Kanye West, "The Life of Pablo" (Def Jam)
It's unlikely we'll get a song as singular as West's "Ultralight Beam" anytime soon, so best to linger on it, feel out its grooves and curves, allow it to seep into the pores. His recent performance of it on "Saturday Night Live" captured its reverent tone well.
The whole thing was oozy, deliberate. Its intensity came from its measured approach. It was stirring, a performance of uncommon intensity and vision. And then, the second it was over, West jumped to his feet, announced that his delayed album was now available for purchase and streaming.
West, 38, has perfected the art of aesthetic and intellectual bricolage, shape-shifting in real time and counting on listeners to keep up. More than any of his previous albums, "Pablo" — currently available only on Tidal, the music-streaming service — reflects that rambling, fearsome energy. This is Tumblr-as-album, the piecing together of divergent fragments to make a cohesive whole.
"Pablo" doesn't have the cool rage of "Yeezus," his last left turn of an album, but it has maintained its sense of propulsion, while somehow echoing the soul-baptized sound that West made his name with, both as a producer for others and on his debut, "The College Dropout." These are styles that don't play well together, but West's synthesis is almost seamless.
Many of the highest points on "Pablo" are the disruptive moments — jarring intrusions from guests, or unexpectedly complicated song structures, or the interludes in other people's voices. All together, the symphonic effect recalls his 2010 masterpiece, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
West's primary subject matter remains himself, both his internal life and his external character. On "Pablo," there is genuine pathos on "Real Friends" and "No More Parties in LA." On "30 Hours," he raps about how hard he used to work for love. And on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2," he recalls the family problems that steered him off course, and tries to make amends.
"Facts" is an elongated tirade against Nike, the company he once collaborated with, before Adidas offered him a boatload of money and creative freedom. The delirious "Highlights" is a tabloid boast about West's extended family (his wife is Kim Kardashian), calling them "the new Jacksons." And "Famous" is vintage West braggadocio, full of spite and cheek, including its mention of making Taylor Swift famous.
"Pablo" is a hybrid of approaches. "Feedback" and "Fade" show a comfort with accelerated tempos, while the digital steam bath on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" and "30 Hours" accentuates West's softer side.
What's also striking here is the way in which West induces others to greatness. He has Rihanna singing Nina Simone lyrics on "Famous," André 3000 doing some fuzzy crooning on "30 Hours." The verse from Kendrick Lamar on "No More Parties in LA" might be the most striking of the year thus far, were it not for the one Chance the Rapper delivers on "Ultralight Beam."
There are places on this album where West raps with fervor, but more often he is showing restraint. His rapping is sparser, more pointed, less imagistic and more emotional. And when he truly needs to be heard, he can corral a dream team of collaborators. He can use others to speak for him, and be understood clear as day.
Jon Caramanica, New York Times