If The Life of Pablo is a glimpse into the mind of Kanye West, he’s just as confused and unstable as everyone surmised. It’s uneven, sprawling, and will upset a lot of people who hear it: It’s a perfect symbol of the character of Kanye West. And while the album hits its sonic stride in its final four or five tracks (with a powerful assist from Kendrick Lamar), it’s the first two-thirds of the album’s content that’s most intriguing.
West attempted to throw the music world off recently when he announced via Twitter that his thrice-renamed project would be a “gospel” album. Theories were posited that the album’s title is a reference to Paul, one of Jesus’ disciples. West confirmed those theories this past weekend on Twitter, and when Rapzilla.com, arguably the foremost authority on Christian hip-hop, made mention of that on one of their social media accounts, people posted irate comments, telling Rapzilla to stop talking about West and focus on Christian music.
Kanye West is an abrasive figure who says all the wrong things to all the wrong people. His weird obsession with Taylor Swift makes a haughty appearance on Pablo, and Swift was quick to subliminally put West down during an acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards. He still puts heat on Ray-J, and continues to believe himself to be the most important person in the music industry. He may be right, but it’s that attitude that rubs people (Christians and non-Christians alike) the wrong way.
West fumbled the album release of Pablo, delaying it multiple times and deflecting blame along the way. After initially stating it would be a one-week exclusive to the Jay-Z-funded streaming service Tidal, he decided it would only be available to Tidal subscribers and never be available for sale. To have lifetime access to the maddening introspective that is The Life of Pablo, be prepared to shell out upward of $9.99 per month.
Pablo will do wonders for Tidal’s struggling subscriber numbers, but likely only in the short term: The site offers a 30-day trial to new subscribers and won’t charge the filed PayPal or credit card until that 30 days has concluded. Given the inherent inaccessibility of West’s post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy LPs, it’s probably safe to assume the cancellations are pouring in to Tidal’s blood machine already.
The Life of Pablo, though the title may suggest otherwise, is not about the apostle Paul’s time on Earth. Nobody who witnessed the Madison Square Garden premiere of the album was surprised by that. Like every other album by Kanye West, The Life of Pablo is about Kanye West.
That’s not a bad thing. Kanye West is exposed as an interesting person by the transparency that often shines through his work. He surprised a lot of people when he released the melancholy 808s & Heartbreak in 2008, forgoing rap and focusing on singing with AutoTune on most of the album’s tracks. It was recorded and released within a year of both his mother’s death and the ending of his relationship with his fiancée, and West admitted at the time that he was struggling with loneliness and could no longer be fulfilled by money and fame. He had striven so hard to become a star but could hardly handle the reality of being one.
The openness and moody atmosphere on display throughout 808s and Heartbreak revolutionized late-2000s and early-2010s hip-hop. Some of the genre’s biggest artists have run with that form in the years since, including Drake and J. Cole, who have released some of the most critically lauded records in popular music since 2010. 808s and Heartbreak remains a landmark album not only in Kanye West’s catalogue but in modern music in general.
West explored fame even further on 2010’s MBDTF, where he crashed head-on into the struggle for purpose amidst being a star. It’s his most cohesive-yet-daring album: A brazen exploration of sex, drugs, money, and the pursuit of personal fulfillment. He took risks with the structure and content, and it paid off. The album made many critics top-ten lists in 2010, and it set the path his future releases would take. MBDTF was arguably the sonic high point of his search for self-worth, but his 2013 release, Yeezus, continued his feud with fame.
Many people heard turntables screeching to a halt in their minds when they first heard the title of Yeezus. West was called a blasphemer and turned many long-time fans away. The man who once seemed interested in bringing Christ to the forefront of popular culture was now outwardly comparing himself to God’s only son. It only got worse when people saw the album’s track list. Largely treated as the smoking gun in the case against Kanye West’s faith, the track “I Am a God” stood out like a middle-finger to humanity. To hear him describe it, the song is about his status among the greats like Axl Rose or Jimi Hendrix – a “rock god” of sorts, a term that’s been used without much thought in music circles for decades. West feels he is a god because the public made him one, not because he chose to be one.
West includes some of his prototypical humor on that track, with the line “In a French-a** restaurant, hurry up with my d*** croissants,” indicating that he really doesn’t take his god-like status all that seriously. He wants people to take him seriously, sure – after all, he has told reporters that the song was inspired by a fashion designer trying to dictate which fashion shows he could attend – but he does acknowledge how ridiculous his god-like status is (for more of West’s take on ridiculousness, see the song “So Appalled” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). The track is not without its flaws, of course. As usual, if you’re driven away by coarse language and overt sexual references, this song won’t win you over as a fan. He also makes a key doctrinal error when he refers to himself as a “close high” to God’s “Most High.” The song ends with panicked screams and panting sounds, indicating a panic attack of some sort. It’s a reminder that West doesn’t handle his fame well.
At this point in his career, West could have done away with his aspiration to convince the world that being Yeezy isn’t easy. Still, West waves that flag with even more pride on The Life of Pablo. In the lead-up to the album’s release, West made a lot of comments on Twitter about what he wanted to do with album. Even after its release, he ranted and raved about his goals for his own future and what his purpose would be. He made mention of his desire to take advantage of the position he is in to change the world for the better, and he acknowledged those who had sacrificed for him to be in the upper echelon of cultural influence.
Tragically, those hopes and dreams get lost in his bravado on The Life of Pablo. His mission musically has clearly become to push the boundaries of pop and hip-hop music. Yeezus was intentionally difficult to enjoy, as West avoided creating radio-friendly hooks and beats for the album; that theme carries into Pablo, and clouds West’s vision throughout the LP. He also continues to rap about his sex life and brags about his personal importance to modern-day culture.
The pomposity of Life of Pablo is still covered in the same shimmering layer of uncertainty that has spanned his work since the release of 808s and Heartbreak. For each line that West spits about having sex with Taylor Swift, there’s a moment where he exposes his fear of losing his wife. He’s still pained by the loss of his mother. He clings to what he knows of God’s love and acceptance to give him a semblance of hope in life.
He told one media outlet that he only did two percent of the work on the album, claiming that the rest was inspiration from God. A lot of people might find that laughable, even moreso after listening to the entirety of The Life of Pablo. The percentages may be off by a bit, but there’s little reason to doubt that West is feeling God’s presence in his life. His actions don’t always scream Godliness, but he regularly attends church and has befriended pastors and Christian artists alike. In a 2013 interview, he openly spoke about being a Christian. Gospel legend Kirk Franklin even helped West on The Life of Pablo.
The first track, “Ultralight Beam,” features a gospel choir (including Franklin) and plays out as a prayer for strength and peace. The sixth track, “Low Lights,” is a spoken-word testimony about the power of God’s love. Those are the overt references, but the subtleties don’t end with those two tracks. The subtleties, in fact, are the most compelling aspects of the album and of West’s struggles.
Much like MBDTF, the entirety of Pablo plays out as a fight between what West wants to do and what he should do. It’s a passion play on the duality of Kanye West, a musical embodiment of West standing with an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other. Just like he admitted eight years ago, he’s lonely at the top of the celebrity world, and he clearly doesn’t know how to handle the fame and fortune he has been afforded. Every track screams out for help with fighting his demons. It should be impossible to ignore, but his pleas for mercy seem to fall on deaf ears.
It wasn’t until West’s former co-writer, Rhymefest, tweeted that West needs spiritual and mental help that the media finally took note of his obvious instability. The resulting coverage led some people to start tweeting and posting on social media with the hashtag #pray4kanye. Christian hip-hop artist JGivens tweeted this:
— JGivens (@pray4jgivens) February 15, 2016
Jeremiah Givens released a mixtape in 2011 entitled #keepPraying4 @KanyeWest which featured beats from MBDTF mixed with Givens’ own faith-based lyrics. He referenced 1 Thessalonians 1:2 on the project’s cover, a reminder to continually mention all members of the church in our prayers. Like it or not (and really, liking it is the best option here), Kanye West is a member of the church. He’s as lost as the rest of the body of Christ.
West has reached the end of himself. He clearly cannot accomplish what he wants to on his own. The only thing he can do without help is make music, and the product is the disjointed and peculiar Life of Pablo. In his music, he cries out for help with his marriage because having a wife and kids isn’t all he thought it would be. Outside of music, he cries out for financial help. Those are the same type of problems that literally everyone faces on a daily basis.
Instead of responding with understanding and compassion, the typical reaction of the public has been to laugh at or dismiss West’s problems. There’s a misguided school of thought that claims celebrities can’t have the same problems we do because they have money and popularity on their side. Those things don’t solve anyone’s problems, not even those of Kanye West. West’s struggle is real, and it is publically displayed. There are few aspects of his life that the public isn’t privy to, and he shares a lot of his problems through his music. It shouldn’t be so easy to ignore.
Bars are worth more than money because it’s something the people can use everyday to feel inspired.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
“Drunk and Hot Girls” probably wasn’t much of an inspiration to people, but those types of songs seem to be firmly in his rearview mirror. West is maturing and beginning to understand that there is more to life than music and money. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever record a sequel to Watch the Throne. He knows a career full of songs like “Ultralight Beam” could help change hearts. West is seeking to find his purpose and “serve the world” as he put it. That’s an admirable goal, but God clearly wants even more from him.
It’s easy to surmise that having Kanye firmly planted in Christianity’s corner would be a boon to the efforts of the church in North America, but that’s a foolish sentiment, especially at this juncture. The goal should never be to bring him to faith in order to use him. That’s what has been done to him throughout his life. That would probably be the fastest way to drive him away from the church. Our prayers should not be to have Kanye on our side, but to bring Kanye back to Christ. He’s wildly close to understanding God’s plan for him, and you can feel it in a lot of his songs.
If you can stomach the misogyny and ego-filled verses that West has created throughout his career, it’s an interesting exercise to listen to his discography from start to finish. You can pick up on his faith in his early work, notably on The College Dropout, but also between the lines on Late Registration and 808s. Hearing his growth as an artist is intriguing, but to hear the battle between good and evil build to its apex is fascinating. As West’s footprint has grown, so has the pressure others have put on him. He hasn’t figured out how to handle that, but fortunately, he is beginning to grasp it.
My number one enemy has been my ego… there is only one throne and that’s God’s …
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 17, 2016
West is trying to change his life, and he’s stuck doing it in the limelight. That’s what he’s had to do through some of the toughest moments he’s ever endured. At times, he’s harnessed that and turned it into boundary-pushing music, and at other times, he’s let it consume him and made decisions that were questionable at best. Hopefully, this awakening continues to roar within him, and he figures out what God is leading him toward. Regardless of which way West ends up going, we can all keep praying for Kanye.