There are at least three kinds of loudmouths in this world: agitators, trolls and Kanye West. Agitators usually believe what they’re saying. Trolls never do. As for West, the man only ever seems capable of acting on his hottest impulses — so, good, bad or ugly, his music always feels like absolute truth.
On his seventh album, “The Life of Pablo,” the truth hurts bad. West has always been brilliant at pulling his volcanic energies into artful focus, but here, he sounds every bit as distracted as he does on Twitter. It’s a cluttered mood-swing of an album that only sticks its neck out in the most superficial ways.
Of course the maestro would disagree. After months of digital hyper-hype, West rolled this thing out on Thursday afternoon at a listening party held on the floor of Madison Square Garden. He also happened to be unveiling his new fashion line, so he beamed the entire party out in a simulcast to neighborhood multiplexes across the planet. Then, once the music was finished, he pointed up to the MSG Jumbotron where he shared the trailer for a video game in which his late mother ascends to heaven on the back of a winged horse. “It’s not regular,” West said of his multi-platform project from the Garden floor.
True. But was there any greater psycho-spiritual nourishment to be absorbed from this disjointed spectacle beyond the fact that it could and did happen? All of that dreams-really-do-come-true talk doesn’t cut it anymore — especially from an auteur who has been dreaming bigger, weirder dreams than any other A-list pop star for more than a decade now.
Album after album, West’s music has pushed all of pop forward by taking big risks, and sadly, the riskiest sounds on “The Life of Pablo” — which finally dropped in the tiny hours of Sunday morning — are the ugly things that tend to jump out of his mouth.
There’s one line about Taylor Swift that you’ve probably heard about by now: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b—- famous.” This is, of course, a creepy reference to that night back in 2009 when West declared that Beyonce deserved some meaningless trophy more than a girl who was already well on her way to becoming the biggest pop star alive.
Yes, West’s previous albums each have their share of gross-out rhymes like this, but they’ve never felt this petty, this fixated on settling scores that already seemed long settled. Maybe it’s because the music itself is usually dumping so much magic into our ears, we can’t always feel our eyes rolling up into our skulls.
That isn’t happening on “Pablo,” at least not consistently, with the album’s most magnetic moments coming from West’s producers and guest vocalists. The underrated Kelly Price generously throws her lung-power into the gospel futurism of “Ultralight Beam,” Young Thug’s maniac yawp graces the upbeat “Highlights,” and the sonic gristle of Madlib’s production on “No More Parties in L.A.” is stunning. Other cameos — from the Weeknd, Post Malone, Chris Brown — range from meh to bleh.
The all-over-the-place-ness might sound refreshing if it didn’t sound so familiar. Instead of taking his next giant step forward, West has bellied up to the Vitamix, blending every chapter of his career into an atemporal smoothie-swirl.
Across these 18 tracks, we hear echoes of his daring: the neo-boom-bap of 2004’s “College Dropout”; the ambitious wallop of 2005’s “Late Registration”; the feel-greatness of 2007’s “Graduation”; the heartsick vulnerability of 2008’s “808s & Heartbreak”; the sour majesty of 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”; the gnarly burn of 2013’s “Yeezus.” But it only ever feels as good as an echo can feel.
And even while he’s giving his most nostalgic fans that old thing back, West still finds a way to needle them on “I Love Kanye,” an a cappella track where he rhymes, “I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye, the always rude Kanye, spazz in the news Kanye…”
These are quick, clever little bars, but there’s one Kanye that the rapper fails to mention: the next Kanye. That’s the one everybody always want to hear. And he’s not here right now.