Kanye West lay face down on the Saturday Night Live stage over the weekend, having just finished the new song "Ultralight Beam" with an all-stellar crew including singers Kelly Price and TheDream, Chance the Rapper and an impassioned gospel choir.
Fort Worth gospel superstar Kirk Franklin stood over West, delivering a prayer that meshed perfectly with the tune's message about a spiritual war with oneself — a common lyrical theme for West since "Jesus Walks" turned heads back more than a decade ago.
As the choir came to its last beautiful cry, West just couldn't let the moment stay reflective and profound. He bounced up from the floor, ran around the stage as if he was having a conniption, and manically plugged his new album.
The Saturday-night release of said album, The Life of Pablo, punctuated months of steady hype and at least a week of relentless stunting and delays. West had demanded fans' attention for days, Tweeting a mix of troll-worthy pop-cultural opinions and album-status updates. He'd posted multiple track listings and a handful of titles before settling on the current ones. And in the largest look-at-me move, West presided over a big-budget listening party and fashion show (for his Adidas-supported Yeezy line) on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
The party — streamed live on the Tidal music service and on Cinemark screens across the country — amounted to a part-stunning, part-cloying spectacle. One one hand, West put together a living art piece in the middle of the arena with dozens of models standing, moving slowly, shedding tears and contributing to West's overall minimalist, muted-tone aesthetic. The combination of imagery and music is still burned on my brain, as are the cathartic cheers of the West fans around me at the Dallas movie theater where I watched the show.
But while I appreciated the meat of the MSG show — the fashion on stage and a preliminary, bare-bones version of the new album — it came off as anything but seamless. West felt it was necessary to zoom out on the art at work and show viewers the parts of his lifestyle about which he most enjoys bragging. We saw the entire Kardashian clan shuffle in wearing white, feathery outfits West himself commissioned. We saw cutaways to other celebrities including Vogue's Anna Wintour and Jay-Z. We watched West fiddle with his laptop as he prepared to present his sounds and visions to the world.
The work-in-progress fashion show, the tweets, the constant album updates — it all contributes to what some might say is "process art," for which the finished product (the album) is only part of the grand vision. West has been looping us in on every decision, every move as if we're part of his design team. There's very little serendipity to his process, too — it's mostly frustration and mania. As often as he delays his work and pivots in new directions, it's tempting to label West as some sort of creative trickster.
If I put all that on a shelf for a minute (not easy to do) and focus on the songs West played Thursday at MSG, I can tell you without a doubt that The Life of Pablo stands up well against any of West's other records. Sonically, it takes the expansive approach of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, while thematically it's nearly as emotionally cohesive as 808s and Heartbreak.
After "Ultralight Beam" powerfully opens the record, the two-parter "Father Stretch My Hands" and the Rihanna-assisted "Famous" demonstrate West's push and pull between the sacred and the profane. Profane are the references to meaningless sex with models, and a much-publicized lyric in which West tastelessly claims credit for Taylor Swift's fame. These are the kinds of West one-liners that get instant applause at listening parties, but on repeat plays they seem more like cheap shots distracting us from otherwise intricate and satisfying tracks.
West seems to realize that he's being pulled down by the baser thoughts, too. "Feedback" layers stunning lyrical self-awareness over a track that's somewhere between the dominant styles of Graduation and Yeezus. And after a bouncy-bass-tinged devotional in "Lowlights," "Highlights" (which was also performed on SNL) brings West back to a light-hearted place. It's too bad that he has to throw in another classless joke about his wife's ex. Another moment-killer. But it's far from rock-bottom for West on this album. That comes with the blind lust he's spouting in "Freestyle 4."
From that point, the artist can only look for light. "FML" (featuring the Weeknd), "Real Friends" and the eerie "Wolves" help him move toward it, even if they are steeped in darker thoughts. And toward the end of The Life of Pablo's hour, we find West back in brag mode thanks to previously released tunes "Facts" and the Kendrick Lamar-featuring "No More Parties in LA." Other worthy last-minute additions to the track list include "Fade," a house-influenced highlight featuring Grapevine-rooted artist Post Malone, and "Waves" which seems a little out of place considering its overly smooth Chris Brown cameo.
Who is this Pablo, you ask? True to West's multiple-personalty approach to this release, there are a few possibilities, all of which could be at play depending on the lyric. There's Pablo Picasso, the artist with which West and his friend Jay-Z relate constantly. Drug lord Pablo Escobar is a possibility, considering some of those rock-bottom moments. And then there's the Apostle Paul, to whom West has been referring on Twitter of late.
While we'd bet on the biblical figure as the strongest influence, let's not fool ourselves and think that The Life of Pablo is about anyone but Kanye. As an artist, he needs this whole process to validate him as much as it entertains us. Now that the music's out (on Tidal, at least) the entire range of reactions becomes an extension of his art. Finally, he has to pay attention to you. Maybe.