Published at ReeceListens on 4 April 2016
Drawing coherence from Kanye West’s messy, delayed The Life of Pablo is not an easy task. Kanye jumps from one idea, one style to the next with little regard for concepts like structure, sense, or tastefulness. However, if there’s one stabilising force extracted from the skittish release, it comes from the guest features. A producer first and foremost, Kanye is no stranger to employing collaborations as a means of storytelling. In fact, it may be his most effective means of communication. The Life of Pablo doubles down on this suggestion and brings in guests to tell listeners a lot not just about themselves, but how Kanye sees himself.
The first tip comes on the album opener, the spectacular ‘Ultralight Beam’ which closes with a verse from Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. Entering after a gospel bridge, Chance speaks softly with the determination to shine under the brightest light of his young career. “I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to Hell/I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail” is a brilliant interpolation of Kanye West’s bar on ‘Otis’ in its own right, but it’s incredibly affecting coming from a rapper who has paid homage to Kanye’s influence since his debut mixtape #10Day.
What is most significant about Chance’s guest spot is how dramatically the song transforms under his watch. When Kanye’s in control for the first portion of the song, ‘Ultralight Beam’ is littered with signature Yeezy touchstones – four-year-old Natalie Green’s gospel prayer sampled in the intro draws immediate parallels to Lil’ Stevie on College Dropout‘s ‘Family Business’ whilst the slow gurgling synths and drums come from the same genealogy as the production on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Then Chance enters and the song completely morphs. Chance’s Social Experiment bandleader Donnie Trumpet creeps into the song with his brass ensemble and the flow changes to something never before heard on a Kanye track, shifting the terrain in a way Kanye has never let another guest do before. Many have anointed Chance the next big star of Chicago rap and this endorsement from the contemporary father of Chicago hip-hop himself certainly affirms that Chance is on the cusp of something special.
But it’s not Chance’s moment yet. As quickly as Kanye puts him on, he seizes control of the song back on the last hook. After all, Kanye may be self-aware enough to wink at what’s next, but The Life of Pablo isn’t the album of a man who’s completely ready to recede into the background. Rather, it operates as a victory lap of sorts; an examination of just how far Kanye has come and the unmatched influence Yeezus yields in the hip-hop world.
There is perhaps no better illustration of said power than getting features from André 3000 of Outkast and Frank Ocean. Arguably the most reclusive and talented two men in hip-hop, simply convincing both to appear on the album is itself a testament to the power of Yeezy. However, The Life of Pablo isn’t satisfied with showcasing Kanye as a powerful force in rap. Rather, it’s driven to prove that he’s the powerful force. Consequently, both Frank and Andre are pushed to the background of their respective tracks – a power play from a man so self-assured that he feels he can create quality songs without thrusting his esteemed guests to the fore. The understated roles played by two of the rarest features in rap music serves as a remarkable contrast to where it all began on The College Dropout on which the lyrically underdeveloped Kanye leant on famous friends Jay Z, Talib Kweli and Mos Def to do the heavy lifting. Now, over a decade later, listeners meet a fearless Kanye unafraid to trade bars head-to-head with Kendrick Lamar on ‘No More Parties in LA’. As willing as Kanye is to put on the next wave – Chance, Future, Young Thug, Desiigner and The Weeknd – he’s also obsessed with demonstrated his ascension within the old guard. From a producer without a record deal to a headliner with Three Stacks as a backing vocalist, The Life of Pablo is an emphatic final chapter chronicling the complete ascension of Kanye West.
Rappers have always been storytellers and Kanye’s innovative arrangement of his guests taps into that legacy. Although he’s improved leaps and bounds as a rapper from his debut, Kanye still shines brightest when his stories are told through the subtlety of his arrangements. The Life of Pablo isn’t the greatest album of all-time like Kanye proclaimed it would be, but its storytelling makes it a worthy addition to the distinguished discography of Kanye West.