In retrospect, it seems obvious that some musician or another would eventually make use of the fundamental ownership change caused by streaming technology for aesthetic purposes. What’s less obvious is whether that would be a good thing for the music itself. Isn’t this yet another example of the internet’s immediacy eroding quality? Doesn’t the ability to polish a product into eternity reduce the incentive for creators to nail it the first time? The fact that West worked until the very last hour on Pablo even after multiple release-date delays, and the fact that the result is the most uneven album of West’s career, suggests yes. But it’s hard to complain when the phenomenon gives rise to a new track like “Saint Pablo,” added as The Life of Pablo’s closer last night (the eve after the announcement of West’s forthcoming Saint Pablo Tour).
“Saint Pablo” feels like a “classic” Kanye West song in a way that little of his 2016 output has. It has a wistful, steady beat (built off a Jay Z sample but reminiscent of “Runaway”); a sturdy, hummable chorus (from the soulful British singer Sampha); and West rapping with political edge, self reflection, humor, and a logically clear through-line. He has said the song was inspired by him confessing on Twitter to being $53 million in debt, which means it likely was recorded after The Life of Pablo’s February 14 release (unofficial versions have appeared online since shortly after that time).
Indeed, West’s “Saint Pablo” verse opens with him talking about his wife admonishing him for being too loose with his money. It progresses from there, suggesting that debt is a sign of him finding success on his own terms: “The media said he’s way out of control … I’m not out of control, I’m just not in they control.” In verse two West turns his attention to race, saying that black people need to help each other succeed, which then bleeds into an explanation of why Kanye sided with Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service rather than Apple. His rap closes with a tight little ur-Kanye couplet of petty dissing and epic bragging—“She got the same shoes as my wife but she copped ‘em at Aldo / Modern day MJ with a Off the Wall flow”—before Sampha poignantly guides the song out.
The track’s lyrics also mention that a million people have illegally downloaded The Life of Pablo, which is perhaps an odd thing to boast about for an artist trying to pay his bills. But West is touting his cultural reach, and he’s also signaling that he understands how his album is being received. Hardcore fans should by now have a copy of the original version of Pablo on their hard drive, allowing them to tell whenever West makes a subtle change to Pablo—say, bumping up the vocal levels on “Waves” or making a slight edit to Chance the Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam.” Obsessively comparing and contrasting as West fiddles can be an essential part of enjoying Pablo for the true believers.