Since 2004, Kanye West has released seven major albums, each with a separate distinctly coloured style. West’s eighth album, The Life of Pablo, mixes a multitude of colours. It is akin to an abstract painting in the way that listeners must spend time reflecting on the work before coherently understanding the many layers of colour that make it up.
At the centre of this work are West’s provocative lyrics, telling stories ranging from his faith in God to his self-destructive lifestyle choices. These stories are all coated in the colours of his past albums to varying degrees. This base is then smeared with the mix of production styles of several prominent figures in hip hop, jazz, pop and electronic music as well as the different timbres of various singers and musical collaborators. This wildly diverse assortment of factors creates an album that can leave listeners feeling uncomfortable and confused at its surface. Exploring The Life of Pablo in more depth however reveals an immense structure of creativity behind this scattered array of diversity.
The album opens with “Ultralight Beam,” a song filled with elements of religious faith used as a means to cope with hard times. This theme brings a refreshing and inspirational vibe back to Kanye West’s art, one that listeners haven’t heard since the death of his mother Donda in 2007. “Ultralight Beam,” as well as the following song “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” distinctly echo the soulful styles of The College Dropout and Late Registration by making use of a gospel choir and brass instrumentation. Both of these songs also have hints of West’s auto-tuned vocal style from 808s and Heartbreak.
Example of signature soulful West chorus:
“Never Let Me Down” from The College Dropout (2004)
Example of West’s use of brass instrumentals:
“Touch the Sky” from Late Registration (2005)
This style is enhanced by the production talents of Swizz Beatz, frequent Kid Cudi producer Plain Pat and Metro Boomin, who has produced the majority of rapper Future’s music. Voices featured in these songs include a charismatic rap verse by Chance the Rapper, sung verses by The-Dream and Kelly Price, and harmonies by Kid Cudi. To back these talents up, we have gospel choirs, clips from a sermon by T. L. Barrett, and brass from none other than Donnie Trumpet. Trumpet has notably worked with Chance on several songs including “Sunday Candy,” a spiritual, soul-filled song whose vibes are echoed in the religious songs of The Life of Pablo.
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy” from the album Surf (2015):
West uses the theme of faith on numerous songs as a means to find the light in his life. For these tracks, which include “Highlights” and “Waves,” West takes mainly from the pop elements of his album Graduation while retaining the soulful elements from its predecessors. “Waves” features the melodic voice of Chris Brown paired with a harmony by Kid Cudi. These vocals are layered atop production by Metro Boomin as well as Glasgow’s Hudson Mohawke, a prolific producer in hip hop and EDM.
Hudson Mohawke’s electronic production:
Following up on his success and achievements comes a look into his wild lifestyle. As a complementary backdrop to this theme, West injects the rugged hip hop stylings of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and industrial electronic beats from Yeezus into these songs with varying proportions.
Example of rugged hip hop style:
“Gorgeous” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Example of West’s more industrial electronic style:
“Send it Up” from Yeezus (2013)
The more electronic style songs, such as “Fade,” “Freestyle 4” and “Feedback” are coloured by diverse figures such as Hudson Mohawke, Post Malone, Ty Dolla $ign, and Desiigner. On “No More Parties in LA,” we get a very rugged hip hop sound from one of producer Madlib’s legendary beats as well as a verse from another modern legend: Kendrick Lamar. These provocative tracks are defined by their pronounced hip hop feel.
Example of Madlib’s production style:
“Slim’s Return” from Shades of Blue (2003)
The Life of Pablo also finds West exploring these themes in dark and introspective strokes. In the aptly-titled “FML,” West talks about his wife Kim and his worries about screwing up their marriage. Metro Boomin and Hudson Mohawke handle the production on this track as The Weeknd hauntingly sings “wish I wouldn’t go ahead and fuck my life up.”
The track “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” circles this dark theme back to religious guidance, produced with the help of Plain Pat and Desiigner.
The final theme revolves around the people’s fascination with the “old Kanye” and includes the more humble and soulful aspects of the musician. This is especially showcased on “Real Friends,” a song produced in tandem with Toronto’s Boi-1da and Frank Dukes, and featuring Ty Dolla $ign on vocals. “30 Hours,” a song featuring Outkast’s Andre 3000, also explores the rapper’s more down-to-earth qualities. These songs are defined by nostalgic melodies coupled with classic hip hop drum beats.
The Life of Pablo is an artwork that reflects the mix of emotions, the faith and the wilderness that is Kanye West’s life. These diverse overlapping aspects are painted by West’s lyrics, his career-spanning production styles as well as the eclectic mix of producers, singers and musicians he collaborates with. The result is an artwork with an immense array of scattered colours, overlapping both in their harmony and dissonance. While these colours are not always easy to process, The Life of Pablo, as well as Kanye West himself, are undeniably bursting with them.