The Life of Pablo
The profound and the profane pound away at each other on The Life of Pablo. Kanye West's seventh studio album (initially released on Jay Z's streaming service, Tidal, then pushed out to other streaming platforms) twitches spasmodically amid tender, vulnerable, faith-affirming emotions and vulgar, graphic, narcissistic nastiness.
One the one hand: Jesus. On the other: Yeezus.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
"Ultralight Beam" proffers a young child and an older woman proclaiming, "We don't want no devils in the house, God/We want the Lord!/ … Jesus, praise the Lord!" Kanye says, "I'm tryna keep my faith," and he prays, "Deliver us serenity/Deliver us peace/Deliver us loving/We know we need it/You know we need it/ … This is a God dream." Gospel singer Kirk Franklin closes the song with a spoken-word outro: "Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they're not good enough. This prayer's for everybody that feels that they're too messed up. For everyone that feels they've said 'I'm sorry' too many times. You can never go too far when you can't come back home again. That's why I need faith, more, safe, war."
Two tracks ("Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1" and "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2") include samples from pastor T.L. Barrett, who preaches, "You're the only power," and observes, "If I don't turn to You/No other help I know, I stretch my hands." "Lowlights" is a long, spoken, churchy testimonial by an uncredited woman. Here's a portion: "You want me to give you a testimony about my life and how good He's been to me? I don't know what to tell you about Him, I love Him so much with all my heart and my soul, with every bone in my body I love Him so much because He's done so much for me."
"FML" finds Kanye talking about being faithful to his wife (Kim Kardashian) for the sake of his family, even though he acknowledges previous promiscuity ("For my children/I will die for those I love/God, I'm willing/To make this my mission/Give up the women"). "Real Friends" ponders how many of those relationships most people actually have. Kanye also raps about how the tyranny of the urgent causes us to overlook important things ("When was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasn't in a hurry?"). "Wolves" hints at consequences, such as feeling "lost" following "wild" behavior. On "Frank's Track," guest Frank Ocean reminds us, "Life is precious."
For all that, however, virtually every track includes obscenities and racial slurs. F-words are used in a sexual context and paired with "mother"; we hear s-words, "b--ch," "n-gga," etc. Track after track explicitly details sexual experiences, conquests and fantasies—including frequent uses of salacious slang for both the male and female anatomy.
Kanye has come under withering cultural fire for these jaw-dropping lyrics on "Famous": "I feel like me and Taylor Swift might still have sex/Why? I made that b--ch famous (g--d--n)/I made that b--ch famous." The next line disparages his many sexual mates: "For all the girls that got d--k from Kanye West/If you see 'em in the streets, give 'em Kanye's best/Why? They mad they ain't famous (g--d--n)." Graphic references to anal sex and drugs get combined on "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1." Oral sex, coupling on a table and fantasies about an orgy—acts described with repeated uses of the f-word—turn up on "Freestyle 4." One line hints at bargaining with a prostitute ("Can you bring your price down?")
"Real Friends" calls out a cousin of Kanye's who stole his laptop, which apparently had several sex videos on it. And then "30 Hours" revisits the idea of making a sex tape ("Yeah, then me and wifey make a movie"), as well as graphically referencing oral sex and bragging about having an "open relationship." (So much for faithfulness.) Still more sex-video talk, as well as graphic language gets mixed into the continual coitus crammed onto "No More Parties in L.A." (Strippers show up, too.)
On "Feedback," Kanye arrogantly tries to dodge responsibility by saying, "Name one genius that ain't crazy." The song also reinforces the anti-police narrative getting a lot of play in our culture these days: "Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us."
Listening to The Life of Pablo, it would seem that Kanye West, while fashioning himself as something of a sonically minded modern Picasso, has a hard time choosing between two things he wants us to believe he loves deeply: God and sex. That choice, in fact, is even represented visually on the album's cover, where we see two pictures: one of a couple getting married at a church, the other of a bare-breasted woman's barely covered backside. Repeated over and over are the words "WHICH / ONE."
Kanye, who long ago adopted the aforementioned sacrilegious moniker Yeezus, seems momentarily inclined to relinquish his appetites in the service of something bigger and better, namely his relationship with his wife, children and God. Then his willingness to decouple from his fleshly appetites utterly disappears, replaced by explicit songs celebrating strippers, prostitutes, prolific promiscuity and a wild variety of sexual activities.
Does Kanye West really want to have to make the choice his album and its cover suggests? Though much has been made in the press of this provocative artist's angst and shame as he tries to reconcile these two impulses, by the conclusion of The Life of Pablo, he hasn't convinced us that he's sincerely interested in anything other than gratifying and serving himself.