“The Life of Pablo,” the new album from Kanye West, is a collage of mobile and uncertain parts. It’s difficult to assess the album as a whole, partly because we don’t know what the whole is yet. But the most vital section of the album–that reveals “The Life of Pablo’s” core and Kanye’s current state of mind–is two songs that are not actually songs, but fragments. “Freestyle 4” and “I Love Kanye” arrive in the middle of the album, halting any forward momentum; they are shards of the creative progress that reveal the conflicting voices and impulses in Kanye’s teeming headspace.
You know something is amiss the second “Freestyle 4” begins with a sinister string riff and barely intelligible slurring. It’s far more junkie’s nightmare than god’s dream: Kanye’s narrative escalates and dissolves uncontrollably, on and off the beat, thrusting into post-lyrical (or maybe pre-lyrical) territory. I hated it first listen.
But there’s an impulse here that goes beyond having sex with Kim Kardashian: it shows both his irrepressible need for conventional approval (being at a Vogue party with the most famous woman in the world) and then his immediate urge to rip that to shreds. His whole career has been these micro-moments of frenzied dares. WHAT I RAPPED RIGHT NOW? (2003.) WHAT IF I SPILLED FEELINGS RIGHT NOW? (2008.) WHAT IF I STUNTED ON BUSH/TAYLOR RIGHT NOW? Every time, he’s met with a resounding “no Kanye, no!!!” and every time he does it anyway. And it’s this outer region, on the edge of insanity, where Kanye does his most important work.
And while “Freestyle 4” is Kanye at his most depraved and twisted, it’s also utopian and aspirational. “What if everybody started fucking?!” he yells, suddenly a community organizer: daring people to follow what they actually want, upending society to reach uninhibited climax. In this way, “Freestyle 4” fits in with the uplifting choir of “Ultralight Beam” and album’s gospel mission statement.
But Kanye understands people don’t want to hear this. The people that bump “Family Business” for motivation every morning (i.e. white people) might even think of “Freestyle 4” as a disgusting, vain betrayal; an Angry Hypersexual Black Man caricature. And so he immediately offers a palette cleanser: “I Love Kanye.” It’s a poem, delivered with clear diction and a formal rhyme scheme; an excellent formal exercise to point to when critics question the album’s weak lyricism. While “Freestyle 4” will never be played on the radio, “I Love Kanye” immediately found a home on SNL. The song essentially scoops the content cycle before it can even start: the first submitted thinkpiece before the no-pussy-gettin-bloggers even have a chance to finish downloading their torrent. Over the past few months, everyone online has been clamoring to publish an original, insightful thought about Kanye. And he beats them all. He ends with a hearty, disarming chuckle, as if to say, “can you believe people actually care about me this much? Can you believe I’m actually a threat?”
The two songs, which together clock in under three minutes, show what’s at stake on “The Life of Pablo:” the internal battle between Kanye’s conflicting impulses of pure id and hyper self-awareness. It’s a battle that appears in some form on every track: to satisfy your own desires versus everyone else’s; to be a family man or run free; to aim for the South Side or the blogspot; to be on or off your Lexapro. And that he willfully embraces all sides, and lets us into his agonizing decisions, is why he remains the most intriguing and important figure in pop music.