When the Chicago native Kanye West debuted in the music industry in the early 2000s, he did so not primarily as a performer, but as a revisionist. Like most hip-hop producers of the period, West relied on samples of older music, but his signature technique involved accelerating samples of soul-music vocals and instrumentation so as to distend and elevate their pitch. It wasn’t enough to look back to the music of the past and duplicate it: The past had to be reframed, rushed to make up for lost time. West’s curious approach to production, at once retrospective and progressive, would carry over into his aesthetic as a rapper: to name just one example, most of “Last Call,” the prolonged coda to his 2004 debut, the masterpiece The College Dropout, consists of West reviewing, in plain speech instead of verse, the improbable history that led to the creation and release of the album itself.
Several critically acclaimed, widely influential, and commercially successful collections later, West’s art of memory and possibility has become a towering fact of American culture, and West himself has soared to heights of wealth and celebrity that have, by his own account, the potential to alienate himself from his audience. “I miss the old Kanye, / straight from the go Kanye, / chop up the soul Kanye, / set on his goals Kanye. / I hate the new Kanye, / the bad mood Kanye, / the always rude Kanye, / spaz in the news Kanye,” West raps on “I Love Kanye,” a spoken-word interlude at the center of his most recent album, The Life of Pablo. (The album was made available on Tidal in February, and is still being refined; Kanye has said it will not be for sale anywhere else.) Yet the ultimate effect of the interlude is not to distance the artist from his former self but to reinforce the sense of continuity in his work, which, as the interlude itself amply proves, has always evinced the same peculiar combination of excess, self-awareness, necessity, and responsibility, the same artist reviewing himself fondly but wistfully over the passage of time. “First class with the seat back, I still see you / In my past, you on the other side of the glass / In my memory’s museum.” West is addressing an old girlfriend on those lines from his 2007 album Graduation’s “Flashing Lights,” but he may as well be addressing his former self at any given moment in the present.
And there is much to address: The Life of Pablo has a fair claim to be considered the most retrospective album in a body of work where reminiscence is the norm. As West indicates in his brief autobiography in “I Love Kanye,” he has reached a point, on album seven, where the classic music of the past he samples is, in fact or in essence, his own, whether it’s “the old Kanye” of albums one through three or “the new Kanye” of albums four through six. One of the primary pleasures of The Life of Pablo is secondary—the search for correspondences with the prior albums opens the opportunity to experience them anew. The album’s aesthetic is less uniform and novel and more a splicing together of already existing ambiances: the sunlit, gospel-inflected cheer of The College Dropout; the chilly, auto-tuned desolation prevalent on 808s & Heartbreak; the electrified abrasions of melody typical of Yeezus; the war-wounded exuberance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; the refrain “Wake up, Mr. West!” from Late Registration; and the pop-tinged, eclectic spaciousness of Graduation.