Editor's Note: We 1 Listen reviewed The Life Of Pablo as it was played during Kanye's MSG listening event. Kanye later updated the tracklist and the album is now available for digital purchase and stream.
I've never been this nervous for a Kanye album release.
With Mr. West we've long since grown to expect the unexpected, the reason I've grown to love him so much as an artist, even when I didn't specifically love the music, was his willingness to take risks and constantly reinvent himself. So I've pressed play on every Kanye album since Late Registration expecting to have my expectations shattered, but that feeling wasn't nervousness—it was excitement—because I always felt like I was in good hands. Even if I couldn't see his vision at the time, I knew Kanye's vision was clear. There were no accidents, everything from the smallest touches on a beat to the artwork to the album rollout was meticulously crafted and calculated.
Let's not forget the masterpiece of quality and coordination that was Kanye's GOOD Friday series; if he was so overflowing with great music that songs like "Lord Lord Lord" could be released as a loosie, and so on top of it that he could release a new song weekly for three months straight, you felt like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had to be incredible, even if you couldn't have possibly predicted what it would sound like.
By contrast, the lead up to The Life of Pablo has been a brush fire. Over the past year huge singles were released and then abandoned, a new weekly series was announced and then faded into the fog, album titles were adopted and then discarded like Kim K trying on shoes, album covers were revealed that looked like they were done in Microsoft Paint, all while Kanye took to Twitter with the reckless abandon of a drunk college freshman.
The quality of "Real Friends" and "No More Parties" were beacons of hope in an otherwise pretty desolate landscape, and a streamed show from Madison Square Garden is no small feat, all praise due there. Still, approaching a Kanye album was always like approaching a terrifying roller coaster, but when you saw the cleanly-uniformed amusement park employee professionally check to make sure your harness was secured, you knew that no matter how scary the ride, you'd exit the ride in one-piece. But as we walk up to TLOP and prepare to sit down, the carnie running the roller coaster is too busy texting his girlfriend to even check the harnesses at all.
The good news is that great music can erase any sin. If TLOP sounds as thrown together as its rollout than the disorganization leading up to it will look like harbingers of doom. But if the music is incredible, who gives a shit how many times the title changed? And so now, finally, thank Yeezus Christ there's nothing left to talk about but the music.
Per 1 Listen Review rules, this will be a gut reaction listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing, no rewriting. Just stream of consciousness reactions that try to capture the moment. We'll be back later with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once we've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here.
1. "Ultra Light Beam"
"We don’t want no devils in the house," that’s one hell of a way to start the album. A baby preaching, soulful, Kanye singing about a God’s dream. A gospel choir is taking me into the light. This sounds like something that Chance The Rapper would do. Who is this woman? So soulful. Wait...CHANCE! CHANCE THE RAPPER IS ON KANYE’S ALBUM. MY TIDAL STREAM STOPPED IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS VERSE BUT IT STARTED AGAIN AND HE SAID MY DAUGHTER LOOK LIKE SIA. THIS VERSE IS FIRE. Kanye sounds so soulful. This is church. Pure church. Kirk just came on with the prayer. THIS IS CHURCH ON A THURSDAY, HALLELUJAH HOLLABACK. I don’t know what to expect next.
2. "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2"
There was a pause so I’m assuming this is track two. Sounds like more references to God and the Bible from a woman, singing. THAT'S METRO BOOMIN's TAG. I don’t know who is singing but it doesn’t sound like Future. Ye just came in, Auto-Tune on the vocals, whoa, did he just drop a "bleached asshole" line? Ye’s verse is over. I still can’t put my finger on who's singing on this, but I think Metro Boomin did the beat. It doesn't have his thunderous drums so maybe not, but the beat just switched and this is pretty crazy. Heavy claps, Ye is getting it off. Rapping the lyrics he posts on Twitter. Is this Future? THIS IS FUTURE ON KANYE’s ALBUM!? That flow. This song is all over the place but I have to say, I’m intrigued. WTF IS GOING ON? This sounds like R2D2 singing from the soul. Man this song is layered like a wedding cake.
[Editor's Note: That is indeed, not, Future. It's Desiigner, a new artist signed to GOOD Music.]
3. "Freestyle 4"
I’m assuming this is track three, it's very techno-esque but I’m digging Kanye’s energy. He just mentioned Pablo for the first time and referenced the cops. It sounds like Kanye actually wants to rap. Why all rappers assume bloggers don’t get pussy? Second verse flow is very clean. “I’m the ghetto Oprah.” IT JUST GOT REAL. The beat knocks but I think the intro has had the best production so far.
RIHANNA! OHHHH HERE WE GO. Swizzy on the beat and, man, it bangs. Kanye just said something about having sex with Taylor because he made her famous. There's a wake up Mr. West reference. Personally, this is the most I’ve enjoyed Kanye’s rapping in some time. Beat switched, this sample is at the tip of my brain, I know it but my head is currently spinning too fast. This is cool, but I hate when Swizz speaks. He’s the producer that should remain silent. He’s ruining this for me. I wish I had pictures of Alicia Keys to stare at. A soulful switch to end.
Another song that begins by referencing God. Who is this woman? She kind of sounds like Beyonce but I know it’s not. Kanye really made a gospel album after calling himself Yeezus. Very strong Auto-Tune. This production is jamming, I didn’t care much for the verse but overall this is fun. A lot of vocals in harmony. Is this "All of the Lights Part 2"? Oh man, a Ray J reference. Kanye feeling the spirit. Wait, what did he just say!? This is insane and TIDAL JUST BUFFERED LIKE WE'RE LIVING IN THE DAYS OF DIAL UP. Okay, it’s back, is that The-Dream? Sounds like it. Dream has mastered Auto-Tune, he's third behind T-Pain and Future.
I don’t know if the song changed or if this is just a beat switch but this record sounds grimey. Real grimey. These strings belong inside a haunted house. Liking this Kanye flow. Nice energy. The beat hasn’t dropped yet but I’m expecting a bomb. Kanye might be a swinger. The drums dropped and my soul didn’t lift as high as I thought it would. This one is a bit strange, and another beat switch. I don’t know if this is the loop or my stream is stuttering. So far "Feedback" is one of the least impressive offerings.
7. "Fade" ft. Post Malone & Ty Dolla $ign
It's a bit old, been circulating around the internet since late last year. Another very heavily Auto-Tuned record, mid-tempo, could easily fit somewhere between 808’s and Cruel Summer. Ty kills and Post isn't half bad. The production is insane, it drives the record. Can’t wait for this one to finally release in CDQ.
Just assuming this is a new song. I’m so tired, I don’t know what’s going on, this is the weirdest 1 Listen review I've penned of all-time. I like this, very minimal, seems to be the honest Kanye speaking. Sidenote, I prefer this to reading his tweets. This song is really good. A slow flow but very sincere. “The layers to my soul.” Is this THE WEEKND? KANYE HAS EVERYONE. I’m loving this one. THESE DRUMS JUST DROPPED LIKE A METEOR SHOWER. Auto-Tune Kanye singing about love, there’s a lot happening on this one.
9. "Real Friends" ft. Ty Dolla $ign
"Real Friends," I can finally breath. So far, I like the album. I can see why "No More Parties" is missing but "Real Friends" stayed, it seems to be far more personal. The features all build around 'Ye, assisting the star. This song is really good, makes you want to be a better friend, a real friend. Ty $ and Kanye are one of the most unlikely but incredible combinations. Just looked at my TIDAL screen and there was a black fist in the air, what a February to be alive.
10. "Wolves" ft. Sia and Vic Mensa
"Wolves"...this sounds like Wolves. IT'S BEEN ALMOST A YEAR OF WAITING BUT WOLVES! Beautiful. Even Kanye’s Auto-Tune mumble sounds like a rainbow appearing after 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Wow, never heard his verse before. I thought this song was straight singing. Hahaha, wow. That swallow line? TIDAL I SWEAR I WILL KILL SOMEONE OVER THIS STUTTERING STREAM. The song is back, is he talking about the Virgin Mary being in the club before meeting Joseph? This is incredible. Vic Mensa? No, it’s Frank Ocean! Really, this song is beautiful. Is that it? Is it over? I don’t know what happened. I really don’t know...
The Life of Pablo (first listen) final thoughts:
Nathan really put me on the spot with this 1 Listen Review. I had every intention of ignoring the album for weeks and waiting until the hype died down. After hearing it in such a rush, I’m surprised by how much I liked it. There was a part of me that expected Kanye to drop the ball, but most of the records sound good, the features are well placed and production is solid—I’ll admit being disappointed by the lack of Madlib though. How do you not use any of the material from his SIX beat CDs?
It’s going to take more than 1 Listen to understand the significance of Pablo, and I won’t even begin to rank this album, not off of a choppy stream, but it’s certainly good enough to anticipate the iTunes link.
It felt more like Kanye the rapper than Yeezus the celebrity. That’s what I wanted more than anything, the artist that I’ve known since College Dropout to find himself again. He wasn’t playing about the album being gospel, it has soul and a touch of God that takes you back to the days of Jesus walking.
Kanye might’ve lost his mind but he hasn’t completely lost his touch.
By Nathan S and Yoh, aka @Yoh31.