“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” Kanye West requests on “Feedback,” a hypnotic, erratic highlight from his seventh LP (eighth if you count his Watch the Throne collaboration with Jay Z), The Life of Pablo. The line reads like a throwaway for a lyricist of Kanye’s caliber, but it resonates in the album’s real-life context, as the rapper-producer’s bizarre Twitter rants and obsessive tracklist fiddling have prompted some spectators (including former collaborator Rhymefest) to question his mental stability. “I been out of my mind a long time,” Kanye raps over droning synth tones. “I been saying how I feel at the wrong time.”
That recklessness has always fueled Kanye’s genius: The Godzilla-sized ego that inspired #Beckgate and #Swiftgate is the same hubris that propelled him to continuously reinvent rap music in his own image—from soul-sampling beat-maker to Auto-Tuned crooner to prog-hop maximalist to numerous stops in-between. Each album has arrived with Exacto Knife precision—even 2013’s Yeezus, his most sonically flat work, with its cold minimalism. But The Life of Pablo offers little of his trademark marksmanship, touting 18 tracks that span every style he’s ever touched: pitch-shifted soul, electro-art texture—grit and silk, profanity and divinity, triumphs and blunders. Though it’s well short of a double-LP, Pablo plays like Kanye’s White Album: Just like that sprawling set found The Beatles disconnected from each other, often operating separate studios at once, Pablo finds multiple Kanyes fighting for space within the same songs.
Take the zany “Feedback”: When Kanye isn’t referencing his own mad brilliance, he’s deftly alluding to the Michael Brown shooting (“Hands up, we just doin’ what the cops taught us / Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us”) then climaxing with a bizarre “Ghetto Oprah” tirade filled with white noise. Two-part head-scratcher “Father Stretch My Hands” veers jarringly between earnest paternal reflections and lines about anal bleaching (“Now if I fuck this model / And she just bleached her asshole / And I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’ma feel like an asshole”), as the production morphs from skittering trap snares to dancehall groans to vocoder murmur. In three minutes, “Famous” incorporates Taylor Swift disses (“I made that bitch famous”), stilted Rihanna crooning, a groovy dancehall sample, and silly rapping that recalls this hilarious Kanye meme.
Where previous Kanye albums were rolled out with red-carpet hype, Pablo felt like a purposeful clusterfuck. Not only did he unveil the tracklist on a piece of fucking notebook paper, he scrapped it multiple times. The album’s various title shifts—damn, I really miss Swish—dominated headlines for months. He hadn’t even arrived at a definitive product after unveiling the songs at a high-dollar Madison Square Garden fashion event. The final album drop, hyped on an uneven SNL performance, was protracted and filled with technical glitches. (Adrift in Pablo’s turbulent waters, you get the sense the songs still aren’t finished. And they might not be: Kanye recently tweeted he was going to “fix ‘Wolves,’” failing to explain what that might entail.)
One thing’s clear: Kanye is searching for answers. Weeks before its release, he defined Pablo as “a Gospel album”—the equivalent of constructing a steeple on a Walmart and calling it a church. This isn’t a gospel album, despite its occasional, vivid bursts of feel-the-spirit belting (that’s Kirk Franklin on opener “Ultralight Beam”) and Christian references. In fact, Kanye’s never focused so hard on carnal pleasures, often aggressively so: On the half-finished-sounding “Freestyle 4,” over creepy sampled strings and sub-bass, he fantasizes about the various places he could “fuck”: at a Vogue party, in the bathroom, “in the middle of this motherfuckin’ dinner table.” You listen with a feeling of voyeurism and queasiness, as if gazing through parted fingers at a slasher-POV horror film.
Still—Kanye scraps are compelling scraps. The production—a Royal Rumble affair featuring familiar faces like Mike Dean, Swizz Beatz, Rick Rubin, Anthony Kilhoffer and Hudson Mohawke—is a visceral gut-punch throughout, built on plenty of trunk-rattling bass, woozy synth figures and ingeniously re-contextualized samples. And when West manages to focus his gaze, the results are worth the three-year wait: “30 Hours,” riding an ambient-funk Arthur Russell groove, finds the rapper recounting cross-country journeys to visit a girlfriend—peppered with humanizing details (the Western Union transfers, the infidelity, the lack of Popeye’s chicken) both hilarious and heartfelt.
“Real Friends” rides a spacey synth hook and gargled Ty Dolla $ign cameo, with West wrestling with relatable family issues (“I couldn’t tell you how old your daughter was / Couldn’t tell you how old your son is / I got my own Jr. on the way, dawg / Plus I already got one kid”). The cinematic “Wolves” rides a somber, wordless vocal refrain and imagines the Virgin Mary meeting Joseph “around hella thugs” in “the fucking club.”
The Life of Pablo is a fucking mess—the scattered, contradictory work of an icon straining to keep up with his own brilliant pace. “But I’mma have the last laugh in the end,” Kanye promises. Pablo is just powerful enough to keep the faith.