It’s hard to reconcile the public appraisal of Kanye West with the critical appraisal of his work at the best of times,but the chaotic lead up to the release of the eventually titled The Life of Pablo has muddied the waters even more.
Pitchfork’s review of the album stated that it “feels like Kanye ran across town to deliver a half-wrapped gift to a group birthday party to which he was 10 minutes late.”
It’s a fair observation for an album that’s gone through four titles, at least as many track-listings and, at the time of writing, is still being revised – a week after the album’s premiere at the Yeezy Season 3 launch in Madison Square Garden.
The chaos that enveloped Kanye’s work also overspilled into his public life as he began to overshare on twitter. His infamous now-deleted spat with Wiz Khalifa turned into a misogynistic attack on their mutual ex, Amber Rose,and the distressing extent of Ye’s misogyny was revealed when he chose to ignore the testimony of over 50 women to tweet “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!”
Ye then went on to disclose that he is $53 million in personal debt, and begged Mark Zuckerberg to invest “one billion dollars in Kanye West ideas” so he could “bring more beautiful ideas to the world,” claiming that he is “this generation’s Disney.”
Fears for Ye’s mental health have been raised by longtime collaborator Rhymefest, who stated that he believes that Kanye “needs help, in the form of counseling. Spiritual & mental. He should step away from the public and yesmen and heal.” Indeed, on The Life of Pablo’s The Weeknd featuring FML, Ye raps: “You ain’t ever seen anything as crazy/as this… off his Lexapro.”
Pablo’s Pitchfork score though? 9.0. Best New Music. Kanye has form here though,almost all of his biggest critical successes have come from times of personal chaos.
Back in 2002, Kanye had just signed to Roc-A-Fella when he fell asleep at the wheel of his rented Lexus and almost died in the ensuing crash. Just two weeks later, broken jaw wired shut, Kanye was back in the studio and recorded Through The Wire.
The song convinced Roc-A-Fella execs,who viewed Kanye as a producer and signed him to ensure his beats stayed in-house, to take him more seriously as a rapper, and went on to be certified gold in the US as the lead single from The College Dropout.
The closing track of that album, the 12 and a half minute “Last Call,” where Ye hits out at all the record execs who said he “couldn’t rhyme” contains a line that explains the part of Kanye’s personality that generates most of this chaos for himself: his ego. “Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/ Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams.”
It’s notable that Kanye’s blowups over the next few years all came at times when his work was under the spotlight. He walked out of the American Music Awards in 2004 after losing Best New Artist, stormed the stage at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2006 after losing Best Video, and he blew up backstage at the VMAs in 2007 after failing to win any of the five categories he was nominated for.
Ye addressed this phenomenon on the Graduation single Can’t Tell Me Nothing: “I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/And what’d I do? Act more stupidly.”
Kanye’s public images plummeted to new depths in 2009 when he infamously interrupted Taylor Swift’s victory speech at the VMAs to proclaim that Beyoncé’s Single Ladies was one of the best videos of all time.
As Kanye acknowledged in his single Power, he was regarded as “the abomination of Obama’s nation,” and even Obama himself called him a “jackass” after the stunt. What followed was 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s biggest critical smash, which addressed his public perception on the aforementioned Power, Monster,and Runaway.
Ian Cohen of Pitchfork wrote in 2014 when naming Album of the half-Decade that the album accounts “for West’s artistic adaptability and personal stubbornness,” and “builds a monument as Rome burns”.
Is Kanye’s bizarre twitter behaviour perhaps fuelled by a need within himself to burn Rome before he can deliver a monument? While his misogyny is sickening and inexcusable, fans will be comforted that The Life of Pablo demonstrates that while Kanye may often be at the heart of the ridiculous, he can still produce work that is absolutely sublime.