By Ryan Croke
The Life of Pablo is the 7th studio album from Kanye West. It was released on February 14, 2016, but was updated and changed multiple times since release. It just had its 5th anniversary, so I thought it would be good to look back on the album and how well it has aged since then. Kanye is one of the most polarizing figures in pop culture today and is my, and many others’, favorite artist of all time. His career has been nothing short of tumultuous, and The Life of Pablo was a turning point for him. He used to seem egotistical in his songs, and he still does to a degree, but he no longer is comparing himself to a god on The Life of Pablo. This album from Kanye is a very intriguing listen because of the change of pace, and I welcome the change.
Before I begin the review, I have to mention a couple of things. As I mentioned prior, the current version of The Life of Pablo differs greatly from the original version, with minor details like lyrics replaced or changed, and even songs that have been added or removed. The original album featured three acts, and the songs were in a much different order than the album that is available now. I am going to review the album in its current state, as that is what people will undoubtedly be listening to should they want to listen to the album now. I am going to link the album below, as well as a playlist I created that features all the original songs in the original order. The playlist is organized into the three acts I just mentioned. I cannot access the original version of every single song, for obvious reasons, but it is organized to the best of my ability. I recommend listening to every song from the album before listening to it in its original state, as some songs that were added to the final product that improve the album are absent from the original version. But listening to The Life of Pablo in its original, three act form is a must if you enjoy the album. It tells a cohesive story of Kanye changing as a person, and it is beautiful to listen to, even though certain songs are absent. With all of that out of the way, let’s begin the review of Kanye West’s 7th studio album, The Life of Pablo.
West originally grew famous in the mid-2000s for his sampling of songs, particularly soul songs. He drifted away from this as the 2000s went on, and it didn’t seem like we would see him ever sample a soul song on an album again. He returns to his soul-sampling self, along with also sampling gospel songs on The Life of Pablo, and the album as a whole has a large focus on Kanye’s newfound faith as a Christian. Ultralight Beam, the opening track, features many lyrics about praying for serenity, peace, and love. The song features vocals from a choir, Kelly Price, and Chance the Rapper, and is almost written as a letter to God, praising the deity they all believe in and thanking him. The album immediately stands out in Kanye’s extensive discography right away.
Track 2, titled Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1, also features a choir and some gospel vocals, along with a feature from Kanye’s longtime friend Kid Cudi. This is one of the more popular songs from the album, and it is much more energetic than Ultralight Beam. It too is praising God and continues the religious themes found throughout the project. This track transitions seamlessly into track three, which is actually a part 2 of the Father Stretch My Hands, and, in my opinion, pales in comparison to part 1. It is essentially a remix of Panda by Desiigner featuring some Kanye vocals and a small beat remix. Panda, which would release after The Life of Pablo, was a smash hit from 2016. It can be assumed that Kanye heard the song prior to its release and prior to recording The Life of Pablo, and wanted to work with Desiigner on part 2. Part 2 is not necessarily a bad song; it’s just unoriginal, and this is why I don’t love it as much as the previous two songs.
The album immediately gets back on track with the 4th song, titled Famous. This song is a very interesting one because it features lots of intriguing production and sounds that nobody had really heard before, especially from a hip-hop artist. The song kicks off with an intro from Rihanna, who sings the repeating chorus of the track. In this song, we see the braggadocios side of Kanye return as the song features lots of bragging from Kanye about his lifestyle. The second half of the song features infectious vocals from Sister Nancy, and ad-libs from Swizz Beatz, a long-time Kanye collaborator. Sister Nancy has no true lyrics, but her random sounds mesh perfectly with the instrumental, and the ad-libs only add to the appeal. This song is one of my favorites from the album, and for good reason.
Track 5, Feedback, is one of the more hated songs on the project by the public, and I can understand why. The song might seem boring to the average listener, but I think the instrumental in this song is certainly appealing enough to keep me entertained, and Kanye calling out his doubters will never disappoint me. The song is short but sweet and is definitely experimental. I like that the song is so different from the other hip-hop songs you typically hear nowadays.
The next song on the album is one of the three interludes on the track list. Titled Low Lights, this features spoken word from an unknown artist praising God and thanking him for all he has given them. The interlude is a pretty powerful one and solidifies that Kanye has converted fully to Christianity, and this is something that has been all over the media over the last five years. He has changed his style, and this interlude track is a prime example of this. The interlude perfectly introduces the next song, Highlights. Featuring Atlanta rapper Young Thug, this upbeat song is about living your best life, and wanting life to be full of highlights. It is a polar opposite to the mellow, almost sad interlude that preceded it, and while it is one of my least favorite tracks on the album, the previous interlude definitely elevates it.
The 8th song on the track list is one of, if not the most hated song on this album by the public, and this one is certainly more deserved than the hate that Feedback receives. Here, on Freestyle 4, Kanye’s vocals are distorted, and the instrumental, while experimental, is much more annoying to my ears than that of Feedback. I do enjoy this song and the second Desiigner feature at the tail end saves it a bit, but this is definitely my least favorite song on the entire album. It is a good song, but the quality of the songs that are on the album with it makes it seem much worse than it truly is. I do respect the musical experimentation and the risks taken on the song though, even though I don’t believe they paid off.
The 9th track is yet another interlude, and it is a 45-second monologue from Kanye himself with no instrumental behind it. It comments on the hate that Kanye was beginning to receive at the time, as this was when the media began to realize that he was descending into the madman we know him as today. I belive it is much better than Low Lights and it is interesting to hear Kanye in this sort of fashion on a track.
The 10th song on the album begins the second half, which I believe to be much better than the first. It starts off with Waves, featuring Chris Brown. The instrumental in this song is incredible, and it was instantly recognizable the first time I listened to it. Kanye’s lyrics describe his relationships with his family. The message of the song is that waves never truly die; they flux and reflux, but they last forever. The waves symbolize relationships with family members, saying there are ups and downs, but the connection is always there. It’s a powerful song, and one of my personal favorites. I think sonically, it’s one of the best Kanye songs available, and Chris Brown’s vocals are heavenly. He really steals the show with his perfectly pitched vocals on this song.
Track 11, FML, has a more sad tone. Featuring The Weeknd, Kanye reflects on his struggles with staying faithful to his wife Kim Kardashian. The chorus from The Weeknd talks about Kanye’s haters, explaining how they wish Kanye would mess everything in his life up and that he can’t let them get to him. Instrumentally, this song is one of many that shines on this album. The message of the song is interesting, and the vocals from The Weeknd are inserted perfectly over the beat. This is another song that I love from The Life of Pablo.
The next track on the album is Real Friends, and Ty Dolla $ign provides a great performance that I believe to be the best feature on the entire project. The song is a powerful reflection of Kanye’s relationship challenges with his friends and family. He doesn’t feel that he has many “real friends”, and that he doesn’t get along well with many people in his family. The instrumental is a chilling, isolating beat that fits the lyrics and vibe of the song perfectly. Everything about this song is amazing, and the back-and-forth vocal jabs from Ye and Ty Dolla $ign show the great chemistry between the pair. It’s not only one of my favorite songs on the album, it is in my top 10 Kanye Songs of all time, if not top 5. However, it is not the best song on this masterpiece. It’s a testament to Kanye’s greatness that a song this great will not be in most people’s top ten songs by him. There are so many hits in his catalog that it’s hard to pick the best of the best, and I would certainly say Real Friends is one of his best songs to date.
Wolves is the 13th track of The Life of Pablo, and one of the most popular songs from this project. The instrumental of this song is instantly recognizable, and it is even more chilling than that of Real Friends. Produced by Cashmere Cat and Sinjin Hawke, the beat is meant to mimic that of a howling wolf, and it is quite successful. Kanye shines with lyrics that explore various emotions, as well as comparisons to himself and Kim Kardashian, his then wife, with Mary and Joseph from the Christian Bible. Sia also has a verse on the track, although, for me, it really holds the song back from achieving its full potential. The beat switches to more of a fast-paced speed that you would hear on a pump-up song, and it kills the isolating vibe that was created so beautifully. Sia is a talented artist, but I think she is out of place on Wolves. Unfortunately, a Frank Ocean verse was removed from the track and placed as its own 38-second song called Frank’s Track. I don’t understand the point of this, and the transition is a bit awkward between the two songs. I do wish Ocean’s verse was included on the final product, as it fits the vibe much better than the Sia verse does. As Frank is another one of my favorite artists, it is a little frustrating to see him cast off to the side like this, but Kanye is a musical genius, so whatever he thinks is best works for me. All things considered, Wolves is another great song on the album, but I think it could have been even better with small tweaks, and that definitely hurts me, to see such wasted potential.
The final interlude of The Life of Pablo is titled Siiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission and is a phone call from rapper Max B talking to French Montana, another popular rapper. The call originally took place when Kanye originally was going to call the album WAVES. Wiz Khalifa, another rapper, started a Twitter feud by expressing his concerns that Kanye was “taking the wave” from Max B. The call shows Max B telling West that he can name the album whatever he wants to. Personally, I don’t get the purpose of this interlude at all, and it contributes nothing to the final product. If this was put on there only to mess with Wiz Khalifa, Kanye is an absolute troll, but even then I don’t get how this made it onto the final version of The Life of Pablo instead of another song. It does nothing for me. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the album, as it is only a minute-long interlude, but it serves no purpose.
From here, the last leg of the album shows the greatness of Kanye in every way imaginable. The final 5 tracks of The Life of Pablo make up the most consistent and versatile stretch of songs on the album. We begin the home stretch with 30 Hours, a song that sees Kanye reflecting on a past relationship that is believed to be with Sumeke Rainey, whom he dated up until 2004 when he dropped his first studio album The College Dropout. The mellow, chill song is the perfect song to put on and just relax to. The outro of the song, lasting about 3 minutes long, features ad libs from André 3000 accompanied by Kanye talking to himself in an almost spoken word style. It is definitely a favorite on the album for me and is so different from modern hip hop. That is a common theme with this album, and while it may not be as experimental as Yeezus, Kanye’s prior album with a heavy rock influence, it definitely differs from the current state of music and is part of what makes The Life of Pablo one of the most replayable albums I have ever heard.
Following 30 hours, the tone does a complete 180, and No More Parties in LA is a song with an infectious instrumental with guitar string play throughout the song that makes you want to stand up and dance. Featuring Kendrick Lamar, this song is a favorite by the public, and for good reason. Widely regarded as the best 2 musicians of the 21st century, hearing Kendrick and Kanye on a song together is something fans had been dreaming of, and they delivered. This is another all-time Kanye favorite for me. As I said with Real Friends, everything about this song is great. The instrumental is great and the constant ad-libs throughout the song might be my favorite ad-libs of any song I have ever listened to. Kendrick shines as he always does, and I love how Kanye let him have a very long verse to let the lyrical genius that is Kendrick Lamar do what he does best. This is definitely a top 5 song from The Life of Pablo, and maybe even in my top 3 songs from the project.
The worst song in the great 5 song sequence that finishes The Life of Pablo is Facts, but it is still an incredible song. A classic Kanye pump-up song, Facts features West bragging about his signature shoe line with Adidas, along with taking many shots at Adidas’ rival Nike. The beat of the song is great, the lyrics from Kanye are better, and all in all, it’s a great track. It isn’t one of the stand-outs for me, so I don’t have too much to say, but it’s definitely a great song.
The original final song of The Life of Pablo, Fade is another great track that features Kanye claiming a lover isn’t fully invested in their relationship. Ty Dolla $ign appears for the second time, and although his performance isn’t as strong as it is on Real Friends, he definitely stands out as the artist who performed the best on the track, beating out Kanye himself and even a young Post Malone, who was still an up and coming artist at the time. I am not a Post Malone fan in any way whatsoever, but the way his vocals are mixed on this song is perfect, and I actually enjoy his appearance. Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign definitely outperform him, but that’s to be expected when a young rapper collaborates with the greatest of all time and an already established rapper in Ty Dolla $ign. Regardless, the brief performance from Malone is enjoyable and probably my favorite performance from him. Yet again, the song features a great instrumental and the constant “I feel it’s fading” ad-lib from Rare Earth that rings throughout the track is also great.
At this point, had Fade been the outro, and not the next song, I would have rated The Life of Pablo at a 9.5/10 or even a perfect 10. It’s just that good. It is unlike any album I have ever listened to, and the variety of sounds on the album makes it one of my favorites ever, and also one of the most replayable. It only gets better with the final track. The final song of the album, added months after release, titled Saint Pablo, is my favorite Kanye song ever made. This is an extremely unpopular opinion, and I have searched the internet far and wide and have found not one person who agrees with me. The popular favorite for Kanye fans is Runaway, off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and this is another incredible Kanye song that is definitely my number 2 song from Kanye’s discography. However, I am going against the grain here, and I am going to tell you why Saint Pablo is Kanye’s true masterpiece.
The song starts off slow, but progresses perfectly. The instrumental, although not Kanye’s very best, is still great, and the constant ramping up of the synths in the background that cultivate in the synth heavy instrumental that follows the chorus makes you feel like you are ascending into heaven. You can understand Kanye perfectly, and that is key to the success of Saint Pablo. The lyricism is peak Kanye, and is what carries the song for me. It is the most powerful Kanye song that I have ever heard. It is also the best lyricism on a hip hop song that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, and the only song that rivals it is Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, by Kendrick Lamar. The feature from Sampha in the chorus, bridge, and final verse is a great accompaniment to the incredible lyricism put on display by Kanye, and the track is a perfect closer to the project. When the instrumental pauses as Sampha sings the chorus over small piano keys, it is nothing short of incredible. The song, with a hefty 6 minutes in runtime, is actually the perfect length, and doesn’t overstay its welcome, something many longer Kanye songs struggle with. Kanye is spilling his deepest thoughts on Saint Pablo, most of them being about the $53 million dollars in debt he was dealing with at the time. He brings sharp social commentary, thanks god, addresses his personal life and controversies, and vents frustrations all in only 2 verses. It is the perfect way to close the album out, and it perfectly accompanies every song that precedes it, combining the themes of every song before it into one masterpiece of a song. I genuinely believe this to be Kanye’s best song ever, and I don’t think he will find a way to top it.
At the end of the day, The Life of Pablo, the seventh studio album from Kanye West, brings a little bit of everything to the table. Kanye tells tales of beautiful highs and depressing lows on the album, possibly alluding to his bipolar disorder, a condition that causes those who have it to experience such great highs and terrible lows. He brings a star-studded lineup of features that each contribute beautifully to the final product. Even though the original version is not available to the public anymore, The Life of Pablo, after many updates, is what I believe to be Kanye’s best album to date. Another unpopular opinion, I believe this album does not get the credit that it deserves. The replayability, variety, lyricism, beats, features, they are all there, and they are all perfect. Even though I cannot relate with the Christian undertones of the album all that much, Kanye’s embracement of his inferiority to a higher power is refreshing to hear from a man who consistently compared himself to God in the past. All of these things combine to make an album that is beautiful, and I find it funny that an album that was updated so many times because it wasn’t perfect is going to end up receiving a perfect score from me. There are certainly songs on here that are stronger than others, but that is true for every album. My favorite songs from The Life of Pablo, in no particular order, are; Saint Pablo, Real Friends, No More Parties in LA, Waves, FML, Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1, Fade, Ultralight Beam, and 30 Hours. There are definitely things that I think could be improved upon from this album, namely my gripes with Wolves. But my realization that this album is not technically perfect, but Kanye’s best attempt at a project that is, makes it that much better, especially considering that Kanye, a historically egotistical man, is realizing on this album that he is, much to his dismay, also not perfect. To put it simply, I love The Life of Pablo, and it has aged beautifully in the five years since its release. It is not my favorite album ever made, but it is certainly up there. It checks all the boxes for a great album, and does an outstanding job in doing so, and I would rate it a 10/10.
Listen to The Life of Pablo by Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
Listen to the playlist of The Life of Pablo before the eventual album edits occurred: The Life of Pablo: Unedited Version
Sources: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo Lyrics and Tracklist