My daughter threw up on me yesterday. Infants throw up with a casualness that would impress even the most hardened alcoholic. They don't even seem to notice that they've just ejected a solid portion of their body weight in milk onto themselves (and whoever happens to be holding them). And then, at the same time I was employing some carnival-freak-show-level contortions so I could change shirts while still holding a squirming 4-month-old, my five-year-old daughter was fuming because Netflix had logged out and she couldn't watch Octonauts at her regularly appointed "screen time." I know all my fellow parents can relate - can Kanye West?
At this point every possible angle on Kanye's The Life Of Pablo has been taken. It's been called nearly perfect and an extended tantrum, treated as a complex parable of religion and tone-deaf misogny. We listed all 103 people who worked on it, I talked to Kirk Franklin about religion and "Ultralight Beam" and detailed the mess of an album release. I'm still trying to sort out my feelings and thoughts about the music itself - right now my relationship status with Pablo is complicated - but I do know that it's not about being a father, or at least not about being a father in the way I hoped it might be.
Like so many others I once saw Kanye West as a version of myself. When College Dropout came out I was literally also a college dropout, a young aspiring writer trying to find his place in an unstable world. But as 'Ye roared through the stratosphere it became increasingly harder to believe we were living on the same planet, until in 2016 when he became more fame-deity than mere mortal. That's why picturing Kanye doing anything normal now seems absurdly hilarious. Kanye folding laundry and searching for a missing sock in the dryer? Hilarious. Kanye trying to carry seven grocery bags at the same time so he doesn't have to make two trips to the car? CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE I CAN'T EVEN IMAGINE.
But while Kanye became increasingly obsessed with haute couture fashion labels and I continued to wear whatever was on the top of my shirts pile, I hoped we could reconnect around our shared fatherhood. He had his first child, North West, when my daughter was three. And then even better, he had Saint just a month after my second daughter was born. So now we were going through the same parenting experiences at almost exactly the same time. That's the amazing thing about babies, they're great equalizers. Kanye may be richer and more famous and more talented than me, but neither of our babies gave even the slightest sliver of a fuck. We were both going to get thrown up on all the same.
Knowing we both had screaming infants at home shaded how I viewed The Life Of Pablo long before I first heard it (and long before it was called The Life Of Pablo). When Kanye tweeted that he didn't want anyone bothering him until he finished his album one week after his son was born it struck me as profoundly sad, a feeling that was amplified by Fonzworth Bentley's recent breakdown of the album recording process.
"'Ye stays longer and later than anybody. 'Ye had a bed set up at the studio and so he would usually take a nap for an hour or an hour-and-a-half, go to the gym, and then come right back."
There's a part of me that still buys into the romance of the "all night in the studio" grind, that admires that kind of dedication, but most of me feels terrible for Kanye. His son wasn't even a month old and he was already locked away in work. Maybe that's the kind of sacrifice you have to make to achieve greatness, maybe that's why I haven't had anything close to his level of greatness, or maybe that's the excuse I give myself, but all the same I thought about how painful it felt to go back to work when my daughter was a month old. It's a true-cliche that you only get those first days once, and while I had to go back to work because my family literally couldn't afford for me to take any more time off, for all of Kanye's money (or debt) he couldn't buy more time with his child either.
When my daughter was two-months-old my brain was still so scrambled from sleep deprivation and stress that I walked home from the train after work, completely forgetting that I had driven and parked at the station in the morning. If I couldn't even remember those life basics it was almost inconceivable that Kanye was attempting to put together a classic album and coordinate a massive album rollout - maybe that's the reason the album at times feels scattered and incomplete? Or maybe Kanye and I weren't sharing parenting experiences as closely I had hoped. Maybe my idea of one day sitting down with him and commiserating about that exquisitely soul-crushing feeling of finally getting the baby down for a nap only to hear them cry five minutes later was as much a fantasy as reality television. And so I went looking for evidence.
Seeing Saint West should have made me feel more connected to Kanye as a parent, but instead it set off a wave of paranoia. I recognized that "referee signaling a touchdown" sleeping pose, for some reason babies love that shit, but any parent of a newborn looks at that picture and notices how wrinkled the sheet is, a big red flag in the baby-safety world. And the lighting on that picture is perfect, was this a candid picture of a sleeping child or a photo shoot? It didn't seem that far-fetched when both Kim and Kanye's every public move is carefully calculated, when they literally live their lives in front of a camera, when Kim has a photo team that shoots and edits even her selfies. Was Kanye really asleep with North in this store, or were they posing? My paranoia was real, but the reality of a celebrity might just be even more surreal than paranoia can imagine.
So social media wasn't helping me get a feel for Kanye's parental life, who gives a shit? I don't look to Twitter for real connections, I look to the music, but The Life Of Pablo doesn't offer much to dig into there either. Kanye's children really only come up twice, first in "Wolves" when he powerfully says, "Cover Nori & Saint in lambs' wool / We surrounded by the fuckin' wolves," and then again on "No More Parties in L.A.," when he raps, "I be worried 'bout my daughter, I be worried 'bout Kim / But Saint is baby Ye, I ain't worried 'bout him." Those are both moments that speak to his almost overwhelming need to protect his family, a need that obviously extends to Twitter over-reactions, but doesn't offer much more than that. We get no real sense of how his children have changed him, if they've changed him at all. Our children don't really change us, they only bring out the best and force us to confront the worst in us.
Instead, Kanye's most parentally powerful music came before The Life Of Pablo, and oddly from before he even had children. On "New Slaves" Kanye promises to move his family out of the country to keep them away from the flashing lights, a promise that was obviously broken by his family's need to be near the spotlight, and on "All of the Lights" Kanye is at his most emotionally gripping even though he recorded it years before he was an actual parent. However he got into the headspace of a father fighting to see his children, as the child of divorce that's my biggest fear, he absolutely nailed it. The desperation in his voice as he begs the mother of his child not to punish their daughter for his sins is the reason I know Kanye's capable of making the dad-music all my fellow dads are waiting for.
And then, of course, there's "Only One."
It's a beautiful song, not just because it's about his daughter, but because it connects his relationship with his daughter to his dearly departed mother. My father-in-law died suddenly when my oldest daughter was two, and now she and her sister's lives have become a constantly accumulating list of what he missed. At times the weight of his absence is crushing and unavoidable - I remember every time I watch them play.
The only two songs I've ever heard that seem to understand that crushing weight are Kendrick's "Sing About Me" and "Only One," which proves that Kanye is fully capable of making great art from his family life. But so far, like so many other rappers, he's artistically held his children at a musical arms length. We've had countless TV shows and movies, dramas and comedies, novels and short stories, that have explored every facet of what it means to be a parent, but music, and in particular hip-hop, has been almost completely silent on the subject. I haven't seen the largest part of my life reflected in the music I listen to as fuel for that life.
Sure, we've had the occasional single song, Kanye's "Only One," Jay Z's "Glory," Nas' "Daughters," Fashawn's "Higher," I was particularly moved when Statik Selektah used his daughter's heartbeat in an instrumental, there's plenty of examples, but those are lone songs, and they all tend towards the "children are a blessing and a miracle" side of the parenting equation. That's only part of the formula. Yes, my children have been an epiphany, a connection to a love so pure it feels divine, but there's nothing miraculous or wondrous about the pain of stepping on Legos in a dark room. Watching your infant child sleep is profoundly beautiful, until they start to look a little too still and you find yourself with your ear pressed against their mouth trying to hear a breath, flooded with a suffocating sense of panic. I look into my baby daughter's eyes and feel overwhelming love, and then at 3 AM I'm in the living room walking in circles because she won't fall asleep unless she's being bounced and my only thought is, "Fuck this."
Being a parent is all of those things, beautiful and exhausting, transcendent and stressful, profound and boring, it changes you completely and not at all. Capturing all of that within a single album might be impossible, but I know one artist with young children who's made his mark on the world by achieving what everyone told him was impossible. No one's better poised to capture the often contradictory nature of parenting better than human contradiction Kanye West.
He may not be the hero dad music needs, but he's the one we deserve. Now if only he'll answer our call.