Striving for Perfection: A Trip Through Kanye West's Shifting 'Life of Pablo' Mixes
We try to chart a perfect 'Pablo' from the various mixes of every song at our disposal.
Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo finally crash landed at retail this past weekend after a month and a half of Tidal-only exclusivity. Though the tracklist hadn’t changed, the mixes had, the Chicago star’s promise of a “living album” borne out in a myriad of subtle tweaks to its songs. One week a line in the current single “Famous” changed from “She be Puerto Rican day parade wavin'” to “She in school to be a real estate agent” alongside other quiet adjustments to the mix. Later, “Wolves,” which hit Tidal with vocals from Chicago rapper Vic Mensa and singer Sia heard during West’s Yeezy Season 2 fashion show replaced by a muted Frank Ocean coda, was retooled to house all three guest appearances.
Just before the weekend, The Life of Pablo was rolled out in full to Apple Music and Spotify along with a purchase option. Eagle-eyed listeners picked up notable changes to the mixes of just about every song. Asked via Twitter about the differences between the Tidal-only Pablo and this new version, longtime Kanye collaborator Mike Dean succinctly replied, “Mastering.” But is this the current incarnation of The Life of Pablo the best? Is it even the last? What was gained from continuing to tinker with it?
As one of the random couple thousand people who successfully purchased The Life of Pablo the first night and were sent a download of the updated version when it hit other streaming services, I now have two copies of the album to sort through, so as I was deciding what to keep and what to delete, I figured I’d geek out and share my perfect Pablo along with the reasons I chose the mixes I did for every song.
The first version of Pablo’s methodical track one is a stunning, cinematic open, gospel choir swooping down like a blast of the full majesty of the heavens midway through Kanye’s prayerful invocation. Remixed, “Ultralight Beams” somehow manages to make the choir sound even plusher while pulling back a little on the shocking loudness of it, although there’s a half-bar “No one can judge” added to Chance the Rapper’s showstopper guest verse where dramatic silence had sufficed. Version one feels definitive still, although if you can find someone to cleanly splice “Ultralight Beam” and “Ultralight Prayer” together along Kirk Franklin’s benediction, hit me up with a copy.
“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”
“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” is the song that launched a hundred memes, from pushing Future’s already iconic “If Young Metro don’t trust you I’m gon’ shoot ya” drop to greater heights to goofy videos made about the beat drop to the merciless razzing of Brooklyn G.O.O.D. Music signee Desiigner for popping up on “Pt. 2” sounding like Future after a Future drop. Version one was already flawless throwback chipmunk soul Kanye beefed up by subtle live instrumentation, but version two buffs the last “I wanna wake up with you in my arms” with backing vocals that are warm, emotive, and perfectly in keeping with the religious theme.
“Pt. 2” takes us from the pulpit straight to VIP as Kanye flips Desiigner’s “Panda” into the story of his family’s near collapse growing up. The new mix is crisper all around, though. Go with that.
“Famous” is a shock to the system after the quiet close of “Pt. 2,” opening on a very loud Rihanna vocal, screeching Swizz Beatz, and twinkling production from Mobb Deep’s Havoc (among others) and pulling from Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” for a crazier mashup trick than the "Panda" flip of the previous track. Rihanna is quieter in version two and traced by a Nina Simone sample, and a line about the Puerto Rican Day Parade is scrubbed for some reason. Stick with version one for the sheer audacity of the mix.
“Feedback” gets its name from a central melody pieced together out of bits of guitar feedback, splayed over drums and bass that lightly call back to “Stronger.” Version two distorts the shit out of the bassline and bleeds it out into the first two choruses, spaces where version one dramatically left Kanye alone with the guitar squall, frankly unnecessarily. Go with the OG.
The moving testimonial of “Low Lights” seems unchanged across the differing Pablo mixes. “Highlights,” which features Young Thug, The-Dream, and soul survivor El Debarge, feels heavier. The vocal is subtly scaled back (possibly re-recorded) in the new version, so that Kanye’s shrieking, Auto Tuned opening verse sounds less like he’s straining to hit the high notes. Keep that one.
The crass, shrill, Goldfrapp-sampling “Freestyle 4” is the most take-it-or-leave-it of the Pablo cuts; in structure and in the sonics, it is a race to a spectacular meltdown of a finish. The new mix brings the keys to the forefront and adds synth swooshes, making the song a more eventful, intriguing listen.
“I Love Kanye”
The new mix of the interlude “I Love Kanye” seems a little louder than the original but honestly if you ask me, Lido’s remix destroys any other existing version of this song.
Kanye, Chris Brown, and Kid Cudi’s emotional “Waves” loses some of the punch in the hi hats for version two, which makes the inevitable repeat full blast listens a touch easier on the ears. Chris sounds fuller too, if that’s your thing.
A spooky backing vocal crops up around the second chorus in the revamped version of the Weeknd collaboration “FML” that drops out just as the sample of Factory Records post-punks Section 25’s “Hit” that, like the rest of the good Pablo tweaks, I didn’t know I needed.
There don’t seem to be any noteworthy changes on Ty Dolla $ign and Kanye’s trust issues anthem “Real Friends,” from the G.O.O.D. Friday release through the two album mixes.
Which version of “Wolves” you pick is gonna hinge on your love for Vic Mensa’s singing, your taste for Sia, and how much you dug Kanye rapping “You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich” and the brash “unfollow/unswallow” bars. The leak version of “Wolves” keeps Vic and Sia with no sandwich bars, the first album version ditches Vic and Sia for Frank Ocean, and the “fixed” version pushes Ocean to his own “Frank’s Track” while incorporating Vic, Sia, and the Kanye raps. I personally prefer this last incarnation, but there are those who swapped it out for the pared down leak version, and I get why.
“Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”
Are you really listening to the Max B and French Montana call all that much? I’m not. (Shouts out Max B, though. Waves don’t die.)
“30 Hours”/”No More Parties in LA”
The differences in the two Pablo mixes of “30 Hours” are honestly too subtle to hawk about all that much but if you’re the type who hates shout outs on rap albums, you could plug in the pre-release G.O.O.D. Friday version of this. Also, you are police. The Kendrick Lamar and Madlib collab “No More Parties in LA” seems similarly unchanged since the spitshine it got jumping from the G.O.O.D. Friday version to the official album version.
“Facts (Charlie Heat Version)”
It’s still amazing that Kanye and Charlie Heat were able to flip the unilaterally reviled New Years Eve “Facts” freestyle into a banger. The updated version of the album version of “Facts” doesn’t differ very much from the last one, but I swear the synths around “I’ve been trending years, y’all a couple days” sounds vaguely eviler. I’m always here for more evil.
The booming Chicago house tribute “Fade” gets a curt, echoing outro in the new mix, where the last version just let the beat die at the end of the measure. It also pries the busy clicks off the drums under the song’s intro and first verse, leaving large portions of the song to just Kanye, Ty Dolla $ign, the sinister synth bass, and a four-on-the-floor kick drum. The drums in the breakdown following Post Malone’s first appearance on the track are wayyy up in the mix, too. The new “Fade” bangs so much harder than what we’ve been listening to for the last two months that it almost legitimizes this whole bout of mad scientist tinkering Kanye’s given his album. Almost.