“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”
The “Feedback” line is rattling through my brain on my third play through of Kanye West’s latest, the long-delayed and embarrassingly rolled-out
So Help Me God SWISH Waves The Life Of Pablo. Anyone who claims to have known that the same obsessive hip-hop head who started off “making five beats a day for three summers” would emerge from a cocoon six albums later ready to base an entire project around the apostle Paul could almost be accused of wilding themselves (until we remember that this is the man that got “Jesus Walks” on the radio at this exact same time).
Either way, no one can accuse West of not indulging (or succumbing to) his deepest desires, consistently adding layers to that soul-sampling outsider we all fell in love with (and many of us still wish we had) back in 2004. Like undercover cop Bob Arctor’s Scrambler Suit in A Scanner Darkly, Kanye’s wearing all of his personalities on his sleeve on The Life Of Pablo, and like a frantic round of speed dating, before you can decided whether or not you can groove with one, the next one’s already invading your ears.
Kanye has been gradually adding pieces to his exterior for the past 12 years: grand orchestral sensibilities (Late Registration), Daft Punk-esque synthetic flourish (Graduation/808s & Heartbreak), and a talent for organizing that lead to him squeezing *just* the right amount of juice out of his collaborators (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy/Yeezus). All of these different aspects of his personality orbit the nucleus that is the pink polo sporting loop chopper who never figured out exactly how to talk to God, but TLOP stands as his whole power combined in a scattershot blast.
Even given Kanye’s deeply religious nature from the jump, the “gospel album” he’s dropped off before us (briefly for purchase before indefinitely banishing it to the Tidal mines), TLOP is an unprecedented event, even in this era of spontaneous album drops. “Ultra Light Beam,” the album’s opener, is paralyzingly beautiful, mixing auto-tuned Kanye warbles with Kelly Price and an honest to goodness choir before Chance The Rapper and Kirk Franklin(!!!) bring things to a head. It feels like the next logical step on the long journey that started with “Jesus Walks.” Paul The Apostle (on whom the album is based) was blinded for three days by the light of a resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus, only to have his sight restored and his mind converted; Kanye wanted to talk to God, as a Black man, as a man of faith, or just as someone who’s lost, and now that he’s got his foot in the door, like Paul’s blindness, the sheer radiance of “Ultra Light Beam” leads to a confusing and challenging experience of an album.
That road has been a long one for ‘Ye, but it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t think racism is a distraction anymore. If 2015 as a whole set a precedent for a *big* return to Afrocentric vibes in rap music (Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, Junglepussy’s Pregnant With Success, White Boiz’s Neighborhood Wonderful), TLOP and Kanye’s resurrected Twitter page lay the Rich Black Experience naked and bare in a way Macklemore could only dream:
“I just wanna feel liberated,” he croons again and again on “Father Stretch My Hands pt. 1.” Even more than the thumping 808s and synths and Desiigner’s vocals in the background, the rawness in that one line cut through all of it…at least until that same rawness leads to one of the funniest but most out of place bars on the entire record (“Now if I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole/And I get bleach on my T-shirt, I’ma feel like an asshole“).
As he’s said himself, his ego is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. The force that pulls a collaboration between Young Thug, El DeBarge, and The-Dream together is the same force that claims to have made Taylor Swift famous and continually plays jaded ex to “stripper” Amber Rose, and is the very same force that rhymes about dropping the Lexapro on “FML.” He acknowledges all the jokes and memes on “I Love Kanye” then pulls a page out of Drake’s memetic playbook and includes audio of The Wavy One Max B giving his blessing from prison on “Silver Surfer Intermission.” The same force that compels him to tweet about peace and love one minute and pushes him to scream about how he’s better than Stanley Kubrick on the set of Saturday Night Live the next. He’s still wrestling with his ego, but now he’s grappling with precision.
Whatever role Mr. West has played to me as a bi-racial kid, or to anyone as a rapper, producer, public figure, CEO, misogynist, fashion designer, director, father, husband, son, and human being, he’s more content to stay three steps ahead of our expectations than ever. Kanye West is a Black man as likely to go bar for bar with Kendrick Lamar over Madlib breaks as he is to croon about his children with Sia and Frank Ocean (and formerly Vic Mensa); he made it cool to be a rapper with feelings, but otherwise, he’s still trying to revel in mystique for mystique’s sake. That makes for a mixed constantly morphing bag of music (Kanye has edited the album and released more demos than I can count), but the spectacle of Kanye *still* moving against the grain is enough to reveal more specks of the core consumed by that Scrambler Suit and embed TLOP in the brain. The narc fighting the system became addicted to it a long time ago, and now he’s closer than ever to describing how that feels.