the album. The tracks range from spiritual anthems like “Ultralight Beam” to classic Kanye West ego tracks like “Famous.” The Life of Pablo is overtly eclectic and almost too ambitious but, somehow, West is able to sublimely piece it together.
The Life of Pablo’s first track, “Ultralight Beam,” is meant to make listeners stop, drop what they’re doing and devote their full, undivided attention to the album. Blaring synths, a sample of a child repeating ‘Halleluiah,’ an angelic gospel choir and arguably the best verse Chance the Rapper (featured on two of the album’s tracks) has ever recorded, makes this song feel as if it is indeed “a God dream.” It’s as elevated as West’s music has ever been — “Ultralight Beam” continued to resonate as I kept listening to the rest of the The Life of Pablo. The song is absolutely beautiful; it is Kanye West at his most honest and spiritual, and ultimately both traits set the tone for the rest of the album and made up for its faults.
The theme of spirituality is recurrent throughout the album. On “Wolves,” Kanye uses lines like “You gotta let me know if I can be your Joseph” and “What if Mary was in the club/When she met Joseph around hella’ Thugs” to invoke religious imagery and to compare his experiences to that of Joseph and Mary. Kanye also makes references to protecting his children — “Cover Saint in lambs’ wool/Cover Nori in Lambs’ wool” — from “The Wolves,” which seem to be a metaphor for what he sees as evil and sinful. Although the production on this track is a little underwhelming, the themes that Kanye wrestles with –– love, spirituality, self-loathing and fear –– make the song engaging and powerful. “Wolves” showcases West’s transition from God to man of God. The Life of Pablo’s most honest songs are spiritual songs, songs that showcase Kanye’s fear of transcendence and mortality.
That being said, the profundity of tracks like “Wolves,” “Ultralight Beam” and “Real Friends” have to make up for some of the album’s less interesting tracks. For instance, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” is a great song thematically, but the production feels like it was rushed. The hi-hats on the beat sound like they were taken from a demo track and lyrics like “Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/And I get bleach on my T-shirt/Imma feel like an Asshole” make the track a little too over the top, even for Kanye West standards. “Fade,” the album’s final track also feels like it was just thrown in. The samples on this track are rough and Post Malone’s feature just doesn’t work when pinned against the track’s brash instrumental and erratic melody. Whether having these tracks on the album was a stylistic decision or not, I don’t know, but I do know that they are the only tracks in the whole album that felt like they didn’t serve a purpose.
Considering he has a song titled “I am a God,” Kanye West has always been narcissistic about his musical aptitude and this album serves as a testament to the talent that he so often talks about. “Famous” — the song you’ve probably heard of because of the infamous “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous” line — is everything the public loves about Kanye West songs: an ambitious sample (Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” and Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), killer vocals (sung by none other than Rihanna) and an absolutely stellar production. West even throws in a “Wake up Mr. West” to remind listeners that the Late Registration Kanye is still in there, somewhere. Tracks like “Feedback,” “FML” and “Waves” are also exceptional at reminding us why we love Kanye West so much. As a response to the nostalgia that some of these tracks might evoke, West included a track titled “I Love Kanye” where he raps, “I miss the old Kanye/straight from the ‘Go Kanye/Chop up the soul/I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye.” In short, West lets us know that the old Kanye is gone and won’t be back for a while. However, the new Kanye, the eccentric, unstable, brash l Kanye, the one that was bold enough to release an album as ambitious as this, is here to stay. The Life of Pablo is the work of a genius — “name one genius that ain’t crazy” — the album is bold, fearful, grounded and elevated all at the same time.