RETROSPECTIVE: The Life of Pablo, Five Years On
Revisiting Kanye West's Amorphous Work of Genius
Kanye West is inarguably amongst the most influential and innovative musicians of all time. Despite his polarising character and questionable public outbursts and comments, one simply cannot deny the genius of his artistry. From the trailblazing melodic inventions of 808s and Heartbreak to the brave experimentations of Yeezus, West’s creative output still defies description.
Five years after its release, The Life Of Pablo stands as one of Kanye's best. Fragmented, yet grandiose, the project blazes through an array of slick production, creative composition and an armada of features from some of music's biggest names. It's a record that personally provided me with some of my favourite sample uses of all time, with West and his team having went through serious crate digging for this, flipping samples from 70s gospel and soul all the way to early 2010s YouTube videos. Pastor T.L. Barrett’s 1976 track ‘Father I Stretch My Hands’ gives us one of the most memorable cuts in West’s discography within the aptly named ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’, juxtaposed against a colossal Mike Dean synth bass, before the iconic Metro Boomin tag launches us into a smooth instrumental with a feature from longtime collaborator Kid Cudi.
Of course, I’m talking about ‘Pt. 2’. Hijacking a cultural juggernaut with Desiigner's 2016 debut single ‘Panda’ providing the beef of its instrumental, with gospel samples juxtaposed against its trap sound, the fierce combination at the heart of 'Pt. 2' became emblematic of The Life of Pablo's successes in drawing tethers between different musical realms.
Desiigner and Cudi wouldn't be the only collaborators worth noting, however. Frank Ocean appeared too, as did Sampha, Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, Madlib, Yasiin Bey, The Weeknd, and more. In a testament to West's ability to produce albums of often incomparable cultural significance, the rosters of talent on his albums often indicates their seismic importance by themselves. When added to the music, though, West ensemble shines as a mesh of imaginative creatives assembled together.
Sampha’s feature on ‘Saint Pablo’ in particular manages to weave itself together with one of the best beats on the entire project. Steady drums and bass propel the track forward, and its strong piano chords really fill every bit of sonic space alongside the piercing, metallic lead which appears throughout. This kind of interpolation also crops up on one of the biggest tracks from the record - ‘Famous’. With Rihanna performing Nina Simone’s ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ as a wicked intro before a particularly Kanye-esque beat. It's bold and confrontational, so much so that sections of it could have slotted seamlessly into the gothic hedonism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Beyond the music itself, however, The Life of Pablo stands as a moment of real significance in the history of music releases. For those who were present for its initial leaks, The Life of Pablo might just be the first major album to be released unfinished, only to be 'updated' like software online. With the release of DONDA still somewhat tantalisingly uncertain, its hard not to see a mirror to the release of TLOP in 2016, with West flirting with an unfinished project in a manner that would be almost entirely impossible in a pre-streaming age.
But it’s the album opener that really does it for me. One of Kanye West’s best tracks to date, ‘Ultralight Beam’ seems to encapsulates everything West was trying to achieve with TLOP. A blend of gospel with rich production that has now become a staple of his modern sound, fused to the greatest verse of Chance’s career, truly holding his own while sandwiched between the amazing Kelly Price and West himself. Granted, West’s lyricism is not always the most eloquent, but the themes throughout ‘Ultralight Beam’ stand as a true exception, committed to the Kanye West hall of fame alongside tracks like 'Roses' and 'Runaway'.
But there are some who criticise The Life of Pablo for precisely this reason. After all, it’s not a particularly deep or groundbreaking album - and yet here we are, praising it still. I think it's because TLOP almost exists on a plane of its own. For once, West wasn’t trying to prove himself, or to be ground-breaking, or to reinvent himself. Instead, The Life of Pablo might just be the first record that West made simply just for the sake of creating a great album, and that is exactly what we got.
James Mellen is currently studying songwriting and production based near Bristol. Interests include silly effects pedals, Yorkshire tea and 100 gecs.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created by Ben Wheadon, an English literature graduate and guitarist from South Wales. He edited this article and is a Fleet Foxes shill.
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