Kanye West is a blizzard. He’s unpredictable, he seems to have little regard for social conventions, and he can send hundreds of thousands of otherwise rational citizens into hysterics—in the process, he worms his way into the thoughts of people who wouldn’t otherwise be affected by anything he does. The debut of Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion line at Madison Square Garden last Thursday doubled as the premiere of his seventh album, The Life of Pablo. Kanye simultaneously screened the event in movie theaters around the world and streamed it via Tidal, and whether because he wanted to disrupt American workdays or just because he’s heedless of the nine-to-five grind, he started it at 4 PM eastern time.
About 20 million people watched the Yeezy Season 3 premiere on Tidal; many thousands more paid up to $581 for the movie-theater experience, and tens of thousands filled Madison Square Garden to watch models dressed in what appeared to be refashioned burlap sacks while Kanye played his album off a laptop. Kanye also used the event to announce a forthcoming video game in which players guide an avatar of his mother to heaven.
Millions tuned in to watch not because they cared about Kanye’s fashion-industry ambitions but because they wanted to hear his new music. His music is what’s given Kanye a golden ticket to translate his outsize ideas into reality, and it kept people with no knowledge of fashion glued to his Yeezy Season 3 event. In the clips I caught right after the live stream wrapped up, I didn’t see much happening that looked particularly worthy of applause, but the audience clapped at the end of every song—and my Twitter timeline was flooded with comments, some good, some bad, all proving just how much attention the event had attracted.
Yeezy Season 3 should’ve been the exclamation point capping weeks of build-up to the release of The Life of Pablo. During those weeks, Kanye paraded his creative fickleness on social media—and also displayed some behavior that suggests, as longtime collaborator Rhymefest recently tweeted, that Kanye needs spiritual and mental counseling. He changed the name of the album twice in the past few weeks, which might’ve seemed merely eccentric if it weren’t for his ugly beefs with Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose and his outspoken support of Bill Cosby. In the past couple days, Kanye’s mercurial nature manifested itself most visibly in the public gaffes and last-minute changes that further delayed the arrival of The Life of Pablo.
It should’ve dropped Friday, the day after crowds left Madison Square Garden. Impatient fans passed time creating memes based on its album artwork—a couple sites sprung up that allow anyone to insert their own words into the cover’s repeating blocks of text. The album’s track list, which had already grown since the end of the Yeezy event, grew again—and Friday evening, Kanye headed back to the studio with Chance the Rapper to finesse “Waves,” a song that had previously been cut. (Kanye made his own meme-ified T.L.O.P. cover, which said “Blame Chance.”) He performed two of the album’s songs on Saturday Night Live, and at the end of the supernatural “Ultralight Beam,” he hurriedly announced that his album was available to download on his site and to stream on Tidal. Except that the download option didn’t quite work. Soon Kanye took to Twitter to say he’d decided to hold off on selling his album to keep it exclusively on Tidal a little longer—oh, and that he’s reworking the song “Wolves,” and that he’s $53 million in debt.
The Life of Pablo mirrors much of Kanye’s recent public conduct. It’s erratic, unpredictable, half-formed, and oddly engrossing. Though an infamous perfectionist, Kanye appears to have let out anything that popped into his head while sitting behind the board or in front of the mike. The raw incandescence of his best work is still there, but it’s scattered amid a jumble of fragmented thoughts and dicksploitation raps—sometimes he seems more interested in describing the many ways he can use women sexually than he is in surprising or dazzling his listeners.
The Life of Pablo has the conversational immediacy of Kanye’s Twitter timeline, which is both a liability and an asset. The late addition “Silver Surfer Intermission” is a recorded phone conversation with imprisoned rapper Max B, and its inclusion is clearly meant to settle the recent Twitter battle between Kanye and Wiz Khalifa. Wiz chastised Kanye for renaming his album Waves, implying that the title was encroaching on Max B’s territory (Max popularized the term “wavy”). In “Silver Surfer Intermission,” though, Max B gives props to Kanye, turning the track into a giant subtweet. Though Kanye has the pull to make something like this happen, the fact that he decided to do it at all exposes the bruises to his ego that no amount of fame and power can protect him from.
It’s those moments of weakness (or humanity, depending on your point of view) that are most compelling on The Life of Pablo. I also like the album’s fast-and-loose feel and in-the-moment punch—on “30 Hours,” for example, Kanye mentions taking over Madison Square Garden, and then his cell phone starts ringing, which if it wasn’t staged is a convincing sign that the song was cobbled together quickly. But the reason so many people swear allegiance to Kanye—the reason they struggle against their better judgement to excuse his boorish behavior—is his ability to make music that’s otherworldly but feels relatable. When you dredge through the muck of this album (in part because there’s so much to dredge through), Kanye can start to seem vulnerable, even though he often presents himself as someone incapable of such a feeling.
The guests on The Life of Pablo do a good deal of the heavy lifting. Andre 3000 sings the hook for “30 Hours” so softly he’s almost humming, but it’s enough to make what’s essentially a bonus track feel vital. Kendrick Lamar chews up “No More Parties in LA,” almost entirely overshadowing Kanye’s verses about rushing home to his family as well as the sample-happy instrumental by underground heavyweight Madlib. Young Thug’s unpredictable warble glows amid Kanye’s tabloid-centric raps on “Highlights.” And on “Ultralight Beam,” the most outwardly religious song on what Kanye calls his gospel album, no one shines brighter than Chance the Rapper (which is saying a lot, given that Kirk Franklin also appears on the track).
Amid soulful, synthetic groans, an organ part that rustles like the wind, and the occasional swell of choral singing, Chance maps out his biography, his hopes, and his dreams. His ascension to superstardom crystallizes in this moment, with the help of none other but the Chicago artist who inspired Chance. While Kanye struggles to reconcile the man he’s become with his past, Chance still clearly senses how his younger self—the “lil Chano from 79th,” as he raps—would feel to be in this amazing spot. Despite his fierce and dominating performance, he’s still an everyday kid. Kanye commands legions of musicians and producers to act out his thoughts, but on “Ultralight Beam” Chance has full control, at least for a line: the skyscraper-size instrumentation goes silent and he raps, “This is my part, nobody else speak.” He sounds almost timid, as if he can’t believe he’s got the keys to this car; that sense of wonder propels all the best parts of The Life of Pablo. Those unexpected cinematic surges and glimmers of ecstasy do arrive—they’d better, after all that build-up—but despite Kanye’s role in putting the whole show together, he’s directly responsible for hardly any of them.