Tirhakah Love (@GoonTherapy)
Listen. Don’t believe the hype. The Life of Pablo (T.L.O.P.) isn’t a gospel album by Kanye West. Save for some hermeneutic storytelling that reimagines Mother Mary’s pre-Virgin schtick as a club-hopping harpy and ‘Ye christening his eighth studio album a “God dream,” the Louis Vuitton Don hardly puts forth a call to higher powers. Instead, Kanye enlists the help of collaborators like Chance the Rapper, The Dream, Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin who are more than willing to add Kanye to their prayer lists and share their own testimonies of faith and resilience. T.L.O.P. sounds more like the work of an uncouth mad surgeon splitting and splicing up sonic forces that, conceptually, have no business next to one another but still somehow work. Incorporation with other artists as well as diverse soundscapes is as much a staple in the Church of Yeezus as the pink polo and Louis Vuitton backpack, but even that tried and true principle can’t outpace West’s leaps from theme to theme. Thematic dissidence doesn’t equate to complexity, and coupling gratuitous levels of misogyny makes T.L.O.P. a hard spin to return to.
Paying homage to gospel music and its history isn’t really new to Kanye’s sound, and in T.L.O.P. the melodies slow down to assist his gospel leanings. The opening epoch from “Ultralight Beam” to “Feedback” finds ‘Ye on a redemptive path that is stifled by fame (“Famous”), tainted by celebrity and the ongoing criticisms from “gossiping, no-pussy getting bloggers” (“Feedback”). The record opens with black protestant harmonies on “Ultralight Beam” that add weight and legitimacy to traces of inspiration and angelic music. Chance the Rapper adds a spotless feature that is at once, a humbling recognition of what it means to work on a song with a hometown hero (“I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail!”) and a testimony to the greatness of God: “This is my part, nobody else speak. This is my part, nobody else speak. This little light of mine. Glory be to God, yeah.” Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin anoint the album with prayers to end the suffering of earth-life. But these voices aren’t Kanye’s. His unwillingness to engage lyrically with the gospel lends to the idea that T.L.O.P. could be gospel in conception but is lacking in execution.
Kanye has a lot of other things on his mind. In a song like “Pt.2” ‘Ye tangentially sprints through a myriad of topics including the car crash that defined the start of his prominence, his mother’s death, his father’s absence and finding success despite those tragedies. Kanye’s life experiences emboldens his ability to reconstitute the broken pieces on the fly and that ethic translates most palpably on this album. T.L.O.P. is not a test for Kanye, it’s a test for us to keep up with all the hasty stitching. In between the disgusting misogyny and cultural insensitivity (“Yeah, I’mma have to laugh Indian/Cause I’m from a tribe called check a hoe” on “FML”) is a somber Yeezus decrying the inevitability of his fall from grace (“And even though I always fuck my life up/Only I can mention me”). How he was able to hear The Weeknd’s meek sultry grinding up against Section 25’s dark and monotonous cynicism is still beyond me. But the question for Mr. West has never been about production, but whether his cult of personality will ever overshadow the genius. This record comes very close.
There are particularly ugly portions of T.L.O.P. that really sap the possibility of fun. “Famous” will be infamous for its shot at Taylor Swift, but, honestly, the most inflammatory misogyny occurs in “Highlights” when he quips, “I think me and Ray J would be friends/If we ain’t love the same bitch. Yeah, he might have it first/Only problem is I’m rich.” Kanye unsettlingly commodifies his celebrity wife and unfairly reduces her pre-Kimye life to a scandalized coming to Yeezus journey. On “Wolves” the repetitious refrain “I know its corny bitches you wish you could unfollow/I know its corny niggas you wish you could unswallow” places so much focus on Kim’s sexual history but it jives against a notion of spiritual redemption because it loses sight of the present. Spiritual transcendence in the Protestant tradition is not about the past, its about the washing away of sinful nature to engage with a glorious present in the light. Here, though, its a solo journey for Kanye who can remain pristine while Kim stays put in the funk of her public sex life. If this is a gospel album, its a gospel that is only accessible to formerly impure male bodies, to women with no sexual agency of their own, and to those who follow archaic notions of male dominance in the domestic sphere.
The album isn’t lacking in humor. Kendrick Lamar pushes Kanye’s rhyme scheming and comedic lyricism, “The head still good though/Make me say ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’/ Make a nigga say big words and get lyrical/Make me get spiritual/Make me believe in miracles, Buddhist monks and Cap’n Crunch cereal.”And Kanye comes back with boom bap grooves that harken back to the College Dropout in terms of word economy and quick quips for quick laughs, “When did I become A-list? I wasn’t even on a list. Strippers get invited to where they get hired/When I get on my Steve Jobs somebody gon get fired.” T.L.O.P. is full of threads that are simultaneously hilarious and problematic. 2013’s Yeezus exponentially increased the misogynist imagery in Kanye’s music but T.L.O.P. goes a step further, illuminating how far down the respectable rabbit hole Kanye has fallen.
Moments of Kanye’s saving grace are elusive. There are traces of Mr. West’s genius, most palpable on the production side of things, and we can sit around for hours and marvel at the huge musical terrain he is able to traverse so quickly. The album doesn’t lack for purpose, but the redemptive notions feels so narrow a construction that, as a listener, the message loses its luster. T.L.O.P is an exercise on the extent to which self-awareness in today’s market is worth. Kanye understands why he is controversial. Look no further than the album cover where the spiritual/secular divide is made obliquely plain. He straddles the line between conscious and capitalist, between elite and street, between spiritual and material. The only problem is, Kanye knows, which means he can exacerbate the distance between those respective dualities in a way that feels marketed and contrived. The exasperation his fans may feel given his recent public displays of debauchery is not calmed or nuanced in T.L.O.P.; instead Kanye challenges us to empathize with his inner-conflict. After seven albums, Twitter rants, annoying beefs, and deep-seated sexism, it may take more than self-consciousness in an era of aloofness to keep us listening.