Review: The Complicated Misogyny Of Kanye West's 'The Life Of Pablo'
The Life Of Pablo could be perfect, there's just one thing.
At the apex of anticipation for his seventh studio album – which at the time was undergoing an insufferable identity crisis – Kanye West took the liberty of calling the project a "gospel album."
This album is actually a Gospel album
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 27, 2016
This tweet hit the Web just hours after berating his rap cohort Wiz Khalifa in an epic (and haphazardly numbered) Twitter rant, during which he claimed ownership of the Pittsburgh native's child. How in the hell could he possibly own another man's child? Oh, easy. Just by having had sex with his ex-wife a few years before their relationship. Further staking his claim on "positive vibes only," West swept his wildly disrespectful comments under the proverbial rug, and placed his music in line with The Lord. And now that The Life Of Pablo (TLOP) is here, it seems to have held up – to his lofty claim, and to the contempt he spewed prior.
It is hard to deny the jolts of inspiration on TLOP. Its theatrical, gospel-laden opening, "Ultra Light Beam" is easily a highlight of the record, employing Chance The Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price and Kirk Franklin (!!!) for a church-worthy "God dream." The beautiful five minutes is bookended by a 4-year-old soldier of Christ proclaiming "We don't want no Devils in the house!” and a signature prayer for the downtrodden by Franklin. In between, Price and The-Dream trade robust bellows and faint croons of faith, while Chance launches onto the track with unapologetic confidence in a higher power.
On "Low Lights," a passionate testimony of deliverance is shared with West's congregation. Unconditional self-love despite one's shortcomings is the (comical and appropriate) theme on "I Love Kanye." Teaming up with fellow tortured artist Chris Brown, Yeezy also professes that the "Waves" don’t die. Though unorthodox in every sense of the word, the Gospel of Kanye West is risen.
At his best, West is a virtuoso of vibes. Tapping into the sounds of his discography for a best-of portrayal of his signature samples, braggadocio, and seamless collaborations, The Life of Pablo is a jambalaya of its predecessors. There’s the soul of The College Dropout. The metaphoric quality of Late Registration. The self-awareness of Graduation. The melodic melancholy of 808s & Heartbreak. The grandioseness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And the straight-up gall of Yeezus. Tapping into a spectrum of grooves from as early as the ‘60s to as late as today, West borrows from his previous works as well as the likes of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” for reggae accents on “Famous,” Larry Graham’s “Stand Up And Shout Love” for soul undertones on “No More Parties In L.A.,” Whodini’s “Friends” for an old school hip-hop nod on “Real Friends.” Updated with trap influences by way of Desiigner and Young Thug, as well as the new-age R&B stylings of The Weeknd, West succeeds in simultaneous nostalgia and innovation, another familiar component of his past musical offerings. In addition to his own masterful concoctions behind the boards (“Highlights,” “Feedback”), he also flexes his bars for poetic portrayals of self-awareness. All things musically considered, West proves “the old Kanye” is not our dearly departed. At least not on wax.
But nestled beneath all of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music is also the pungent odor of misogyny. From praising the star-power of his male member to the tossing around of the b-word like a “top of the morning” greeting, West succeeds at yet another one of his staple attributes: crassness. Namely, against women. Taking yet another stab at Amber Rose on “No More Parties In L.A.,” West doubles down on labeling Amber as the stripper who trapped Wiz Khalifa. “For all my niggas with babies by b***hes, That use they kids as meal tickets,” he says, before later noting, “I remember Amber told my boy no matter what happens she ain't going back to Philly.” It is not just his ex who bears of the brunt of his offensiveness however; West also refers to his own wife, Kim Kardashian, in a less-than-flattering light on “Highlights.” In an attempt to slight her ex-boyfriend and sextape co-star Ray J, Kim is also hit with a stray: “I bet me and Ray J would be friends/If we ain't love the same b***h.” Much to the chagrin of many other women, West inquires on “Facts,” “Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby?” Other less specific examples include inquiries about oral sex (“My dick out, can she suck it right now?”), references to a woman’s sexual past (“I know it’s corny n***as you wish you could un-swallow”), shots at an ex who remained nameless (“My ex says she gave me the best years of her life, I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right”), and assertions of his authority ("I'm from a tribe called Check-A-Hoe"). If West’s musical prowess is Dr. Jekyll, his contempt for women is Mr. Hyde.
The most publicized woman in the rapper’s crosshairs on TLOP was Taylor Swift, who took a hit with the line: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ [Why?] I made that b***h famous.” In defense of the line, West took to his newfound soapbox (aka Twitter) to proclaim that Swift was forewarned about the line and approved of its use, thinking it was “funny.” He also noted that his wife gave the lyrics the green light. But more problematic than his side of the approval story were two of his other comments following the backlash: “I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship,” and “B***h is an endearing term in hip hop like the word N***a.” So Kanye, three questions. Do you actually feel the things you say? Who decided that “b***h” was endearing, you, or Kim, Amber and Taylor? And could you not have taken credit for everything someone else worked hard for without implying that she owes you sex for it? Wake up, Mr. West!
4th Bitch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word Nigga — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 12, 2016
The sad truth is: The Life of Pablo is not the first West album to be littered with misogyny. But one might have the pragmatic expectation that the rapper would grow more conscious of this as a husband and father of a two-year-old daughter. Instead, just days after North West’s birth, Yeezus descended upon us, and found him more degenerate than ever. “On Sight” found West spouting lines such as “Black dick all in your spouse again/And I know she like chocolate men/She got more n***as off than Cochran.” In response to his polarizing sixth album, a group of seven female culture critics gathered at West’s throne to dissect its content and context for “Sheezus Talks: A Critical Roundtable.” Anupa Mistry, Toronto-based freelance journalist, pointed out the dichotomy between Yeezy’s newly-domesticated life and his ever-raunchy lyrics.
“It’s funny that when Kanye seems to be at his most conventionally stable (boo’d up and smiling on national television, a new papa, fiscally and creatively on top), we get a record that’s so lyrically and sonically ruthless,” she wrote. “He totally is too smart to know he’s not wrong, but there’s a definite disconnect.”
Why then, has Kanye seemed to have grown more misogynistic in his music? Could it be that his wife’s reputation as a less-than-pristine woman has him on the defense? Does it have anything to do with his late mother, Dr. Donda West? Or is the shock value of it all like a tantalizing in-vein substance for him? Speculatory reasoning aside, one thing is for sure: the enacting of the run-of-the-mill slander against women does little to support the notion that West is one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. Writer Maura Johnston also pointed out that it earned him no points in the socio-political arena either (he has since hinted at the possibility of running for POTUS in the year 2020).
“I wasn’t that surprised by the misogyny, which also just happens to be coming back in vogue across the board (shout out to Trent Franks!),” she noted. “Although it’s dismaying that someone who wants to be such a serious artist, and who is still using his celebrity to directly confront American culture’s decidedly überfucked racial politics, can fall in step with the narrative lines of patriarchy.”
The other sad truth is that this is not just about one man; hip-hop itself has also been littered with misogyny for decades. But for an artist of Kanye West's caliber, further tainting the art form should not be commonplace. Similar offenses by–say, Future and Wiz Khalifa–will not leave as large of a stain on the grand scheme of the culture. The women who help keep his legacy afloat deserve better. And unfortunately for us, even through gritted teeth, his genius cannot be denied. Placed in an impossible position, female hip-hop fans must grapple between appreciation for his work and the fact that it continuously contains content that is poisonous to our experience.
The Life of Pablo could be perfect, there's just one thing:
Imagine a Kanye West who is the exact same artist minus the rampant misogyny
— Jason Lipshutz (@jasonlipshutz) February 11, 2016