What the world needs now is a great Kanye West song: no less and please, God, no more. Enough with the delays, the obfuscations, the feuds, the amusing tantrums misidentified as unhinged rants, the legit unmisidentifiable social-media disasters. It’s exhausting. He’s exhausting. We’re exhausted. To quote Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.” (To paraphrase Thoreau: “Never Tweet.”) So let’s simplify this as best we can.
Here’s a nearly great Kanye West song.
There is so much to love about “30 Hours.” The high-art (or, at least, critic-baiting) Arthur Russell sample. The burbling beat and gently farting bassline, reminiscent of a simpler, cheerier time. (Or reminiscent of “Heard ’Em Say,” anyway.) The fact that Kanye leads off with this—
You say you never saw this comin’ and you’re not alone
Million-dollar renovations to a happy home
My ex says she gave me the best years of her life
I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right
—which made me laugh out loud for a solid 30 seconds, to the point where I walked into another room just to enjoy the experience of laughing in that room, also. (It was not my most humanist moment, but listening to Kanye West is no one’s most humanist moment.) He goes on to reminisce about his early career with some tiny measure of humility, or at least he leavens his self-aggrandizement with Jokes:
I remember bein’ nervous to do Victoria’s Secret
Till I pictured everybody with they clothes off
Not an A+ or even B+ line, no, but it’s comforting, right? Likewise the whole second verse, which is a Complaining About One of My Pre-Fame Ex-Girlfriends thing, a tiresome cliché that Drake, for example, is still very busy running into the ground. But there’s a charming level of detail to this that you can’t help but love. On that 30-hour drive, he braves the elements with no snow tires (“Skrrt skrrt skrrt like a private school for women”), only to arrive to find she ate all the Popeye’s and is now demanding an omelette at 5 a.m. (“Only thing open is Waffle House / Girl, don’t start with me.”) It all ends badly, as these things inevitably do— “Well I guess a blow job’s better than no job”—but there’s something so gentle and unassuming and quiet about it.
The problem is that the version of “30 Hours” on The Life of Pablo—Kanye’s new album, whose acronym I keep misreading as PLOP—allegedly features André 3000. Which is fantastic news! There is no more reassuring phrase in the English language than “featuring André 3000.” But there is no André 3000 verse. Per the official credits, he does “backing vocals.” (My further research into this matter is unsatisfying.) Instead, you are treated to three minutes of world-class stalling. Kanye lets the beat ride. He workshops a Matt Barnes joke. He takes a call from his publicist, Gabe, who is long-suffering and delightful. The best you can say is that this is all a fascinating glimpse into our host’s, y’know, process. The worst you can say is that it is bullshit.
And that’s Kanye West in 2016: The signal fighting the noise to a draw.
TLOP (see?) is by no means a disaster, but it’s nowhere near majestic enough to make you forget that virtually everything surrounding it has been, and continues to be, a disaster, or at least a profound, ceaseless irritation. (See also: Rihanna’s valiantly druggy and crabby Anti, which can’t quite transcend the single worst album rollout in music-biz history, though Kanye’s vying for that crown, too. God bless Tidal, the Cleveland Browns of streaming services.) It has the messianic grandeur of My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy and the titanic scabrous hostility of Yeezus, but it’s fighting for oxygen amid his reignited and increasingly toxic war with Taylor Swift, plus this weird new chatter about his debt, plus this even weirder and way more discomfiting chatter about his alleged mental illness. Kanye West the media debacle has fully eclipsed Kanye West the artist. I assume he has said/Tweeted something ridiculous, and had 12 billion ridiculous things said/Tweeted about him, in the time it took me to write this sentence. He needs to take a nap, and so do we; either he needs to the get the hell off Twitter, or everybody else does.
The whiplash contradictions on The Life of Pablo are bracing enough without all this spectacle. “Ultralight Beam” is an absolutely wonderful opener, a space-gospel monolith with an exultant choir and an absurdly winsome Chance the Rapper verse; this is immediately followed by “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” an equally joyous sun salutation wherein Kanye begins his verse thus:
Now if I fuck this model
And she just bleached her asshole
And I get bleach on my T-shirt
I’m-a feel like an asshole
Fantastic. “Pt. 2" introduces us to Desiigner, an NYC rapper who you’d forgive for sounding exactly like Future if the first words out of
his mouth weren’t, “I got broads in Atlanta.” Then comes “Famous,” which is a mess, in that it includes that line about Taylor Swift, plus a sultry yet disembodied Rihanna hook, plus an abrupt detour into Sister Nancy’s dancehall all-timer “Bam Bam.” On “Feedback,” Kanye delivers the record’s thesis statement—“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”—then cedes the floor on “Low Lights” to an uncredited woman for some deeply earnest earth-Gospel testimony (“Oh, lord, thank you—you are the joy of my life”), then returns with “High Lights,” which costars Young Thug and features such bon mots as:
Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had
So I could play that shit back
This is a deeply schizophrenic record, for good and ill. (The ill includes an unlistenable freestyle; the unwelcome reappearance of “Facts,” a/k/a Deadspin’s least favorite Kanye song; the mere presence of Chris Brown; and the line “But I’m-a have the last laugh in the end / ’Cause I’m from a tribe called Check-a-Ho,” on a song that a) features the Weekend and b) is called “FML.”) There’s a lot to block out to get to the good shit, even after you’ve blocked out all the extracurricular bad shit.
Your reward is “Real Friends,” the beat a ground-down version of “Grindin’,” the vibe legitimately sad and gorgeous, a downer sequel to Kanye’s old “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs” line, with purring R&B lothario Ty Dolla $ign bringing as much pathos as Chance the Rapper brought joy. “Wolves” has a bizarre “what if Mary and Joseph had met in the club” hypothetical I’ll have to unpack on Genius later, but an unshakeable unease; “No More Parties in L.A.” features both Madlib and Kendrick Lamar, both relatively playful, though Kanye sneaks in one of the record’s sharpest darts:
My psychiatrist got kids that I inspire
First song they played me was about they friend that just died
I would love it if those two lines were what I remembered about The Life of Pablo five years from now, but it’s just likely to be this—
—which is my fault, maybe, but definitely his problem. The Life of Pablo is rife with distractions from within and without. And I get stuck on “30 Hours” every time, the ecstasy and the agony, a potential all-time highlight relegated to unofficial b-side status on an album that still doesn’t feel “finished,” possibly because it clearly isn’t. It’s Kanye’s most human, most fallible moment on an extremely human/fallible record, and that’s a great thing, until it isn’t. You can’t blame him, really, though then again, maybe you can.
Photo by Getty.