Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was released exactly one year ago yesterday.
Unlike all of his previous efforts, the album didn’t break new ground in the musical landscape. Instead, Pablo felt more like a combination of every Kanye album to date—the College Dropout spirit of “Ultralight Beam,” the MBDTF soul of “Real Friends,” the Yeezus savagery of “Freestyle 4”—with a few new flavors (“Waves,” “Fade”) thrown in for good measure. It was as if Kanye's trailblazing career had come full circle.
The Life of Pablo still proved to be innovative in other ways, though. Months after its initial release last February, Kanye continued to tinker with the project like it was “another piece of software on your phone that sends you push updates” (to quote Jayson Greene), making minor adjustments to many of the album’s 19 songs while tacking on a new one entirely (“Saint Pablo”). He called it “a living breathing changing creative expression.”
Kanye’s messy, impulsive approach to The Life of Pablo came to define his personal life in 2016. During a string of controversial Saint Pablo shows in November, his trademark off-the-cuff rants turned ugly when he called out Jay Z and Beyoncé, praised Donald Trump, and told black people to get over racism. Days later, he was hospitalized for a reported breakdown triggered by the anniversary of his mother’s death, among other mental and physical reasons.
Kanye has since been released from the hospital and has been keeping a low—albeit colorful—profile. But following his widely criticized meeting with Donald Trump and continued chatter surrounding his mental health, Kanye, not for the first time in his career, finds himself on his heels heading into his next album.
The question is: where does he go from here?
As far as we know, Kanye has been working on four projects: Turbo Grafx 16 and G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Winter compilation, plus potential joint albums with Drake and Chance The Rapper. The latter two are almost too good to be true, so it’s not worth even contemplating them. Cruel Winter, on the other hand, has already produced one single (“Champions”), but no one's counting that as a Kanye West project, not least because he no longer runs G.O.O.D. Music.
Turbo Grafx 16 is the album that matters. Announced just days after the release of The Life of Pablo last February, Kanye quickly began work on the record with trusted collaborators Kid Cudi, Mike Dean and Plain Pat. The following month, he was spotted in the studio with Migos, Big Sean, Vic Mensa, Lil Yachty and Tyler, The Creator, suggesting an even bigger injection of youth into his new material.
Then, shortly after his release from the hospital in December, legendary producer Pete Rock shared footage from a surprise studio session with Mr. West. The soul records in rotation were like baby-making music for another “The Joy” to be conceived, while a sheet of paper (which, contrary to what most blogs told you, probably wasn’t a tracklist) revealed a potential wish list of video games to sample (the album borrows its name from an '80s gaming console, after all).
When you’ve made a career out of innovation, finding new ways to push the envelope can be a challenge. “When people start trying to think about exactly what you’re going to do before you even get a chance to do it, it’s more difficult now to constantly surprise the audience,” Kanye admitted during an interview with Big Boy last June. Could contemporary trap, classic soul and video game samples be the ingredients for another exciting, game-changing Kanye West album, though?
One thing we can be sure of is that Kanye’s next album will stay ahead of the pack as far as how we listen to it. If Yeezus was an “open casket” for the CD format, then The Life of Pablo buried it without shedding a tear; “I was thinking about not making CDs ever again … only streaming,” he tweeted after the album’s release. He’s kept his word. Whether he chooses to take a playlist approach like Drake, fuse music with fashion even further (which could be revealed at his Yeezy Season 5 debut in NYC later today) or make use of whatever technology is at our disposal in the near future, Kanye’s next album might not even resemble a traditional album at all.
It’s impossible to guess what Kanye West’s next album will sound—or even look—like. Even Kanye himself doesn’t always have a clear picture until the last minute. If there’s one thing Kanye does better than pushing the envelope, however, it’s triumphing in the face of tragedy. After a dramatic few months that have seen Kim get robbed at gunpoint, public opinion sour over his support for Donald Trump (which he’s reportedly pulled) and another stay in the hospital, there’s not a better time to bet on Kanye West.