Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” dissected

Cult MTL‘s hip hop reporter Darcy MacDonald and Montreal producer/DJ Shash’U do a track-by-track, B2B-style review of Ye’s new record.

The Life of Pablo kanye west peter de potter
“The Life of Pablo” by Kanye West cover art, designed by Belgian artist Peter De Potter

“The Life of Pablo”

Darcy MacDonald: Overnight last Saturday, two things happened: The Life Of Pablo by Kanye West finally dropped digitally, and Montreal-based DJ/producer and Fool’s Gold recording artist Shash’U hit me up from Switzerland to see if I wanted to do a track-by-track, B2B-style review.

So I listened attentively — three times, hard, for the purpose of absorbing it a little, to be precise — and made my observations. I sent that to Shash’U, he came back with his own take on things, and here and there I’ve replied or added a little to what I initially said.

Here’s what we think.

“Ultra Lightbeam”

Darcy: The woozy, backwards samples and sporadic drums evoke ’67-’68 Beatles psych experiments. Nerd know they left a shit tons of versions on the cutting room floor. This track sorta feels like some of those alternate takes…especially when the horn comes in. The gospel choir are actually Heaven. Everything.

Shash’U: Yeah, I gotta say, when it comes to introducing an album, Ye got the juice. With writers and producers like Fonzworth, Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean and Rick Rubin in the equation, it shows how much Mr. West has trust in people who’ve been down with him since forever.

Darcy: Chance the Rapper ills this joint, too.

Shash’U: I love that he’s on it; I think he’ll make new fans with this one. Kelly Price though, wow; just fire.

Darcy: As an intro, it definitely ranks with the power Kanye knows how to kick things off with. Yeah, Kelly Price man, I gotta get familiar.

Shash’U: “Ultra” reminds me of “Graduation Day.” Though they don’t sound the same, they both carry Kanye’s ‘gospel’ tone, which he’s been sharing with us since College Dropout.

“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1:”

Darcy: Holy power, apparently.

The asshole line became a meme before I could even hear it, so I was ready to be “meh” on this but it actually made me laugh my bleach-stained T-shirt off. Kid Cudi is unobtrusive, just how I like him. Actually, I can’t stand him other than his appearances on Kanye joints, it’s a weird thing.

Shash’U: At this point, I’m driving, sunroof top open. I’m definitely going to bump this after our gloomy winter ends. I like the beat on this one.

“Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2:”

Kanye West Saturday Night Live SNL The Life of Pablo
Kanye West on Saturday Night Live, Feb. 13, the day before the release of The Life of Pablo

Darcy: The switch-up from Pt. 1 is great. I actually love the autotune on this, it adds serious emotion. Most people assume Ye uses that shit to correct himself but he actually manages to keep pushing forward on that. A classic West confessional. Then it descends into this trippy organ/computer voice. I love this shit.

Shash’U: This one energizes right away. Autotuned Ye is one of his subtle personas. It’s not as strong and present as Travis or Kendrick, but still proper.

It’s nice that he didn’t go too hard on the autotune parameters — he sounds better on this than “Highlights.” Desiigner is dope, I hope to hear more “GOODness” from this rapper. I’ll be playing this at the club for sure. Oh, by the way, Desiigner is newly signed to GOOD Music.

Darcy: I like Desiigner on here, too. Never heard him till now. People keep calling him a knock-off Future but people gots no chill, either.

We got Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Rick Rubin and Kanye on this one. I imagine that Kanye got the best he needed outta MB and got Dean to tweak it while Rubin wisely stroked his beard and occasionally grunted disapproval while vaguely waving his hands toward a monitor. Shash, what do you think?

Shash’U: Well, it’s quite interesting. Kanye pulled a fast one: “Pt.2” is a kinda remix of Desiigner’s “Panda” track, which was originally produced by Menace.

So I don’t think Ye had much say on the beat itself. It was already out, but the intro is what’s new here. Metro must have worked on Ye’s part before the beat drops with Desiigner.


Darcy: ‘Eyyy, der she is! Rihanna is a staple of the latter day Yeezy canon, good to finally hear her.

Shash’U: Yeah, though I don’t like it that much, I get the song’s purpose, in a way. Plus Rih’s vocals are super upfront and not everybody likes that. I’m still going to try it in a club though. Like “Monster,” it’s not really a club track but it could easily be people’s fav.

Darcy: Once again, I was reminded of the Beatles. Legend has it when they recorded “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” an overtly psychedelic ode to the circus, they cut up the tape, threw it on the floor, spliced it back together and worked forward from that.

Shash’U: One half sounds like what “Theraflu pt.2” would’ve been, and the other half is obviously a Sister Nancy classic, Swizz-cheezzied edit, but it’s also a jam I’d mix in/out with a track like Bounty Killa’s “Cellular Phone (Hip Hop Remix).” Just makes sense since Havoc is on this, too.

Darcy: “Famous” says a lot about Ye’s attention span. It’s hard to tell if the start/stop here is experimental or just kinda sloppy. I think it’s actually the latter, disguising itself as the former, but the effect is actually whole on repeated listen. What were your first thoughts Shash’U?

Shash’U: Yo, “Wake up Mr. Swizz Beatz”! I mean, let’s try something: Imagine Busta’s drums and patterns from “We Put It Down for Y’all” on top of Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam. Deluxe bruh.

Even Just Blaze agrees with me (true story), that Busta track was one of Swizzy’s top beats ever made. I just wish we had more of that vibe from him today. That shit was and still is legend.

Darcy: What else? My daughter blushed to the Taylor Swift part, and Swizz Beatz’s callouts are legend on this.

Shash’U: Heheh, yeah on his vocals he nails it. A Swizz Beatz ad-lib’in action figure would sell more than a Diddy one (haha, sorry).


Darcy: On first listen, this jumped out as the first thing one could define as standard composition for a Kanye song, which doesn’t make it automatically good, but doesn’t hurt the momentum of the album so far. Whereas I kinda found the bass boring at first listen on speakers, I almost broke the couch seat-dancing later on headphones.

Shash’U: This is my shit, yo. Ye brought human beatbox beats back in effect. His rap is so, so fly. Sounds like today’s “Send It Up” ’cause anything from Yeezus is a future classic. The baseline is street, just the way I like them, the vibe is excellent, the production is pro. It’s fresh, simple and unique.

Darcy: Thematically, we’ve just spent the first third of the record being beckoned to wake up by Mr. West. This is what he had to ask when he knows our asses are in gear:

“Heeeeey! You hear about the good news?/Y’all was sleepin on your boy/Had a good snooze?”

I pretty much took that shit personally.

Shash’U: Yeah, makes sense.

It also brings up the subject of how some people say “Ye’s music changed,” or “He’s not the same as before.” What does that even mean, if what’s presented to us isn’t actually new?

Yeah, there’s a fat chance that some beats that made the cut aren’t actually new songs…okay, so what if what we’re listening to wasn’t a new beat? What if it was something Ye made years ago, wouldn’t that change our forecast of his musical roadmap? Can we say that Ye changed then?

Only a few will actually know. So with that possibility in mind, I learn to listen and watch what an artist has to express, regardless of how the general public perceives them. And I like Kanye. He has great ideas, he just has a very “Kanye” way of expressing them.

“Low Lights”

Darcy: A breathless prayer. I’m not sure whether it’s to God or Kanye.

Shash’U: Haha, yeah, something like that.

Darcy: That said, I think a lotta casual listeners have been missing the gospel theme on the album. It’s not just the obvious choruses or more subtle, spiritually twanged vocal bridges.

Shash’U: I’d blend it with a drum loop or I might just do a remix, just for my personal twist.(Haha, make it so she’s talking’ about me!Sometimes selfish, beatmakers are.)

Darcy: There is a spiritual underscore to the entire project that is not to be taken lightly, but I’m not sure if the fact I grew up in a devout Catholic household informs my listening experience.

But this lands as a dud for me. It takes away from the momentum built up this far. Shash, what did DJ Dodger Stadium actually do here?

Shash’U: Well, from what I hear, besides Sandy River’s voice, are the piano chords and a synth bassline. I can easily imagine those being stems from a house track Dodger made, and that Ye slowed the tempo down for “Low Lights.”


Darcy: This song puts everything we expect from a Kanye joint to the foreground with purpose: the melodies are infectious, the lyrics are dead quotable, the switch-ups and nods to eras, influence and style are tightly subtle.

Shash’U: Oh yeah, this is “Super Suave Ye.” But at some parts the Autotune settings are too rough for me. The lyrics and melodies are super nice, mixable with lots of yesterday’s and today’s hip hop club tracks, or with any six-pack R&B singer for that matter.

Darcy: Lol.

“Freestyle 4”

Darcy: The more I listen to the entire record, the more I like how awkward this jam actually feels in its context, but I wasn’t feeling it at all at first, and I feel like I am being generous in accepting it now. When it build to where it could finally take off for real, HudMo abruptly breaks into a bass hiccup and ghosts into the next track. It’s interesting but it either shoulda been more, or got hacked.

Shash’U: This is soo G, soo badass. Kanye and HudMo went in on this one. Strings are so perfect. The vibe is dark and I just love it, it’s brilliant.

Yes, when the beat drops, I was expecting a little more — I’ll probably end up making an edit that bangs more. But the string intro, Kanye’s digital voice and full raps make this track the only one of its kind standing, like Akuma after his “Raging Demon Attack.” But in this case, Kanye is Evil Ryu.

“I Love Kanye”

Kanye West launch party Madison Square Garden The Life of Pablo
Kanye West at the Life of Pablo album launch party at Madison Square Garden, Feb. 11

Darcy: “You missed when I was clever so here’s a taste, but fuck you, also.”

Shash’U: This feels like a Gap ad. But to be real, I get a “don’t wanna get caught smiling” type of smile every time I hear it. He’s still talking about real stuff artists at some point will have to go through in a way.

Darcy: Word. It’s pretty good for what it is.


Darcy: Waves is the centrepiece of this whole TLOP-py extranvanganza, sonically sealing a covenant between Kanye West and some angelic playlist director in Heaven. Chris Brown soars to the point St. Peter may take off a half-demerit when they come face to face.

Shash’U: “I ain’t scared to lose a fist fight.”. I like that part. Chris Brown is cool on it, but I don’t want to skip his section, so I’d maybe mix it with other drums from a next track. That could be J Cole, K-Dot or Drake, damn even Travis Scott.

And look at that, 38-year-old Ye is sonically surfing the half-time beats wave like a pro.

Darcy: My only beef here is that the autotune makes it sound more like that whole, entire, meandering end part of “Runaway” remixed into its own song. My feeling is that it is more accidental than self-referential.

Shash’U: But the vocal sample is so doppppee. He lets it breathe when it hits, with those drums.

Darcy: This is also one of my faves so far.

Shash’U: Me, too.


Darcy: I’m developing a complicated relationship to this song. 808s & Heartbreak came out the week my dad died, and this track immediately evokes that time and feeling, and lyrically, Kanye has me staring at my own reflection and the maturity the years between then and now have bestowed me.

Shash’U: There’s going to be a lot of remixes of this song, no joke. It’s inspiring.

Darcy: To think the Weeknd was an anonymous 18-year-old when 808s dropped. And his moment here he completely transcends it all.

Shash’U: I think the Weeknd’s line might be the most impactful of the whole album. So, so fly and well executed.

Darcy: “FML”‘s third movement is a seriously seasick little coda to the whole idea. On the whole the track serves as a reminder not to get too comfortable.

Shash’U: That third part takes me back to L.A. Trippy without 808s. It’s dope and deserves to exist.

“Real Friends”

Darcy: My next comment re: “Wolves” will flesh this idea out a little more, but I just knew “Real Friends” was gonna make more sense as part of a bigger whole. I love this joint.

Shash’U: This track is therapeutic, that’s how I feel about it. Yo, Frank Dukes, Havoc & Boi-1da, what a dope mix of producers. Ty Dolla $ign murked it. First time I heard it, I felt like if Ye was a real real singer, he’d be singing this song just like Ty. I like this one a lot.

Darcy: Frank Dukes will get his shine this year.


Darcy: I’ve always avoided listening to Kanye singles as a rule, whenever possible. I remember hearing “Power” for the first time and turning it off. And then in the context of its album, it became a Top 5 Kanye song for me. “Heartless” was disposable to me at one point and it became my favourite song to hear live, not to mention that it was an artistic pivot point.

Easier to just say “Stronger” is the only Kanye single after “Through the Wire” that ever grabbed me right away. At some point it was unclear if the much-buzzed-about “Wolves” would even be on the record, so it makes it an anomally to me by my own listening standard. So now of course I’m faced with a switcheroo — I liked “Wolves” more before.

Shash’U: (Montreal-born producer) Sinjin Hawke is a genius. Cashmere Cat is always innovating — I’m glad to see the homies make music like this. I love this track, the angelic digi-choir voice is so well-crafted.

“Silver Surfer Intermission”

Darcy: Big tsunami of a phone drop from Max B.

Shash’U: Yeah, I thought of Wiz for two seconds. And that’s it.

“30 Hours”

Darcy: The richness of the melody is entirely compelling. Karriem Riggins brings a certain soul/house sensibility to the vibe here that hits with a comedown vibe as the album winds up for the downstroke.

Shash’U: I’d mix this with Jay Z’s “We Ride” or Mos Def’s “May December.” It gives me that vibe.

Darcy: Andre 3000 coulda been anywhere in the world, I guess, but he’s here, hypnotically repeating the title timeframe throughout and beyond one of those Kanye mic moments that shrugs between bars and babble-on-i-an musings, at some point declaring “30 Hours” to be “a bonus joint.”

Shash’U: I’m sure we’ll have some new Andre soon. I respect his desire to be reserved.

Darcy: And the phone call part is just stupid but at least that’s not really how the album ends.

Shash’U: Hehe, that’s classic Mr. West.

“No More Parties in L.A.”

Darcy: Pablo came a long way, baby. I can’t add much else to the hype other than to say that “No More Parties,” with that Madlib invasion, evokes a little more of the Dilla-tinge that has loomed over some of TLOP’s finer transitions. And maybe I am getting too fan-boy but are Ye and K-Dot maybe finding their inner DOOM here?

Shash’U: “I FEEL LIKE PABLO WHEN I:___ ” T-shirts will trend, I’m sure of it. They both killed it, both got their own “big ball” rap tone combos. Super dope.


Darcy: Fact: I’ve been listening for roughly, I’m guessing, 53 minutes, and haven’t yet made my first million. Still hard not to hate this one.

Shash’U: I love the drum works, but I’m a little disappointed on the Mellotron switch around the second half of the song. It’s cool at first, but then it gets sloppy. Kanye’s demeanour in “Facts” is so dope, I can totally see Lunice ninja swaggin’ on stage to this tune. I like Metro’s version and I might remix it, too.


Darcy: I love the upbeat “Fade” brings TLOP out with. If the end of the record does become a little derivative from “30 Hours” onward, this track grounds it once more, and also ends the project with a sense of optimism and possibility as opposed to an answer or a conclusion.

Shash’U: Very mature in sound. I know there’s going to be lots of remixes on this one, too. House DJs are going to jump on the idea. And, for some reason, I could hear this song at a “dress all in white” backyard party. Very nice way to close. Ye should come out with another album this year.

Darcy: Kanye looks like he could use a breather, though. You heard it here first, Kanye: Shash’U wants you to die for your art this year. ■

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