Mar 2, 2016
A Backslid Christian Listens To The Life Of Pablo
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have ordained praise. Psalm 8:2.
I listened to the new Kanye album all the way through over a buzzing Tidal stream of the Madison Square Garden listening party. Hearing it in context of the fashion show, the Kardashian parade, and a timeline full of thirst and admiration, it left me feeling empty. The lead up to Pablo was arguably the messiest and most fraught yet, littered with that glaring rape apologist tweet, unrelenting bursts of egomania (even if he’s right), concern with the spectacle of his fashion show cum Madison Square Garden listening party, and that gauche supposedly pre-approved Taylor lyrics on “Famous.” So I waited a couple of days before looking up the late night performances, and pestering my friends who are good at torrenting to give me some files (sup James). I commissioned a review of the record from one of my favorite critics, and figured that would be that. When I finally pressed play that Sunday night, it was with the lowest hopes possible. Instead, I’ve listened to the album at least once every single day since then.
The Life Of Pablo begins with a child named Natalie mimicking the religious rhetoric of an adult. Every time I hear this particular sample it tugs hard on my heartstrings, because I remember pledging similar fealty to a God I couldn’t possibly comprehend. The toddler’s faith is unwavering, her pitch and cadence spot-on; this is a 4-year-old who has mastered an impression of her pastor, and is so convincing she sounds like she could stride up to a pulpit herself. It’s easy to hear her condemnation of devils, or the way she invokes the name of the Lord, as cute, and even funny. Clearly, Kanye chose to use this clip as an affirmation of the religious message the song preaches, and it works, too. This song ruins me with every listen because it reminds me of the faith I lost. It makes me miss it, and wonder if I can still access it. Actually, the entire album has made me feel closer to God than anything I’ve encountered in years.
“Ultralight Beam” is a song about trying to hold onto childlike faith in the midst of ugly, adult chaos, and it’s the best song on The Life Of Pablo by miles. Kanye himself takes more of a backseat role, contributing heartfelt request for love and deliverance, and the twin mantras “we’re on an ultralight beam,” and “this is a God dream.” The majority of the song is carried by other players; it’s adorned with filigree vocal runs from The-Dream, a fiercely golden profession of faith from Kelly Price, strings of gleeful, praise-verses from Chance The Rapper (who all but hijacks the show with his crackling freneticism), stunning stretches of a gospel choir’s background vocals, and finally, a compassionate prayer from pastor Kirk Franklin, who seeks to uplift those that feel no longer worthy of forgiveness or love. The only way this last portion of the song could be more clearly directed at Kanye is if Franklin had uttered Ye’s name first, and yet, it remains crucially relevant to all of our lives, too. I hadn’t heard a prayer–a real prayer–like this in a long time.
“Low Lights” surged a similar thrill of recognition through me, this kind of testimony/conversion story was such a staple of my early life that I even issued a few myself. The last place I expected to hear this was on an album that so far seemed to include a weak attempt at a Future diss track, a vintage party track about hating LA parties, and a Ty Dolla $ign-assisted lament about fake friends and extortionist cousins. But one of Kanye West’s most powerful techniques has always been his ability to drive tension into the duality of good and evil. He takes the jubilance of the gospel or the sweeping comfort of forgiveness, and stipples his own flaws right on top of it. “FML” is a bookend to those early unctuous tracks, a bleak look at the potential for failure, the darkest and most desperate fears of a man who arguably has everything. It’s even more powerful then, to have a man at the pinnacle of his influence speak openly about his struggles with shit like this.
Unlike plenty of gospel or conversion albums, Pablo isn’t sure of itself, it’s constantly questioning and questing. Every moment of pure adulation is spiked with dark doubt, and vice versa. Right after that heartfelt prayer from Franklin, Ye is back to rapping about a model’s bleached asshole, how casual sex with her might ruin his shirt (!), being high, and a desperate desire to be liberated. He wants those two ends of the spectrum right up against each other, he wants the tossed off crudeness of some of the lines on Pablo juxtaposed with the Psalm allusion in “Father Stretch My Hands.” The “Pt. 2” of that song cascades through a rotation of snippets that seem designed purely for pleasure — Desiigner’s “Panda,” more gospel samples and a bronzed Imogen Heap-style vocals from Caroline Shaw — the effect is more like memories of songs that could’ve been instead of a song itself. A thrill of recognition, and a resigned acknowledgement of an era that has passed.
It’s easy to divide the rap world into villains and heroes, and pit stars against each other in endless battles for the throne, but Kanye insists on being both at once. He’s his own worst enemy, always has been. The same guy who gave us the Metro Boomin drop into the best hook Kid Cudi’s done since 2008 is then rapping about his dick having go-pro and addressing a personal grudge against his wife’s ex-boyfriend on a song that he said is for mom’s driving their kids to school. I guess I love seeing this multiplicity in Kanye because it reminds me to see it in myself, too. He can be fucking up on Twitter and dealing with some series issues regarding misogyny, and still craft a slurry gospel masterpiece that brings light and love into people’s lives. Taylor Swift line and all, “Famous” has become my favorite song on the album, almost precisely because it is pricked (Barthes, referring to photography, calls a moment like this a punctum) with such a controversial line. He is, in effect, sinning, then offering up his own redemption via the final minute and thirty seconds sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam.” Long have we tussled with the question of separating art from artists, or if we should analyze morality in art at all; if great art can redeem a malicious creator? If it could, the back end of “Famous” redeems Kanye even at his lowest Wiz-Khalifa-Twitter-feud levels. Even if the best art can’t redeem us, it can reminds us that we all deserve redemption.
I didn’t think I deserved access to prayers like the one Kirk Franklin bestows on the first track of this album. I didn’t think I believed in the kind of spirituality that song taps into anymore. I tried to listen to the testimony on “Low Lights” and not feel like that kind of love for God was still seared onto my heart. But I can’t. My upbringing as a charismatic Christian colors the way I listen to this album, and more broadly, the way I react and interact with all kinds of art and music. The album’s final title, The Life Of Pablo, is supposedly a loose allusion to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a dude who actively sought to persecute Christians (read: kill and torture them), before he was miraculously converted while traveling to Damascus and became Paul, the apostle who arguably contributed the most to the apostolic teachings contained in the New Testament. My own considerable Biblical knowledge, courtesy of growing up a preacher’s kid, had me guffawing a bit at this. Does Kanye West believe he’s been through his Road to Damascus moment? If so, what was it? Was this it? In that case, Turbo Grafx 16 can’t come quickly enough.
Late last year Adele revealed that her handlers took her Twitter password because she would drunk tweet, and Kanye’s latest gaffes during Pablo’s rollout made that kind of pristine, programmed silence seem almost desirable. Almost. Because while Adele’s album and its efficiently sterile media narrative extracted results from the gasping carcass of the album release cycle, the record didn’t really manage to connect on any personal level. That’s one failure Kanye seems incapable of, and if anything, the way this record was released (or not, as the case may be) is completely synonymous with the album itself. All the Tidal fiascos have shown us that we actually really like slick façade we claim to hate. Façades are functional, they cover up the messiness of daily human life. Pablo is messy in every possible way, and that’s where it succeeds. It succeeds precisely because it refuses to be the clipped zenith of perfectionism that Ye has tried for so many times. It succeeds because of its imprecise, imperfect grasp at faith.
Whatever else, The Life Of Pablo fucking connects. It connects like a wrecking ball hurtling through the side of a skyscraper heart. It connects like a nursery rhyme you’ve always known blazing back through your mind. It connects with simple, selfish and even blind insistence. Only in childhood do we treasure and repeat words to ourselves like mantras the way Chance does, only in childhood can we believe in God and fight off devils with the unwavering faith that begins this album. Surely it’s no coincidence that this is the first album Kanye has released since he became a father, and that twinned innocence and immaturity moves through Pablo like the light beam its opener describes. And even weeks after the album’s ostensible release, there’s no physical, discrete or even official copies of The Life of Pablo. The album really exists in only one place: the spiritual realm. For all the materialism and misogyny, for all the clothes and spectacle, that seems to be the place where Kanye has been dwelling. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like visiting there, too. I just wanted you to know.
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