Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Itâs unlikely weâll get a song as singular as Kanye Westâs âUltralight Beamâ anytime soon, so best to linger on it, feel out its grooves and curves, allow it to seep into the pores.
Mr. Westâs recent performance of it on âSaturday Night Liveâ captured its reverent tone well. He began singing through an Auto-Tune-like effect, an old trick but one that he destabilized, using it to exaggerate his imperfections, rather than mask them. Behind him, a choir delivered stabs of vocal religion. Behind them, a scrim angled up to the sky played what appeared to be heavily pixilated clouds and flames.
The whole thing was oozy, deliberate. Its intensity came from its measured approach. The juxtaposition between Mr. Westâs unsteadiness and the gale force of the choir was pronounced.
When he ceded center stage, though, the song began to swell. First came a pair of bracing R&B singers: The-Dream, restrained, and Kelly Price, soaring; both deeply grounded. Then, Chance the Rapper, an astonishingly nimble and emotionally mature rapper, delivered a verse cum sermon while Mr. West stood at the side of the stage, beaming. When he finished, Mr. West retook the center, then lay prostrate on the floor as Kirk Franklin, the gospel maximalist and bridge-builder, emerged to give a benediction.
Kanye West debuted his new album, “The Life of Pablo,” and his Yeezy Season 3 collection with Adidas during a loud, controversy-filled week.
It was stirring, a performance of uncommon intensity and vision. And then, the second it was over, Mr. West jumped to his feet, announced that his delayed album was now available for purchase and streaming, and ran across the stage screaming, âAaaarrrrggghhh,â like a child burning off a candy overdose.
Mr. Westâs many contradictions are old news by this point â he is an activist who is also a capitalist, a penitent and gleeful sinner, a stubborn autodidact and an eager collaborator, a vessel and a pied piper. Is it not clear by now, with the release of his seventh album, âThe Life of Pabloâ (Def Jam), that these are not contradictions at all?
Rather, Mr. West â who calls himself a â38-year-old 8-year-oldâ on this album â has perfected the art of aesthetic and intellectual bricolage, shape-shifting in real time and counting on listeners to keep up. More than on any of his previous albums, âPabloâ reflects that rambling, fearsome energy. This is Tumblr-as-album, the piecing together of divergent fragments to make a cohesive whole.
âPabloâ doesnât have the cool rage of âYeezus,â his last left turn of an album, but it has maintained its sense of propulsion, while somehow echoing the soul-baptized sound that Mr. West made his name with, both as a producer for others and on his debut, âThe College Dropout.â These are styles that donât play well together, but Mr. Westâs synthesis is almost seamless.
Many of the highest points on âPabloâ are the disruptive moments â jarring intrusions from guests, or unexpectedly complicated song structures, or the interludes in other peopleâs voices. All together, the symphonic effect recalls his 2010 masterpiece, âMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,â the album that skyrocketed him beyond simple conversations about his pop effectiveness and instead laid the groundwork for the eccentric part of his career.
And so, now, you can only measure Kanye West against his own audacity â even the artists whom heâs inspired and influenced donât operate on his scale.
Dispatches From Kanye Westâs Yeezy Season 3 Extravaganza
Mr. West debuted his latest fashion collection and his new album at Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Westâs primary subject matter remains himself, both his internal life and his external character. On âPablo,â there is genuine pathos on âReal Friendsâ (âWhen was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasnât in a hurry?â) and âNo More Parties in LA.â On â30 Hours,â over a frail Arthur Russell sample, he raps about how hard he used to work for love, or something like it. And on âFather Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,â he recalls the family problems that steered him off course, and tries to make amends: âUp in the morning, miss you bad/Sorry I ainât called you back/Same problem my father had.â Also the Christian streak that runs through the work of Chance the Rapper, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar â the one that Mr. West is a progenitor of, dating back to âJesus Walksâ â is here on âUltralight Beamâ and âFather Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.â
This sort of vulnerability usually comes without self-awareness, but Mr. West can be whispering dark fears one minute, then beating his chest with pride the next â even his exaggerations are intimate acts. Here is a guy who slips a rhyme and hubris exercise like âI Love Kanyeâ in the middle of his album, an interlude thatâs also a rant thatâs also a barometer of public opinion thatâs also a wink: âWhat if Kanye made a song about Kanye/Called âI Miss the Old Kanye?â/Man thatâd be so Kanye.â
âFactsâ is an elongated tirade against Nike, the sneaker company he once collaborated with, before Adidas offered him a boatload of money and creative freedom. The delirious âHighlights,â featuring Young Thug, is a tabloid boast about Mr. Westâs extended family â his wife is Kim Kardashian â calling them âthe new Jacksons.â And âFamousâ is vintage West braggadocio, full of spite and cheek, though the conversation about that song has been limited to its mention of Taylor Swift: âI feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.â
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Scenes From Kanye Westâs Yeezy Season 3 Show
Scenes From Kanye Westâs Yeezy Season 3 Show
CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
The line is both tacky and hilarious, a piece of celeb-slash-fiction thatâs both casual boast and extravagant provocation. (Depending on whom you believe, Ms. Swift either did or did not sign off on this line.) Ms. Swift and Mr. West healed their yearslong feud last year, but Mr. Westâs willingness to rap about her in this way is a reminder that nothing is more important to him than his right to his excesses.
That is true in the music on this album, as well. Like many West albums, âPabloâ is a group effort. Itâs also a hybrid of approaches. âFactsâ suggests he has fully internalized Drake and Futureâs âWhat a Time to Be Aliveâ (as do the collaborations with the Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, a new signee to Mr. Westâs label who raps with the callous distance of Future). âFeedbackâ and âFadeâ show a comfort with accelerated tempos, while the digital steam bath on âFather Stretch My Hands Pt. 1â and â30 Hoursâ accentuates Mr. Westâs softer side.
Whatâs also striking on âPabloâ is the way in which Mr. West steadily induces others to greatness (to say nothing of getting them to work on his clock). He has Rihanna singing Nina Simone lyrics on âFamous,â AndrÃ© 3000 doing some fuzzy crooning on â30 Hours,â Frank Ocean delivering signature stoic cool on âWolves.â The verse from Kendrick Lamar on âNo More Parties in LAâ might be the most striking of the year thus far, were it not for the one Chance the Rapper delivers on âUltralight Beam,â a master class in texture, content and form.
There are places on this album where Mr. West raps with that sort of fervor, but more often he is showing restraint. On his earlier albums, he agitated to be heard, and that was reflected in his manic rapping. These days, his anxieties are elsewhere â can he establish himself as a key player in fashion? Can he infiltrate the tech world? Can he make a hotel in his image?
Now 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. Heâs so fluent that he can use others to speak for him, and be understood clear as day.