Of all the strange things Kanye West has tweeted around the occasion of his new album The Life of Pablo, the strangest might be this: “Pablo is full of joy and love because I was able to create.”
Full of joy and love? When I listen to Pablo, I hear wide-eyed fear and confusion. I hear strain. I hear a yearning for joy and love. The real thing is only rarely present. This isn’t a complaint, per se. Kanye West has made some uplifting music over the years, but his most classic songs usually involve large amounts of conflict and doubt, the same emotions that are the bedrock of Pablo. As you might imagine, such bedrock is not firm. The album contains the least consistent music West has ever put out, and that’s both a good and bad thing for the listener. Even when it’s frustrating, there’s drama in how it wobbles.
West has also called Pablo “a gospel album with a lot of cursing on it,” which is correct. It opens with the sound of a young girl shouting away the devil; there are church choirs throughout; at one point, West devotes a full track to a woman’s faith testimonial. It should be noted, though, that this is not gospel as celebration nor as evangelism. It’s gospel as desperation. This is his first album since getting married, becoming a father of two, releasing a fashion line, and receiving a few lifetime-achievement awards and honorary degrees. Yet it repeatedly pleads for strength in a time of personal strife. “I’m tryna keep my faith,” goes the refrain of the stunning, upwardly lurching opener “Ultra Light Beams,” the churchiest thing here.
This struggle has been a long time coming. After gaining fame with a trilogy of hilarious and smart pop-rap albums that each reshaped the sound of radio, West’s music has defied categorization but has shared one preoccupation: his terror of monogamy. The end of his engagement to Alexis Phifer helped fuel the auto-tuned mourning of 808s & Heartbreak in 2008. The grand fictions of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy included a dream about marrying a porn star who let him sleep with whomever he wanted, and a nightmare about getting ensnared in a child-custody battle. Watch the Throne featured him bragging having sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall as Jay Z talked about his fidelity to Beyoncé; on the opener, West scowled “love is cursed by monogamy.”