Today marks six months since the opening rays of gospel on “The Life of Pablo” burst onto the internet. It’s another triumph for Kanye, who managed to chase down all of his contradictory impulses and agonies while still making a cohesive project.

But the open secret about “Pablo” is that while it’s a great album, Kanye himself is not particularly great on it. I cringe with every “bad bitch up in equinox” and “bleach her asshole,” and instead look forward to the appearances of his many friends and proteges. In fact, “Pablo” without its guests is hardly an album at all. So how did these other stars, from Chance the Rapper to Rihanna to Caroline Shaw, rise to the occasion? Are they better on “Pablo,” or on their own?

Chance the Rapper

Appears on: Ultralight Beam

The “Life of Pablo” is at least 10% worse without Chance’s magnificent praise dance on “Ultralight Beam.” It gives the album an aspirational push, pumps it with spiritual zeal, and effectively passes the torch to the next Chicago generation. Kanye found enlightenment in walking with Jesus; Chance found enlightenment in walking with Kanye. It’s one of the best verses–dare I say it–OF ALL TIME.

But you can also say that Chance’s career is at least 10% worse without the verse, too. As supremely good as “Coloring Book” is, “Ultralight Beam” is not the intro, but the entree. It’s a sublime out-of-body convulsion; the greatest 90 seconds of his career.

Verdict: Better on Pablo

 

The-Dream

Appears on: Ultralight Beam, Highlights

As a consummate professional and craftsman behind the scenes, it’s not surprising that The-Dream is overshadowed by bigger personalities. Still, he remains understated and elegant here.

Verdict: Push

 

Kid Cudi

Appears on: Father Stretch My Hands

There was a yearlong stretch or so when Taram Killam looked like he was going to replace Andy Samberg as SNL’s zany powerhouse. They were a delightful pairing when they shared the stage, pushing each other to weirder and weirder spaces. Then Samberg left, and it turned out Killam was reliable, but eminently replaceable; that he preferred sliding into an ensemble than hamming it up in the front of the stage.

That’s Cudi. He’s a character actor who hits his stride when playing the little brother role, as on “Gorgeous” or “Welcome to Heartbreak.” And that’s fine. The world needs its Joe Pescis and Margo Martindales. Cudi’s own “Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven” might be unlistenable, but the chorus of “Father Stretch My Hands” is a glorious arrow through the stratosphere.

Verdict: Better on Pablo

 

Desiigner

Appears on: Father Stretch My Hands, Freestyle 4

The first time I heard “Pt. II” on record, I legitimately freaked out. I started head-banging and jumping around and laughing hysterically. Fuck all that chatter of “he rips off Future” or “he doesn’t have good lyrics” or “he doesn’t have lyrics at all.” Desiigner captures a chaotic euphoria I feel on my best days, except it seems like he feels that way all the time.

And while Desiigner adds a youthful terror that Kanye can no longer achieve, Kanye delivers a melancholy that’s completely absent from “Panda” on its own. The result is a perfect hip hop yin yang.

Verdict: Better on Pablo

 

Caroline Shaw

Appears on:

Father Stretch My Hands, Freestyle 4, Wolves

Kanye consistently breaks ground when he takes a snippet of idiosyncratic genius and molds and frames it. (See McCartney’s whistle and Bon Iver’s autotune.) But you can never fully box Caroline Shaw in. Roomful of Teeth has some of the wildest sounds in all of life.

Verdict: Worse on Pablo

Rihanna

Appears on: Famous

“Famous” isn’t even close to the best thing Rihanna has done this year. If there’s a single better album of 2016 than “Anti,” I haven’t heard it. Shoutouts Nina Simone, though.

Verdict: Worse on Pablo

 

Swizz Beatz

Appears on: Famous

I always consider turning the album off when I get to Swizz’s ad libs at the end of “Famous.” Stupid straggle-rap hype-up pandering bullshit. I like his five-year-old son’s beat on the Kendrick record better.

Verdict: Worse on Pablo

 

Young Thug

Appears on: Highlights

Watching Young Thug wile out on Kanye’s SNL performance made me realize he could easily play the Robin to Kanye’s Batman in an amazing supergroup. He exudes so much energy and emotion in just his presence, without even saying anything. Imagine Young Thug in Public Enemy instead of Flavor Flav. Better yet, imagine Young Thug in Abbott and Costello instead of Costello. “Who’s on first?” “YAH YAH YAH! SLIIIIIME!”

Regardless, this isn’t quite the right setting for Thugger. His falsetto fits a little too cleanly into this beat, while it usually bounces off London on the Track’s low registers with oomph.

Verdict: Worse on Pablo

Chris Brown

Appears on: Waves

Reminder: Chris Brown called Frank Ocean a faggot over a Hollywood parking dispute.

Verdict: Garbage Human Either Way

 

The Weeknd

Appears on: FML

FML is the thematic heart of Pablo, a sonic and lyrical exploration of the “Which One?” quandary of the cover. Can the narcissistic Kanye find the strength to be a family man? Is the straight and arrow life even worth it if you forgo life’s greatest pleasures and thrills? Kanye brilliantly deploys the Weeknd to straddle the line. Abel has spent years grappling with this fundamental conflict, and his iconic falsetto has reached its peak, revealing deep pathos right under its acrobatic sexiness. But even more impressively, Kanye uses him as a mood pivot: Kanye starts the song resigned and beaten down, clawing away on his last stand. Then Abel soars in, delivering a mantra, injecting force and optimism, and Kanye launches into a verse that’s a defiant punk rant. It’s one of the most powerful moments on the album – and you don’t reach it without the Weeknd’s bridge.

Verdict: Better on Pablo

 

Ty Dolla $ign

Appears on: Real Friends

It’s real hard to come across as sympathetic when complaining about rich guy problems. Kanye first turned the impossible on “Welcome to Heartbreak,” and returns to the same infertile topic here. But while “Heartbreak” is frigid and despairing, Ty Dolla lends a haggard soulfulness to “Real Friends.” His cadences are perfect. And the juxtaposition of Kanye’s rapped vocal and Dolla’s slight autotune is oddly moving.

Verdict: Better on Pablo

 

Vic Mensa

Appears on: Wolves

After Kanye played the album at MSG, he let his homies take the iPhone jack for a while. Young Thung premiered “With That,” and the building practically jumped out of its imprint. Then Vic played a song, probably “U Mad,” or “I Ain’t Chill” or whatever, and everyone’s eyes glazed over and they went back to snapchatting and standing in line for $140 sweaters.

I just don’t get Vic. He’s a drifter, a leech. He is rap’s MOR. He is the rap version of Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator,” who so badly wants the throne, but Chanceus Maximus is clearly the better option.

Verdict: Push

 

Sia

Appears on: Wolves

“Wolves” was always great in theory. When Caroline Shaw gives you a hook that strong, it’s hard to go wrong, right?

But the final version is an absolute mess of loosely-tied personalities, botched transitions, over-repeated, immature slogans. Sia is utterly out of place, photoshopped into a movie scene that lacks coherence or direction. (Cross-analogy intended.) She’s most powerful when holding notes at the top of her register, and when she gets to tease out ideas over the course of a song. But here she just hovers, slurs, and wobbles. Is she the muse or the reformed former head of the pack? It’s not clear, but then again, nothing about this song is. 

Verdict: Worse on Pablo

Frank Ocean

Appears on: Frank’s Track

This is for sure the best thing Frank has put out in four years. 😭😭😭 #boysdocry

Tally: Better on Pablo: 5

Worse on Pablo: 5

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