The Track Switch
On January 26th, Kanye West Tweeted out a picture of the order of songs on his highly anticipated upcoming album, Waves. In this iteration, Waves would have concluded with “Ultralight Beam,” a crescendoing gospel gem about how wonderful things were going for Kanye, Kim, and krew, with the mirthful yet mischievous Chance the Rapper’s incisiveness interspersed within it.
Concluding The Life of Pablo with this song would have been a perfect way for Kanye to close his eighth album release. Yeezy’s musical career has been quite a journey, and 2015 (when a majority of this album was written) served as a major year of transition for him. Kanye provided a New Year’s surprise when he released “Only One,” an ode to daughter North from the voice of his deceased mother, Donda Williams. This tenderness, not seen in a song of West’s since “Hey Mama” in 2005, signified how good Kanye’s life seems, at least to an outside observer. He’s married to the third most powerful woman in the world after the Queen and Elizabeth II. He has two children. By all accounts, he should be happy, he should be satisfied. Perhaps now was his time to ride off into the sunset on an ultralight beam, living his God dream, taking a victory lap around all of those who had doubted and derided him for so long.
Two weeks and a name change later, The Life of Pablo was released with Ultralight Beam now at the beginning of the album rather than the end, with the ode to a past lover “Fade” serving as the final song. “Fade” is one of the better tracks on the album, and Ty Dolla $ign kills his bars. However, to me, the shift in track order speaks louder than the songs itself. By moving the most uplifting song to the front, Kanye turns TLOP from a transcendent triumph into a fall from grace. It’s classic try-hard Kanye, the tinkerer needing to switch something, anything, to appease the constantly grinding gears in his brain.
In the process, though, Kanye changed the entire meaning of his album – and, perhaps, robbed himself of the happy ending that he deserves.
The Life of Pablo: Kanye’s Challenge, The Good, and The Bad
While his fans may, in the rapper’s own words, “miss the old Kanye,” the simple fact remains that…well…Kanye’s life has changed over the past 20 years. He’s not a scrappy college dropout from the streets of Chicago anymore. If anything, Kanye’s life is pretty blessed. This is a “problem” that many rappers and artists have to face, especially once they have made it for an extended period of time. For instance, Jay Z was selling crack on the streets of Bed-Stuy 30 years ago. Now, he’s the third richest rapper of all time. The stuff he was concerned with 30 years ago, the creative sparks that inspired him to write and pursue his dreams in the music industry, are not the same issues that he cares about now. Sean Carter needed to figure out how to survive on the streets of New York; Jay Z needs to figure out how to survive his next press conference without being asked a too-embarrassing question.
In that vein, The Life of Pablo represents a changing of the guard of sorts for Kanye from a rap standpoint, as he takes a step back on most tracks, allowing young stars of the future take the reins and get prime verses on his songs. Chance the Rapper, Young Thug, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the high-profile stars on this album, and their inspired raps and riffs help to elevate TLOP. It is not Kanye’s best piece of work, but it certainly is a worthwhile addition to his discography – and, perhaps, a sign of what is to come for Yeezy.
While “Ultralight Beam” is my personal favorite track, there are a number of others that have great replayability. “No More Parties in LA” and “Real Friends” are two stalwarts, both of which deal with companionship and finding one’s true comrades amidst the hullabaloo and chaos of celebrity. These songs were Kanye at his best: relaying a relatable message with fluid rhymes and stellar hooks. I also personally love the 808s vibe of “Highlights,” the meme-ready “Father Stretch My Hands (both Parts 1 and 2),” and the chill “30 Hours,” all three of which are definitive jams on this album that have found their way onto my recurring playlists. “30 Hours,” in particular, has some of the best lyrics of any song on the album.
For the many peaks of this albums, there were a couple of tracks that did not fit my personal taste. Most notably, I do not get why people love “Waves” so much, although this may stem from a personal disdain for feature artist Chris Brown. I just find the beat mediocre and the lyrics yawnworthy, especially when compared to the eccentric funkiness Kanye is normally capable of. Chris’ ex, Rihanna, also featured in one of the more polarizing songs on the album – “Famous,” where Kanye calls out Taylor Swift and others that he stepped on during his rise to the top. These songs, among others, rang hollow to me because the premises felt contrived and the controversies seemed manufactured. Kanye himself admitted that he had discussed the ramifications of “Famous” with T. Swift’s people before releasing the song. He wanted to maintain that contrarian, crazed genius persona through it all. For some fans, it worked. For me, it did not.
The future for Kanye is unknown, but one thing is clear to me. At this point, between the track switching and chaos he has caused, he is not satisfied just fading into the background and writing himself a happy ending…although, to be honest, the next vehicle for his creativity may be outside the realm of rap. Kanye has massive dreams – he wants to be a fashion mogul, an author, a director, maybe even a video game maker. He cannot do that if he gets complacent. He does not want to ride off into the sunset on an ultralight beam just yet. He wants it to propel him to even greater heights.
I may not agree with Kanye on this count. In fact, I am a bit scared for him. MTV News’ and ex-Grantlander Molly Lambert wrote about the ramifications of perhaps the rawest lyric on Kanye’s album, where he makes the allusion of going off his Lexapro. Kanye needs to take care of himself, and if this lyric stems from truth, hopefully he can reconcile his need for creativity with his mental health.
However, for the time being, Kanye is going to be Kanye. And through all the bad Tweets, the awful shoes, and the eccentric ideas, he will occasionally drop a glimmer of brilliance, the shining stars we have come to expect. The Life of Pablo is that glimmer, and even with two kids on his lap, Kanye is not done creating just yet.
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