On Curation, Bad Rapping, and Bleached Assholes: James Brubaker and Brad Efford Discuss Confessional Kanye and The Life of Pablo
Brubaker: When Brad Efford and I initially discussed doing a collaborative review of Swish (which begat Waves, which begat TLOP, which was finally revealed to be The Life of Pablo) the only thing I asked of Brad was that we focus on the album, that, as much as is possible, we try to leave conversations of Kanye West the asshole, the douchebag, the arrogant clown, the insecure man-child, the genius, the visionary, the whatever, whatever, whatever out of our conversation. Frankly, that isn’t possible because West is one of the most confessional recording artists of all time, constantly attempting, and frequently failing, to navigate the tensions between his enormous, fragile ego and his profound insecurities, between living a life of self-centered excess and knowing that life is toxic. With The Life of Pablo, West’s seventh album, these tensions bubble up faster and rawer than on any of West’s previous albums. The Life of Pablo is a shaggy, erratic, and ecstatic record about, what else?: Kanye West. And, while The Life of Pablo isn’t revolutionary the way literally every single other one of West’s previous albums has been, it still stands tall as a visionary, exceptional, and exceptionally weird album. But let’s not jump the gun. There’s a lot to unpack, here, and, honestly, I don’t even know where to begin. The features? The controversial lyrics? The weird rollout and malleability of the final product? Chance’s all-timer verse on “Ultralight Beam”? Help, Brad—where do we go from here?
Efford: Talking about a new Kanye West album is difficult, and it's easy. On the one hand, there are notes to hit that always get hit, almost like a checklist, one the rest of the non-West world has agreed to: 1. Give most recent example of Kanye's public outburst/outcry; 2. Give brief history of Kanye's ego; 3. Pad brief history in qualifications concerning his impact on the single most important genre of music of the past 30+ years; 4. Talk about how the new record has surely shifted the paradigm; 5. Acknowledge blatant/disgusting misogyny in album's lyrics while being sure to recognize their apparent inability to overshadow the project itself. You would think that someone so revolutionary couldn't be summed up in this way, but Kanye's just like everybody else: the discussion surrounding him falls quickly into preset beats and patterns.
On the other hand, every Kanye West album is not just an album, but an event. With The Life of Pablo, it was literally an event: fashion show-cum-album release-cum-listening party-cum-video game release-cum-waiting to see what brilliant/idiotic shit Kanye might say. This makes things difficult because it's nearly, if not entirely impossible to take the totally removed Alien-from-Mars view when approaching the music. Expectations are raised that anyone critiquing the new Kanye West album will immediately recognize its singular and contextual importance in order to avoid being on The Wrong Side of History—a music critic's worst nightmare. This is why Pitchfork can recognize the utter terribleness of several of the lyrics on TLOP (including West’s first rapped lines on the whole album, which are about having sex with a girl who's just bleached her asshole), as well as the utter terribleness of Kanye's online presence (including his proposition that Bill Cosby is not, in fact, guilty of the nearly 60 accusations against him of sexual assault), while still giving the record a 9/10, more or less the same rating they allowed last year's monumental, undeniably important To Pimp a Butterfly, just for context.
Everyone who likes music, talks about music, or writes about music in any serious capacity is terrified of Kanye West.
But no, that's not totally right. They're terrified of getting Kanye West wrong. This fear sprang up only partially because Kanye's early records were so good. But no, that's not totally right. Kanye's early records were good in the context of when they came out. They revitalized hip hop at the height of hip hop's pop-culture stance as the bearer of all things excess: booties, Benzes, and boats. Those albums changed the game, and they showed a way forward for the genre that seemed previously impossible. They're important records. They're also full of some atrocious rapping, seriously stupid skit-interludes, and supremely problematic lyrics. But. Kanye got a pass because sonically he was clearly the way forward. And that was important.
So no one wants to get Kanye West wrong. And the fear doubles when you realize that not only has Kanye always known this—he himself seems to be trying desperately not to get himself wrong, again and again. He finally broke that fourth wall completely with Pablo's "I Love Kanye," which preempts the haters by spitting back at them the criticisms he's been getting thrown at him since 808s at least. The idea is an old one—I already know what you're going to say, so what you're going to say doesn't matter HA—and the track itself is pretty funny. But it's also some weak argumentation, since no one who actually cares about music—about the art side of what Kanye does for a living, as opposed to the pop culture side—wants him to go back to being the old Kanye. They expect too much for him to change with every new record, and they're hungry for it. We're hungry for it.
The Life of Pablo, then, is a fascinating record. It seems to be the first time that a Kanye West record is responding to the current climate of hip hop rather than completely changing the game. Granted, hip hop's current climate is extremely influenced by all of Kanye's records. The maximalism of "Waves" is very Twisted Fantasy. "Highlights" swoops in and out of Graduation's arena bombast. "Father Stretch My Hands" is like the best of The College Dropout and Late Registration on cough syrup—a little slower, a little richer, a lot heavier. Interestingly enough, Pablo is also the first time I've ever liked a Kanye West album. And I really, really like it. Like most things Kanye, I like just about every aspect of it except when West is rapping--which Pablo, frankly, hasn't got a whole lot of. The moments of ego are bombastically ego-y, but the record as a whole feels much more like West stepping aside to mold his friends and influences into the best shape they can be. He is, on Pablo, the master curator.
What do you make of it all? Does Ye's rapping bother you as much as it does me? What about the terrible lyrics—there's no doubt the terrible ones are really terrible...right? "Ultralight Beams" is absolutely the album's high point—does that mean it all goes downhill from the start?
Everyone who likes music, talks about music, or writes about music in any serious capacity is terrified of Kanye West. --Brad Efford
Brubaker: There's a lot to respond to above, but I think I want to zero in on two points. First, the idea that critics are terrified of getting Kanye West wrong, and that the fear stems from the strength of West's earlier albums. That doesn’t seem quite right because critics have gotten West wrong a couple of times, and we all came out okay on the other side. In fact, critics swung and missed on two West albums in a row, over-hyping Graduation and not-quite-getting 808s in early reviews. As history shows, the earlier of those two albums is largely seen as one of West’s weakest, while the latter has been canonized as one of the most influential albums of the past twenty years (it basically invented Drake). So, critics have gotten West wrong before, and that was fine because we were all still learning how to read West, at the time. And I’m not sure we had the Kanye West decoder ring, or that West himself even had the code figured out until 808s, the album that effectively created the conceptual Kanye West who has taken over pop culture in the intervening years. So, no—I don’t think that critics are afraid of getting Kanye wrong, of fucking up the canon or critical consensus, but I do have this other theory about what drives critical interest in West: we’re fascinated with the arc of Kanye's career, with the point of intersection between West’s visionary approach to music and the weirdly introspective, confessional narrative of his life that’s often been on full display in his music to a largely unprecedented-for-pop degree.
It’s that unprecedented, confessional approach is precisely what makes West’s work so engaging: If we look at Yeezus, West's most challenging album, we see a pop icon at the height of his career, following up his most critically beloved album (My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy) by dropping an abrasive, challenging set of noise-circa-hip hop tracks channeling his rich-people-problems into a genuinely transgressive primal scream straight to the heart of America's bedrock beliefs and prejudices. And this was all after releasing 808s, an album about loss and loneliness in the aftermath of the death of his mother and the collapse of an important romantic relationship, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was West’s introspective assessment of his own excesses and the nature of celebrity. I mean, have we ever seen an artist evolve so nakedly? Have we ever seen an artist hit his commercial peak, then lose so much, then grieve, and mourn, and breakdown on record, all the while attempting to sort through his own excesses?
And maybe this is a good segue to the other point I wanted to respond to—West's lyrics. Many of them over the years have been objectively bad. I will give you that. Whether due to their their misogyny or their general wackness, West drops some awful rhymes. But maybe West's bad lyrics are part of his charm. I once wrote a seminar paper for a course about failure detailing West's use of autotune on 808s and Heartbreaks—here was a technology designed to correct the failures of the human voice, but cranked up so high that it brought attention to its own use, in effect drawing attention to performers' failures as singers. Yes, autotune was an aesthetic choice, but because it was autotune, it carried the cultural baggage of being a tool for those who can't hit the right pitch. As a result, the tool’s aesthetic use created an air of humanity, an icy vulnerability around those who used it in this way. I hear the same thing in some of West's awful lyrics. The one you point out, the already infamous "bleached asshole" line from "Father Stretch My Hands pt. 1" is a perfect example. Yes, the line is terrible. The first few times I heard it, I blushed, not because I was embarrassed by the subject matter, but because I was embarrassed for West. But that's also why the lyric works. The line is goofy, feels off the cuff, and ill-conceived, and as a result, it also feels unpretentious, unfiltered, inviting even. I don't know a model's bleached asshole from Adam, so it's not like I can relate to the lyric, but the badness of the lyric, the ridiculous, unchecked bluntness of the lyric, both as an absurd observation in general, and a recognition of infidelity, is weirdly humanizing and emphasizes the confessional nature of West's project—it's not always good, it's certainly not always pretty, but somehow, despite all the cultural narratives and superstar bullshit that comes with West we always get the sense that there's a real human being with real personal stakes putting himself on the line in every song.
Efford: I think reading into West's terrible lyrics as a positive is another sign of critics giving him slack as an artistic presence rather than as the reigning leader of hip hop's sound and driving force behind its aesthetics. His wordplay amounts to rhyming "do anything for a Klondike" with "do anything for a blond dyke." To say that that is a sign of his humanness, to me, is to simply turn a blind eye to a really terrible aspect of his music on purpose. And partially this is obvious to me because not all of his lyrics are bad. He doesn't always write clunkers. Clearly, he is trying to write lyrics that are interesting, or clever, or something a thoughtful writer would write. So when the supremely stupid ones come, I think we owe it to the artist to call that shit out. But Kanye started as a producer, and it absolutely definitely shows. Lyrics are absolutely definitely his lowest priority. He molds albums, creates sounds, crafts projects, and thinks real hard about everything. It's what he does best. To say that the fact that he relegates his actual lyric writing to bottom-of-the-barrel is part of the artistic statement is to read too deeply into his weaknesses. Hip hop is lyrics. You need to be able to write interesting couplets, stanzas, rhymes. You need to put thought into what you're saying and not just rhyme every line of a verse by ending it with the same word. You need to be able to say more than just a stupid thing about a swallowship and think you're clever. It's uninteresting, and lazy, and tough to listen to. Try and tell me Ye isn't wrecked by almost every guest he sits with on any of his songs. I'm just saying we should expect more from him rather than just make excuses or turn badness into critical insight.
Speaking of guests, no one wrecks more on Pablo than Chance on "Ultralight Beam." Even the New York Times noticed in its review of the album that the only reason Kendrick doesn't get the Best Guest Verse award is because Chance comes correct. And right out the gate, at that. I would also say that Chance's entire vibe and style as an MC inspired Pablo a great deal: the gospel inflections, the appeals to God run through with equal parts good humor, self-reflection, and braggadocio. This is Kanye's most optimistic record since the early days, for sure, and no one is more optimistic in hip hop right now than Chance. When he performs, he exudes positivity. Even when he hits you with a serious line, he reverses course fast as he can to flash that famous Chano tooth museum. He's uplifting--it's the gospel in him. I think Ye saw that and wanted it, and brought Chance in to help. We see that not only is he on "Ultralight," but he had a credit in writing "Waves," too.
What do you make of the other guests? I think beyond the production, any Kanye record is most notable for its contributors. They all become their best selves under his discretion. I know we both go gaga for Chance here, but how does RiRi fair? What about Kirk Franklin, who's already issued a statement to counter all the flack he got just for appearing on this thing? What about Frank Ocean?? He isn't credited, so is that even really him? Was Frank just a figment of our imaginations this whole time?
Brubaker: So, I want to clarify something I said before. I don't think we should necessarily give Kanye a pass for bad lyrics, and he's definitely showed us multiple types of bad lyrics. There are lyrics that make me cringe because they feel like he tried , but they just flat out suck (ie., Klondike/Blond Dyke), but there's another type of Kanye lyric that makes me cringe because they are uncomfortably direct, oddly personal, and absurd (ie., the bleach/asshole/tshirt line). This second type of lyric is still bad, but it's bad in an interesting way. It's bad in the same the way The Beach Boys' Love You is bad—it's fascinating, welcoming. And so, while they're still bad lyrics, they don't bother me so much as they feel like points of entrance into West's bigger project. But that bigger project has so little to do with West's lyrics that I always end up more interested in what West is saying than how he says it. And the what of West is so much bigger than his lyrics.
In fact, I'd argue that my favorite hip hop is always bigger than its lyrics. And that means, yes, I have to fundamentally disagree with your assertion that "hip hop is lyrics.” Maybe, in the 80s and 90s, hip hop was lyrics, but I don't think that is true anymore, and Kanye is part of the reason why. There are plenty of good enough rappers out there and they’re making good enough music, but the albums that we get excited about, that we all talk about, are usually about more than the rhymes. It's almost as if hip hop lyricists are more concerned now with staying out of the way of their music and message. If the album sounds good and the lyrics aren't flagrantly bad, they get a pass. I can only think of two performers in hip hop whose lyrics consistently impress: Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, and yes, in their respective guest turns on Pablo, both blow West out of the water on his own record (and Kanye knows it—check him grinning and whooping during Chance's verse during the SNL performance), and that, again, speaks to Kanye's biggest strength, and the biggest strength on The Life of Pablo: outside of his own rhymes, Kanye West has impeccable taste, is a master curator, and The Life of Pablo might be his finest moment in both of those categories.
You asked about some of the other features on this album, and every single one feels like an organic part of the living, breathing organism that is this album. Pitting Rihanna up against a Nina Simone original? That's some Kanye-level brashness right there, and it pays off. Rihanna sounds incredible kicking off the track. And on “Wolves,” that glimpse of Frank Ocean had me hurting for his new album that never materialized. But what about The Weeknd's feature on "FML"? Between the lyrics and the downtrodden production, the song has the potential to be a real downer, but The Weeknd lifts it all up. Even though he's singing about fucked up lives, he infuses the song with a delicate hopefulness. But that's always been Kanye's brilliance—every piece of this album, the features, the samples, the arrangements, all of it except for Kanye himself, is elegantly conceived and built. I know a lot of folks, including myself, have described Yeezus as a noise album, but, despite being far more melodic, The Life of Pablo almost feels more like a collage-y noise album. This is an album that feels more sculpted than written. Does this make sense? Does The Life of Pablo as melodic noise/collage album make sense?
West isn’t always going to succeed, but there’s a hopeful beauty in his struggle. --James Brubaker
Efford: I don't get the noise album thing, but collage perhaps, yes, if only in the way it lacks the coherent style he's so known for. It's a "gospel" album at its best, brightest moments, but the middle third, from "Feedback" through "I Love Kanye," has very little sonic coherence to itself or the rest of the album. Pablo starts off incredibly strong and ends slightly less strong, with bright spots here and there along the way (not counting the bonus track-y type songs). But then again, since Kool Herc started mashing together breaks nearly 40 years ago, hip hop as a genre has been all about collage. I don't think Kanye's any different than any other producer or beatmaker—he just has impeccable taste and a great ear. The more I think about it, the more I don't totally understand your assertion of this album as sculpted, to be honest. It sounds like a really good hip hop record to me. It does all the same tricks—it even has skits, in its own way, with "Low Lights" and "I Love Kanye"—it just does them all extremely well. Or, from the other side, yes, this album is definitely sculpted....but so is every other hip hop record.
The process of Pablo's creation is actually, for me, one of the most fascinating aspects of it. Kanye's been an open book about the whole thing since day one, which seems extremely purposeful and almost subversive in 2015/16. At a time when surprise releases are almost becoming the norm—whether for a new track, new video, or entire album—Kanye veered hard into the opposite direction. As soon as the gate cracked open just a little, it opened wider every day. Tracklist photos. Album name changes. Twitter rants. Release dates. Updates to the tracklist. More updates to the tracklist. Open votes for the album name from the Twitterfam. It was terrific to watch--it still is. It's the anti-Beyonce. The opposite of the concept that mystery equals allure. Kanye's been pretty much an open book from day one, it's true, but Pablo was next level. Those who flipped out that it was "too much" or who wondered whether Ye was okay or if the new record would be terrible simply because he was exposing so much of it along the way missed the point entirely. Exposure was the point. The journey was the message. Still is.
Plus, Kanye's royalty now. He's a Kardashian, the only name brand that he possibly could have married into, a family so tightly knit and embedded in their own self-image and each others' that they are their own squad. And now they're his, and it works. It's right. And Pablo feels very affected by the Kim K touch--it's a little warmer, a little looser, a little more swaddled in love and family than Kanye's music has ever been. Granted, maybe it's just being married and having kids that'll do that to an artist, but Kim is not a wife. Kim is one of the most powerful women in the world, and somehow one of the most transparent—her warmth and devotion and understanding of others has tripled since motherhood, and when she speaks, you see it. Everything I just said: put Kanye in the driver's seat. He fits. They're the same. For all its misogyny, Pablo feels like maybe the most toothless record of his career so far. And I mean that in a good way—Ye seems comfortable, happy, even giddy. Last year's speech at the VMAs was the first clue—Kim, glowing, right in the front row—and Pablo cements it. Its beauty comes from its vibrating center, its determination to seek out positivity through all the self-loathing and uncertainty.
Brubaker: Let me try to clarify my sculpture idea: I know that hip hop has long been built on collage, but there’s something different going on here. If we look at the way collage normally works in hip hop, it’s about layering a vibe on top of a beat, and that’s a song. Sometimes there will be a breakdown or an out-of-the-way sample, but the end result feels like a song built on collage. But Pablo doesn’t feel like a collection of songs so much as it feels like a series of movements. With one or two exceptions, I never know where the songs begin or end. The gospel choir that closes “Ultralight Beams” gives way to the low key sample from “Father Stretch My Hands,” but after a thirty second intro, the song abruptly transitions into a chill beat that doesn’t last long before smashing into another sample that gives way to a frantic beat. Both halves, though listed as separate tracks, are unified by the “I want to feel liberated” line. These songs clearly aren’t cut from the traditional hip hop production mold—they’re pushing against form, are pieces arranged not to provide hooks, or play well at the club, but to create a precise, dramatic effect.
This lack of repetition and continuity carries through most of the album. “Famous” bounces between Rihanna’s hooks, West’s infamous “I feel me and Taylor might still have sex” verse, and the masterful sample of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” (maybe my favorite moment on the album), before settling into a Nina Simone sample. Again, the song isn’t structured like a song, but a journey—these pieces all work together, but as interconnected vignettes, each one building on the next. The whole album works this way, building, backing away, developing in fits and starts, smash cut after smash cut, aggressively weird production choice after aggressively weird production choice, until the whole album comes crashing down on the elegant, stately “Wolves.”
That’s why this album feels sculpted to me. Why it feels like a noise album—because of the way it breathes and grows and pushes against form. So aggressive is West’s production on Pablo that one of the album’s only “normal” songs, “Real Friends,” isn’t even allowed to feel like a song, feeling instead like connective tissue, an interlude or bridge between “FML” and “Wolves.”
But playing with form isn’t ever going to be enough, and so we need to ask: around what is this impressive piece of musical architecture built? I’m pretty sure the answer is that beautiful, vibrating center you identified above, Brad. But I’m not so sure I hear West as comfortable or as happy, here, as you do. I hear a West who has found a place in the world, yes, but who still feels stuck in his own limitations, and in the limitations of culture, the limitations of capital. If MDBTF was West turning his gaze inward to grapple with fame, and Yeezus was lashing out against outmoded American attitudes, then The Life of Pablo feels like the existential fallout from both. Here is West trying to climb higher, feel harder, and push farther and further away from and against all of those limitations. West isn’t always going to succeed, but there’s a hopeful beauty in his struggle. Sure, he’s got his Lexapro now, but he knows what happens when he’s off it, even with the love and support of his family.
And maybe that’s why this album feels so big and thrilling and interesting to me, in spite of its flaws—it feels like the most Kanye album that Kanye has made. It’s messy as fuck, insecure as fuck, arrogant as fuck, soulful as fuck, clumsy as fuck, angry as fuck, joyous as fuck, smart as fuck, dumb as fuck and, perhaps most important of all, hopeful as fuck. And that’s where Pablo shines brightest. Even though this is an album that plumbs the depths of Kanye West’s insecurities, it’s shot through with hope for a better America, a better tomorrow, and a better Kanye. West is as flawed as any pop star in recent memory, but that’s what makes his music so compelling—even when the details that reveal his humanity are unrelatable, it’s inspiring to see someone acknowledge and work through, without necessarily correcting, his flaws. The arrogant and judgmental among us are quick to criticize West at every turn, but it’s in the reasons for which they criticize him that West’s most compelling humanity can be found. Like Kanye, we’re all flawed. We’re all fucked up. We all want to do better. And so maybe, to flip the old cliché: pop culture might not deserve Kanye West, but Kanye West might be the popstar pop culture needs.
James Brubaker is the Associate Editor of The Collapsar.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.