The Life of Pablo was an album that captured the essence of what it was to be Kanye West in 2016.
He was a man with his fingers in all the pies – his successful Yeezy brand coincided with one of Adidas’ most successful years, his music continued to add to his personal brand, and the birth of his second child – Saint West – added to what Ellen referred to as his “Ever growing compass.” However, it could be said that Kanye West had his fingers in too many pies.
Towards the end of 2016, two high profile events appeared to send Kanye spiralling out of control. However, on this album Kanye addressed all of the personal issues that he was experiencing, as he foreshadowed his tumultuous second half of the year, which effectively ended with his hospitalisation at the UCLA medical centre.
This album is one big conversation inside Kanye, with peaks and valleys, Freudian allegories and clear dichotomous personifications of Kanye- real representation of the duality of man as it manifests itself inside Kanye West. Issues concerning his music, family and brand battle for dominance inside him, and he reflects on issues facing his past, present and potentially future to determine who he is and how he became what he’s become.
With this in mind, the album can be neatly broken down in to sections, with each section representing part of the psyche of Kanye West.
Ultralight Beam – Father Stretch my Hands – Pt. 2 – Famous
Ultralight Beam starts off the album on a high note, establishing religious themes and showing Kanye’s credentials as a beat maker. Religious themes are a recurring theme in the album, often showing up to precede a high point or immediately after a low point in the self-belief of West. The album often follows a procession of ego – self-reflection – god, and the God element is clearly established here.
FSMH oozes ego, but is also the first instance of Kanye’s ongoing narrative with himself. Here he appears to discuss with himself – “Everybody tryna say something | I’d be worried if they said nothing” – for the first time on the album.
While the album is inseparable from the discord surrounding it, it is shown most clearly in Pt.2. The verse preceding the beat switch is amongst Kanye’s rawest in years, where he raps about the issues facing him on 2004’s Through the Wire, in addition to other personal problems. The track is juxtaposed with Desiigner’s Panda, alluding to the self-doubt that is continually referenced throughout the album. Kanye seems to be caught in the middle of a personal creative crisis, where he can’t make intrinsically personal songs without something to give it radio appeal.
The following track, Famous, oozes ego, with a plush backing track and over the top vocals showing Kanye’s arrogance. The dichotomy between this track and the previous adds to this album’s general sense of discord.
Feedback – Lowlights – Highlights
Feedback continues West’s internal narrative, this time about money and fame. Lines such as “name one genius that ain’t crazy” and “I been outta my mind, a long time” establish what goes on to be a recurring theme of Kanye talking to himself over a beat that is truly thumping. While thumping, the beat evokes the title of the song, and the lyrics themselves bring to mind the streams of consciousness Kanye is famous for.
The song is paired with Lowlights, a song that is a call to God. This is the clearest example of the Ego – Self-Reflection – Turning to God cycle in the album, with West creating no vocals and relying on a sample of Kings of Tomorrow’s ‘So Alive’ to show his connection to God. This song is almost as far away from the egoist themes that Feedback is based around, and is exemplary of Kanye’s return to God in this clearly defined cycle.
However, Highlights marks a return to the ego for Kanye West, however it is tied again to discord as the ego is paired with self-doubt. The song is typified by the contrast between brash statements, such as the hook in “We only making the highlights”, with self-reassurance, such as lines like “21 Grammys, superstar family”. The track paints the picture of West as a man insecure of his place in the world, with every negative being contrasted by a positive. This is another early insight in to the psyche of West in the recording studio, of a man hiding his burdens.
Freestyle 4 – I Love Kanye – Waves – FML
This sequence of four songs contains two of the most pivotal songs in understanding the mental state of Kanye West in the recording of TLOP. The first, Freestyle 4, continues the lyrical portrayal of Kanye as his own man, as he was before Kim, and implicates some confusion as to who he is now that he is supposedly monogamous. The song continues the discord from Pt.2, with the beat and Future verse adding to the banging nature of a song that is rooted in chaos and confusion, furthering this portrayed dichotomy.
The next song shows confusion over his self-identity and personal struggle to extricate his personal self from any of his previous rap personas. The song shows that West is unsure of what music he wants to make, in addition to confusion over what the public want him to make, and I Love Kanye ends as one of West’s most self-aware songs in his entire discography.
The start of Waves acts as continuation for this confusion, with lyrics that insinuate that Kanye feels trapped, and unable to act as he would choose to do. “Bird can’t fly in a cage, sun don’t shine in the shade” show that Kanye feels trapped by something currently unexplained, in this case the cage and the shade, as portrayed in these lyrics
30 Hours – No More Parties in LA
In 30 Hours, Kanye channels his inner persona, as he did previously on Freestyle 4. In this song, he raps about his previous relationship that caused him to drive 30 hours as a round trip, hence the title. The song is, in essence, a very personal retrospective monologue about the things that acted as formative to Kanye’s musical and personal life. In addition to this, the opening line – “You say you never said you saw this coming | Well you’re not alone” – could refer either to his personal life or to the inevitable mental breakdown he knew he was about to experience. The song is the most like one of Kanye’s ‘Streams of Consciousness’ that he is known for, or the rants he produces at live performances.
No More Parties in LA continues this self-reflective bend, where Kendrick Lamar appears to act as the Id to Kanye’s Ego. Kanye’s verse bounces around topics, though Kendrick’s verse, assumed as the Id, influences Kanye’s, which starts off reflective and ends on lines that are more skin-deep, showing the influence of the Id. In this verse, it appears that Kendrick is attempting to stymie the influence of the Id on his persona.
While FML, Pt.2 and I Love Kanye are key tracks to unlocking Kanye’s narrative on their own, and the relationship between Highlights/Lowlights and 30 Hours/No More Parties in LA also reveal the inner workings of Kanye West, the most pivotal track to the understanding of the album is Saint Pablo.
Saint Pablo plays the role that Mortal Man played for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – the song itself is microcosmic of each thematic element that is key to the album, and gives the listener an idea of what to look for in the second listen.
The first verse on the song discusses money issues, family issues and his twisted relationship with the media. While Kanye hints at a need to leave the spotlight – “My friends’ best advice was to lay low” – and get away from the media, following lyrics show that he feels the need to remain in the spotlight – “This generation’s closest thing to Einstein, so don’t worry about me, I’m fine”. This need for the spotlight is further discussed in the second verse, with Kanye elaborating on how his being in the spotlight influences the youth in a positive way.
Saint Pablo is crucial to unfolding TLOP as it is the most direct song on the album in regards to showing the themes clearly. Kanye’s internal torment is in how he splits his time between his family, music and brand. While Kanye seems to know that the music and brand, which create his public persona, are of lesser importance, he is at the same time aware that he, as someone outside the control of the media, has a unique opportunity to imprint on the developing youth. It was this internal torment, and Kanye feeling thoroughly stretched out, that was the trigger to his ‘mental breakdown’ in the second half of 2016.
The reasons attributed to Kanye’s hospitalisation in 2016 were lack of sleep, the pressures of touring and running his business, in addition to parenting and supporting Kim Kardashian, post robbery. As is often the case, a hospitalisation due to a mental health issue isn’t the result of any particular isolated incident, rather one particular event that pushes everything else over the limit.
It is hinted at in The Life of Pablo that Kanye knew an event such as this was about to happen, and Kim’s robbery may have just been the trigger for it. Each of the themes discussed on the album were attributed to West’s hospitalisation, in addition to another that became more clear from his public appearances – desperation – as the year went on.
The Life of Pablo was an album where Kanye West projected his inner turmoil on to the public like no other album he had previously released. Where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy discussed the trappings of fame and being a black celebrity, TLOP was a more visceral representation, with the marriage of the beats and lyrics combining to create a listening experience for the listener that embodied exactly the message Kanye attempted to get across.
A retrospective look at the album allows the listener to gain a new perspective on the process of creating the album, with the knowledge of the demons Kanye was facing at the time of writing and recording it. As a result, the album gains a new significance and goes from an awkward, disjointed mess to a piece of art that is could almost be described as a concept album, acting as it does to encapsulate Kanye West’s psyche in that period in time.
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Written by Matt Parnell