Midway through the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Paul cycles back to tell the astounding story of his transformation from the brutal, quick-tempered Saul of Tarsus to Paul, an organizing force in the early Christian church. A self-prescribed zealot, Saul worked hard to stamp out early worshipers of Jesus, then considered heretics by staunch enforcers of Judaic law, until a trip to Damascus, where “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” Prostrate and blinded, he heard a disembodied voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He was never the same. In a gripping Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam,” the opener to his enigmatic seventh album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West appeared to re-enact Saul’s conversion, lying on the ground in a Christ pose under a bath of bright light as gospel heavyweight Kirk Franklin delivered a powerful invocation to close the song: “You can never go too far to where you can’t come back home again.”
We've looked to Kanye West time and again in his decade-plus career as our era’s most consistently fascinating architect of full length album statements to shake us out of the present and pave a daring path to the future. And he obliged, helping to open up space at radio for rappers who never sold drugs and unite hip-hop’s divided mainstream and underground on his debut The College Dropout; breathing stadium pomp into his productions on Late Registration and Graduation; transforming personal turmoil into new wave robot pop on 808s & Heartbreak; playing a football organization worth of collaborators like an orchestra on the grand My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; and screaming primally through hellish negative space on Yeezus. When hip-hop needed a shot in the arm, West was there. But who saves a hero? On The Life of Pablo, the answers, where they can be easily gleaned, are faith and love.
Pablo begins and ends in prayer: “Ultralight Beam” seeks faith in times of trouble, and “Wolves” asks for safety for West’s children North and Saint. (The version of the album currently streaming on Tidal contains an intermission and four cuts that West describes in “30 Hours” as “bonus joints.”) But if it’s a gospel album, as advertised in a note from the artist’s suddenly hyperactive Twitter feed, then it’s one that is chiefly concerned with the process of salvation rather than the relief of having found it. It’s the dark night of the soul before the light of the Lord. It’s Saul’s diligent ruthlessness. It’s drunken lasciviousness. It’s bullish, troubling chauvinism. It’s deep, lingering resentment for business rivals. But as much as Pablo is rooted in Kanye in confession, “revealing the layers to my soul,” as he deadpans on “FML,” it’s also about recognizing dark thoughts and processes and transcending them as best he can in the existing systems he traverses. “I just want to be liberated,” he sings through a coat of Auto Tune in “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.” “Tell me who in here can relate.”
Though the darkness at the core of Pablo is never named, listen to the man speak long enough in any forum, and the emasculation of being one of the world’s most famous black men but lacking the trust to hatch his plans for the world bleeds blue. Kanye West’s art has always been a monument at the intersection of blackness and masculinity in America, a testament of the jibing surges of power and helplessness that being a man with black skin can entail. Pablo finds him more famous perhaps than ever before but not more powerful. He still can’t find the necessary venture capital to execute his most lofty ideas, and the cruel hum around the net when he details plans to shift the worlds of fashion and technology suggest at least a low grade lunacy. This is not a burden we lay on the shoulders of white dreamers, the Disneys and Jobses Kanye counts as personal heroes. He’s just a “rich slave in the fabric store picking cottons,” as he says in “Feedback,” referencing Jay Z’s “Oceans.”
While Kanye West and esteemed collaborators like The-Dream, Frank Ocean, and others have crafted a stunning work that expresses the grit and uncertainty of straining to find fulfillment in trying times, watching the music’s central struggle play out in West’s world off record could be taxing. In opening up his artistic process over the last year, showing his music and clothing designs coming together and reacting to his own bad press in real time, West revealed just how messy it is, and in turn the internet revealed how messy it is. Every tweet and tweak kicked up waves of withering social media snark, armchair psychology, and goatee grazing editorials, which, in turn, engendered swift, frequently brutish response from West, himself. The dance has been exasperating, listeners shifting at a moment’s notice between struggling to let the (very good) new music speak for itself and groaning at Kanye barreling across lines of proper decency on Twitter. Pablo quietly proves the root question of whether or not the artist lacks self-awareness sort of ridiculous as “I Love Kanye” pokes fun at West’s own notorious arrogance and the disapproval of fans who’ve long since given up following his many new directions.
As a seemingly hastily realized studio album that isn’t presently for sale and might not even be finished, Pablo flies recklessly in the face of the methodical, precise rollouts of albums in its league. Even in an era full of peculiar curios like the Wu-Tang album no one is allowed to listen to, the Beyoncé album not even her label knew existed, and the Rihanna album fans were instructed to solve a mobile puzzle game to unlock, the shiftlessness here is shocking. Though dozens of high profile albums have seen release in an era where we increasingly experience life behind the lens of a smartphone, the Pablo launch feels like the first of its caliber to actually take on the restless character and hectic pace of the world around it. That means indecisiveness and impermanence, and Pablo, an album that cycled through three titles, no less than two guiding concepts, and innumerable tracklistings to arrive at the present one, gives it gladly.
While a gospel underpinning holds much of the album together, there are spots that thumb restlessly through Kanyes past for style cues. “Famous” plays at the crowded pomp of Dark Twisted Fantasy, piling a soaring Rihanna vocal, Swizz Beatz ad libs, and samples of Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” and Sister Nancy’s reggae classic “Bam Bam” into the same crowded car. “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” sees the much-anticipated return of West as soul sample whiz, while “Pt. 2” takes us straight from the church to the club on the wings of trap growler and new G.O.O.D. Music signee Desiigner’s street hit “Panda.” “FML” takes a sharp left in its coda from plinking synths and Weeknd vocals to a sinister, chipmunk sample of Factory Records post-punk vets Section 25 as Kanye fends off detractors of the Kardashian-West union. “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4” reach back to the scabrous avant garde dance music of Yeezus. West’s struggle to find salvation is a unifying theme here, but the sacred and the profane sit so closely together that it can be dizzying, like on the one-two punch of "Low Lights" and "Highlights," an emotional display of Christian joy immediately followed by a verse about West wishing he could replay sex acts on demand. Pablo can feel like a smartly curated playlist in its radical shifts in tone, a quality it shares with 2007’s Graduation.
Like a good playlist, Pablo also feels mercurial and subject to sudden change. Attendees of West’s Madison Square Garden album and clothing line reveal received a puzzling email after the official album release claiming the existing 18-track permutation of The Life of Pablo is, in fact, a “partial version” presaging a final one to be unveiled in the days to come. West was promising new tweaks to the record as late as the afternoon after its late night release, and exciting alternate versions of its songs are leaking even today. Does anyone have a concrete plan for this album? Is it all, as some have presumptuously suggested, just a manic episode? Is Kanye weird? Is he in danger? As spectators we’ll never know. The Life of Pablo shows us a man reaching for fulfillment in faith and family. And as the popular church paraphrase of Paul’s letter to the Philippians goes, God’s not finished yet.
Craig comes from a long line of Southern Baptists. Follow him on Twitter.