When Kanye West released “Only One,” a sweet, crooning love song to his daughter North on New Year’s Day in 2015, I thought I might be witnessing the beginning of the next chapter in his ever-evolving, always mesmerizing musical career. I was sure another great record was in the works when Kanye performed another new track, “Wolves,” on Saturday Night Live (SNL). His last three albums grappled with the dark sides of love, fame and reality, respectively. “Only One” and “Wolves” appeared to introduce fatherhood as the next source of happiness and struggle for Kanye, and I could only imagine the ways in which his child might shape his next masterpiece.
So when his new album “The Life of Pablo” (TLOP) finally dropped last week, not only were these songs and their contrasting themes absent, but there appeared to be no overall concept to the album at all (for all the TLOP listeners: the “Wolves” on the album is a drastically different version than the one on SNL). It’s a major departure from the thematic standard Kanye set for himself with his last three albums.
That doesn’t meant TLOP comes without highlights: The intro track “Ultralight Beam” is easily the best opening to any album I’ve heard in years. You’d be hard pressed to find a guest feature on any Kanye album that beats Chance the Rapper’s verse on this song. “Famous” sees Rihanna take on Nina Simone lyrics before the beat transitions into the bouncing, catchy “Bam Bam” reggae of Sister Nancy. “FML” and “Real Friends” briefly bring back the looming darkness that made his last three albums so great. And “No More Parties in LA” appears as a bonus track and gives us an extended sample of Kanye rapping at a level not seen since “Watch the Throne.”
Unfortunately, these outliers aren’t enough to make up for the lack of direction in the album, especially when Kanye is known for choosing a concept and sticking to it. The glory of “Ultralight Beam” is deceptive as an intro because it’s immediately followed up by a song that’s ruined by Kanye’s forced humor about bleached a–holes. In between “Famous” and “FML,” there’s a span of six songs that contain everything from an awkward Oprah skit to a cheesy Chris Brown chorus that compares love to waves on the ocean. Despite being solid as a previously released single, the album’s closing track “30 Hours” is now ruined by three minutes of a half-hearted freestyle and ad-libs.
But it gets worse. Since TLOP dropped, over 15 unreleased, unfinished and alternate versions of songs that didn’t make the album have leaked online, and it’s painfully obvious that if Kanye took his time and included some of these tracks, the album would actually have the potential to be as conceptually sound as his last three. Among them are newer versions of “Only One” and “Wolves;” ironically the same songs that I assumed would play important roles in the thematic structure of TLOP. They bring out the emotions that I want in a Kanye album. It’s too bad that Kanye insists on being a “38-year-old 8 year old” when he could be so much more.