Some two decades ago, Prince re-named himself with an unpronounceable symbol and scrawled "SLAVE" on his cheek in a feud with Warner Bros Records. He spent lavishly on unreleased creative projects and he put out a video game. Then he sang about sex, betrayal and a higher purpose on 1995's "The Gold Experience," asking: "What's the use of money if you ain't gonna break the mold?"
Wealth and singular pop chart success left an eccentric, sometimes rude Midwestern musical genius in his late 30s searching for a fresh challenge, a new struggle.
Flash forward to Kanye West, who has poured his creative energy and millions into an Adidas fashion line. He made public appeals for help with an ambitious string of non-music ventures. He wore a full-face mask while performing for most of his "Yeezus" concert tour. He worked on a video game. And yes, he raps and sings on "The Life of Pablo," released online over the weekend, about sex, betrayal and a higher purpose.
Like the music Prince released early in his symbol phase, West's seventh solo album isn't as instantly catchy or cohesive as his earlier work. But it's consistently interesting and full of feeling, with off-kilter hip-hop soundscapes and lyrics that pivot suddenly from generous spirituality to crass insults. Their tools are vastly different, of course: Where the Purple One is famously self-contained, the Louis Vuitton Don now creates like a Hollywood film director, overseeing a massive team of writers, producers and other collaborators all working to realize his vision.
This 18-track collection feels impressively personal, and warm, compared to the aggressively glitchy "Yeezus," West's pre-fatherhood primal scream of an album from three years ago. He repeatedly references his family and reveals wryly humorous self-awareness that's often missing in those famed Twitter rants and TV appearances. "I guess I get what I deserve, don't I?" he laments about an absence of "Real Friends." On "Feedback," he acknowledges, "I've been out of my mind a long time." Rhyming as a fan at the album's halfway point," West raps "I miss the old Kanye ... I hate the new Kanye."
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Among mainstream hip-hop artists, West stands out for his commitment to continually evolving and expanding both his own sound and the genre as a whole. That's evident even in the weakest sections of "Pablo." West sounds both rejuvenated and challenged by young musicians like Chance the Rapper and Future soundalike Desiigner, whose song "Panda," released just months ago, is sampled alongside a 1970s gospel recording on the dense two-parter "Father Stretch My Hands."
West's calling card is smartly utilizing such unexpected samples, from Arthur Russell's soulful murmurs on the sublime "30 Hours" to the album-opening snippet of a 4-year-old girl's boisterous prayer, pulled from an Instagram post. A bassline then gurgles abruptly under a soaring gospel choir and praise-filled contributions from Chance, Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin, while West declares "this is a God dream."
That song, "Ultralight Beam," sets a high bar that the rest of the album doesn't quite reach. Chris Brown sings strongly over layers of ethereal vocals on "Waves," but the tune doesn't go anywhere. West's auto-tuned humming make the otherwise haunting "Wolves" feel incomplete.
Compared to West's 2010 masterpiece "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," there's too much lyrical sloppiness on "Pablo," possibly stemming from a falling-out with longtime ghostwriter Rhymefest. While West still delivers laugh-and-cringe one-liners (that Taylor Swift dig on "Famous") and aspirational exhortation ("Highlights"), he seems overly proud of many run-of-the-mill couplets, repeating them for emphasis but to no effect.
Still, "Pablo" finds our most provocative modern hip-hop star evolving yet again, flexing his nerdy crate-digging bona fides alongside tabloid-ready call-outs and relentless ambition. He refuses to sell what's already been sold.