The Life Of Pablo
, February 22nd, 2016 13:39
Exhortations to greatness are everywhere. Advertisers of shoes, pizzas and video games encourage us to find it in ourselves via buying their products; dedicated Twitter accounts and financial magazine listicles deliver a barrage of motivational quotes like employers cracking the whip. It's cast as both innate and just beyond our reach, which means that the aphorisms that proliferate around it wind up as a noxious mixture of spiritual waffle and bootstraps rhetoric: New Age bullshit meets neoliberal ideology. Inevitably, there's a Keep Calm take on it that might just be the most horrifying cultural artefact this century has produced.
In the era of the #personal #brand, a nebulous "greatness" is the buzzword that underpins how everyone from CEOs to your local gym's personal trainer sells themselves without saying a damn thing. It sounds fancier than "a banging body" for the personal trainer; it draws a veil over the CEO's success based on fucking over hundreds of fellow human beings to attain success under the rules of late-stage capitalism. But fundamentally, you can be sure that anyone going on about their "greatness" - whether grasping for it or proclaiming it - is concealing mundanity, hollowness or both.
Which brings us to Kanye West, whose own personal brand - enhanced on a weekly basis this year - is performative megalomania with a twist of tortured artist. His definition of greatness tends to the conservative: artistic quality as objectively measured by his relationship to the ossified critical canon and acceptance by establishment institutions such as the Grammys. Exhuming a Beatle to strum simple melodies on two unfinished-sounding singles last year was the musical equivalent of rich bankers who can't stop talking about the Michelin stars of the restaurants they've eaten at, but rarely evince interest in the actual food.
As a celebrity and cultural avatar, Kanye is boring - and, viewed through that lens, The Life Of Pablo is just as wearying. West has declared it his "gospel album", and it gestures towards the character arc of a sinner seeking salvation a number of times. "Ultralight Beam" opens with West fumbling towards profundity: "Pray for Paris…pray for parents," he hazards uncertainly (and never to return to the former nod to current affairs). But it's left to a gospel choir, a 36-second snatch of luminous soul from Kelly Price and the gravelly reflections of Chance the Rapper to actually elevate the song; indeed, by the end it feels more like an out-take from Chance's Social Experiment project that's found its way on to the wrong album.
'Ultralight Beam' sets the pattern: thereafter, West is consistently the weak link. The musical patchwork of The Life Of Pablo is frequently - but not always - diverting in its restlessness and detail, from the abruptness with which Price is faded out on 'Ultralight Beam' to the scrawling guitars that underpin 'Feedback', probably the most straightforwardly good song on the album. Rihanna opens 'Famous' with an acapella blare; by the end, it's transformed into 'Bam Bam', the Sister Nancy reggae hit interpolated on 'Lost Ones' by Lauryn Hill - who later gets a shout-out from West on 'No More Parties In LA'. Samples range from Iranian pop to 70s Italian prog rock to Goldfrapp: West has always been more interesting as a sonic nerd and producer/curator than as a persona.
Not that it always works: The Life Of Pablo stumbles as much as it succeeds musically. 'FML' and 'Real Friends' attempt dark-night-of-the-soul gravitas, but their sparseness merely comes off as rudimentary. West may have trailblazed the use of Auto-Tune in rap on 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, but his chirrupping use of it here feels like an awkward attempt to keep up with his youngers. And unfortunately, the thread that holds this patchy sonic quilt together is his persona - and time and again, he comes across not as a genius colossus, but a small-minded man curiously obsessed with the sex lives of the women in and out of his life. "My ex says she gave me the best years of her life / I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right," he sneers pettily on '30 Hours'. West's clickbait-friendly jab at Taylor Swift may have garnered headlines, but his fixation on his exes, both on record and on Twitter, is distinctly Swiftian in nature.
In any case, the nadir of The Life Of Pablo comes when West contemplates his own wife. Kim Kardashian as the Virgin Mary is a promising premise for 'Wolves', but in West's hands it swiftly devolves into - once again - her sex life before him as he repeats leadenly: "I know there's corny niggas you wish you could unswallow." Of all the places that idea could have gone, a manifestation of West's Madonna/whore complex is the least interesting. It's a subject that's even prioritised on the ostensibly celebratory 'Highlights': "I bet me and Ray J would be friends if we ain't love the same bitch," he claims, at once reducing Kardashian to a battleground for the male ego - not for the first time West's work has depicted women as such - and souring the song irredeemably. Elsewhere, there's outright contempt for women for - among other things - wearing spray tan, buying Christian Louboutins and bleaching their assholes. This is less shifting the paradigm, as he claims a couple of lines later, as upholding the status quo; less a complicated artist wrestling with complex thoughts as quotidian locker-room talk and tiresome fragile masculinity.
West may be inappropriate and given to TMI, but he's a fundamentally conservative figure, taking clichés as fundamental even when it comes to his own persona. "Name one genius that isn't crazy," he raps; where to start? The myth of the tortured artist has been long debunked, and West says nothing new about it - or about celebrity, wealth, sexuality or any of his pet topics.' 'Real Friends' retreads the old, self-pitying ground that West covered so much more effectively on 808s & Heartbreak; 'No More Parties In LA' attempts to be an epic depiction of California's seedy underbelly, but both West and Kendrick Lamar box themselves into moaning about gold-digging women. The album's title refers in part to St Paul, and it feels appropriate; Paul, after all, was the apostle who penned Biblical lines such as, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (1 Timothy 2:12) and who has been held responsible for the Church's long history of misogyny, homophobia and fear of sexuality. "Do anybody feel sorry for Bill Cosby?" West asks on 'Facts' - a throwaway line on a throwaway freebie when it emerged in January that's since taken on much worse undertones since.
Who is the kind of person inspired by Kanye West? "I have been a tremendous fan of your music for many years. Specifically, the album The College Dropout inspired me to succeed at a young age," read a missive that he received on the day of the Yeezy 3 fashion show that doubled as the album launch. It was from pharma-bro villain Martin Shkreli, and it was an offer to buy The Life Of Pablo purely in order to prevent anyone else from hearing it. Shkreli's public pronouncements - "I'm staring at a Picasso in my living room right now that's no different from the Wu-Tang box except it's about 20 times more expensive"; "I'm the most successful Albanian to ever walk the face of this earth" aren't dissimilar to West's in their rampant insistence on his own brilliance. But success in playing the capitalist game does not constitute genius, and nor is it fascinating except, perhaps, as a psychologist's case study in sociopathy. The concept of "greatness" has long lost all meaning - and The Life Of Pablo, an extended tantrum from a 38-year-old reactionary man, is just another iteration of its hollowness.