When Kanye West first performed “Jesus Walks” at the ‘04 BET Awards, it was a ceremony showcasing raw black spirituality; accompanied by Yolanda Adams and a gospel choir draped in cascading white robes, the proceedings replicated Sunday service at a Baptist church, where holy spirit is a palpable, powerful thing. West played pastor, but ventured out from behind the pulpit to bare confessions to fans filling seats all but repurposed as pews: “I don’t think there’s nothing I can do now to right my wrongs,” he proclaimed to a rabid, cheering audience. “I want to talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” There’s a lot of trepidation in that lyric, uncertainty that there will be a response on the other end of a prayer’s last gasp, or worse still: that the response may prove damning. Can one really live in sin freely without penance? It’s that inner monologue, and those uplifting gospel vibes, at the center of The Life of Pablo, West’s sprawling seventh studio album, once appropriately titled So Help Me God.
Only this time around Kanye has made contact and is at least satisfied with the answers. The rapper-producer has often been at odds with God, or more accurately, with His might. There’s been a constant power struggle between his colossal ego and his awe of divine power. He sometimes seems unsure how a supreme being can be so passive (On Late Registration’s “Crack Music”: “God, how could you let this happen?”) or so distant, but TLOP yields to faith, giving praise where praise is due, hoping to at least be granted enough strength to combat lurking inner demons. When that fails, there’s always sex and Lexapro.
That particular overlap of the carnal and the confessional is all over The Life of Pablo. Kanye West’s incessant pursuit of Godliness and gaudiness in equal measure is best explained by the two-part epic “Father Stretch My Hands”, which takes surging samples of pastor T.L. Barrett’s gospel song of the same name and warps them into massive, soulful vessels channeling divinity (with assistance from Rick Rubin, Mike Dean, Plain Pat, and Metro Boomin). “I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I,” Kanye howls on “Pt. 1” through auto-tune, making a plea to be unburdened.“If I ever instigated I’m sorry,” he continues, before taking a sharp U-turn with talk of bleached assholes. It’s emblematic of Kanye’s impulsiveness, and a microcosm of the album and its rollout. Things are liable to change on a whim. You could say this is the zenith of his erraticism.
That isn’t a difficult case to make, even given Kanye’s history. The megastar now stands at the pinnacle of pop culture popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist, which gives his every word credence, and therein makes him even more susceptible to his conceit, and his own stupidity. On “Famous”, he crudely jokes that he and Taylor Swift “might still have sex” because he made her famous, which is so obviously not true that it seems ludicrous to even give it merit as a barb. His “Bill Cosby INNOCENT!!!!” tweet makes the corresponding lyric on “Facts” all the more confusing. He must be self-aware because on the Weeknd-featuring “FML”, he makes mental note of his personal failings, recognizing just how close he’s come to ruining his life on a handful of occasions. But this is what makes Kanye a fascinating subject and a musical genius; it’s what fuels his piety: He has never been afraid of making mistakes.
Kanye West has often thrived on this idea that sinning is a constant necessary to uphold the religious construct, that embracing human imperfection is the most honest way to succumb to the strength and mercy of a higher power, but The Life of Pablo explores this in the most apropos manner possible: through a series of disjointed cuts that sometimes read like drafts, rough and unfinished with verse fragments (“30 Hours”), undermixed, distorted vocals, and even a Future doppelganger, Desiigner. This is the full, flawed exhibition of Kanye’s supercharged id.
Though it isn’t Kanye’s most complex work on how fame feeds desire (See: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), it does explore similar urges, breathing even more life into his hedonistic pursuits by writing and rewriting, rearranging tracks, changing titles, and decidedly making “a gospel album with a lot of cursing in it.” One thing The Life of Pablo does better than perhaps any other Kanye West album is it pinpoints the two planes upon which reverence and praise play a role in his life and collapses them into one another. Celebrity is, in its own way, deifying. Kanye knows this (See: “Power” or “I Am A God”), and he occasionally measures his idolatry against true religious zeal. On “Highlights”: “I’m about that Farrakhan/ Life is a marathon/ I’ma shift the paradigm/ I’ma turn up every time” and on “Freestyle 4”: “What if we fucked at this Vogue party?/ Would we be the life of the whole party?” Apparently, for Kanye West, to err is divine.
There are some signs of his past perfectionist tendencies: tagging Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” at the end of “Famous”, removing the Vic Mensa and Sia verses off “Wolves” in favor of the Frank Ocean coda, completely reworking the version of “Facts” everyone disliked, and even putting Young Thug, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and El Debarge on the same track (“Highlights”). But for the most part, The Life of Pablo is a deconstruction of the patented Kanye formula, a field test for an album-in-progress, an album that, according to Kanye, will never be sold anywhere but Tidal, and thus may only exist online to be modified continuously like an app.
But the most stunning moments on The Life of Pablo are the songs that already strike the precise balance between sheer, unmistakable pleasure and inspirational gospel splendor. The closer, “Fade”, breaks a throbbing dance jam down into a sample of Barbara Tucker’s “I Get Lifted” and Kanye, Ty Dolla $ign, and Post Malone take turns crooning. It’s easy to imagine the soaring, MIDI chorus-backed “Waves” soundtracking the Only One app Kanye unveiled at his massive MSG listening party, where his mother, Donda, is ascending to heaven through columns of circling clouds. The clear standout, though, is the opener, “Ultralight Beam”, which enlists a full choir for Kanye’s biggest outpouring of virtue yet and features an excellent (and somewhat biblical) guest verse from Chance the Rapper (“My ex looking back like a pillar of salt”).
At the end, Kirk Franklin almost seems to lobby for Kanye: “Father, this prayer is for everyone that thinks they’re not good enough/ This prayer’s for everybody that thinks they’re too messed up/ For everyone that feels they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too much.” Kanye has alienated many fans with his antics and offended countless others, but TLOP proves it isn’t too late now to say sorry (again). After all, at its core, the impulse to forgive merely requires a different kind of faith.
Sheldon Pearce is a music critic. Follow him on Twitter.