By: Brier Stucky
Kanye West is no stranger to the extravagant album release, from the weekly single releases preceding My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to the worldwide projections of his Yeezus single “New Slaves”. But the rollout for his seventh solo album The Life of Pablo has been less extravagant and more scatterbrained than any of his past releases. At the beginning of 2015, Kanye released the single “Only One” soon followed by “All Day” and “Four Five Seconds”. As these tracks were released, Kanye began to reveal information on his new album, then titled So Help Me God. Kanye continually dropped hints about the album throughout the rest of the year, but by the end of 2015, there was no album.
At the start of 2016, Kanye released his Nike diss track “Facts”, kicking off what would become the official rollout for TLOP, although at the time it was titled “Swish” and then later “Waves”. Kanye then released “Real Friends” and stated that he would be bringing back his Good Friday series, which he had used to promote previous albums. A week later the track “No More Parties in L.A.” arrived, but was the last track in the supposed start of a new series. What followed were two weeks of a series of confusing and braggadocios tweets about the album, pictures in the studio, several pictures of track lists that seemed to undergo endless alterations, and culminated in Kanye’s announcement that the album would be premiered in Madison Square Gardens alongside his Yeezy Season 3 clothing line. Millions of people watched the live stream thinking that the album would be released shortly afterwards, but instead had to wait Sunday morning to hear a studio quality version of the album. Even as I’m writing this, the album is still only available on the streaming service Tidal, with Kanye claiming that it will only be available on Tidal.
But does this messy album release affect the actual music of TLOP. Fortunately, the answer is no, for the most part. In fact, TLOP is an excellent entry into Kanye’s illustrious back catalog, an album that serves both as a fitting sequel to his critical smash, genre pushing Yeezus, but also as a great combination of Kanye’s past works. Songs like “Feedback” and “Wolves” feature Yeezus’ industrial minimalism, “Highlights” and “Famous” embrace the grandiose electro-pop of Graduation, while tracks like “Ultralight Beam” and “Fade” feel like new territory for Kanye. There’s even something for the lovers of the “old Kanye” on tracks like “30 Hours” and “No More Parties in L.A.”. He even addresses the divide among his fans on the short acapella track “I Love Kanye” where he raps “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the “Go Kanye, Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye”. It’s a hilariously meta track, but it addresses an ongoing issue among Kanye fans. While critics and newer fans are wanting Kanye to keep pushing genre boundaries, those who swear by Ye’s original three albums have long been wanting him to return to the soulful, self-aware rapping that made him famous.
Kanye is fully aware of this divide on TLOP, and rather than try to satisfy one party or the other, he uses his latest album as a personal reflection on fame, family, and faith. Kanye himself called TLOP a gospel album, and while this sounded a bit ridiculous before the album was released, the opening track “Ultralight Beam” makes it clear that he wasn’t kidding. The track is perhaps the most original moment on the album, seeing Kanye weave together gospel choruses, organs, a sermon from pastor Kirk Franklin, and a standout guest verse from Chance the Rapper. The track sets the tone for what’s to come, a spiritual journey through Kanye’s past and brings us even deeper into his tortured psyche. The excellent opener is followed by the only major misstep on the album, the tracks “Father Stretch My Hands Pts. 1 & 2”, the only track that reflects his recent uncertainties. It’s all over the place, beginning with a soul sample, breaks into a decent instrumental, and then cuts to another sample. Both parts feel scattered, and while there are moments of greatness, the two part song fails to work as a whole.
But the remainder of the album is some of Kanye’s best work to date, aside from the last minute addition “Waves” that is the only mediocre track in an otherwise great series. The fourth track “Famous” is classic Kanye, featuring his braggadocios lyrics and an infectious flow over one of his best beats in recent memory, featuring a Rihanna sang hook as well as a Nina Simone sample. It’s catchy, poppy, and could be a big hit if Kanye ever decides to give the album a wider release. Following “Famous” is another album standout “Feedback”. It’s a minimalist banger that features a great bass groove and some of the albums best lyrics.
“Low Lights” brings the album’s concept back into focus, featuring a female’s testimony about her faith, and serves as an interlude to the high spirited “Highlights”, where Kanye brings his feud with Kim Kardashians former lover Ray J back into focus, rapping that “he might have hit it first, only problem is I’m rich”. It’s one of many lines that sees Kanye reminiscing about his past encounters with other artists and the media. On “Famous”, he says that he “feels like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex”, a line that while being ill-advised and unnecessary, further contributes to the immense ego that he builds throughout the majority of the album. This ego trip reaches its climax on the eerie “Freestyle 4”, a carnal stream of conscious that sees Kanye laying out all of his lustful urges. The track feels like Kanye’s massive ego is being let loose on the listener, but at the same time feels like a descent into madness.
The final three tracks are a perfect way to end the album. “FML” is a reflection on the wild life Kanye leads, realizing that he needs to get his life in check if he is going to be able to keep his family and career intact. It’s a chilling minimal track that serves as a powerful look into just how tortured Kanye feels. The following track “Real Friends” is incredibly bleak look at the effects of fame on the relationships in Kanye’s life, discussing how his career has gotten in the way of spending time with his family, but has also surrounded him with fake, back-stabbing friends. Yet Kanye understands he created this environment, and that some relationships just can’t be fixed.
The previous two tracks lead in perfectly to one of Kanye’s all-time best closing tracks “Wolves”. This is assuming that the subsequent tracks are bonus tracks, as he states this is in the track “30 Hours” and seems indicated by the track labeled “Silver Surfer Intermission”. “Wolves” brings the listener up to date on Kanye’s journey thus far, stating that he has turned out “too wild” and feels that his late mother wouldn’t approve. The track perfectly displays Kanye’s fears as a husband and a father, feeling that he could lose it all at any moment as he is surrounded by the so called “wolves”. For the time being, he feels that he has things under control, but the chilling last words sung by Frank Ocean leave the album on a beautifully uncertain note.
It’s truly amazing that TLOP isn’t a complete failure considering the circumstances surrounding its release. While it’s definitely not near Kanye’s best works, it shows that the 38 year old rapper is as poignant as ever and is showing no signs of slowing down. TLOP is a challenging album, but one that is undeniably fun to listen to. Even in its darkest moments, Kanye shows why he’s such an engrossing songwriter, and his ability to craft a dynamic album is as sharp as ever. Yeezy season is once again upon us, and this latest installment will have to keep us satisfied as we eagerly await what he will do next.