Rapper, producer, fashion designer, occasional politician and prolific tweeter, Kanye West has weathered more controversies in the past five years than the average artist would throughout their whole career. So it’s no surprise his music eventually took a backseat to his numerous public breakdowns and/or unhinged rants, and it seems the turning point was 2016's The Life Of Pablo.
Both the albums following, ye and Jesus Is King, were mired in public backlash that detracted from the music itself. People were mad at him for avoiding the issue of his “slavery was a choice” belief on ye. Then they speculated on how long Kanye’s Christian ‘fad’ would last, treating JIK like a throwaway detour in his career.
Looking back on the fifth anniversary of The Life Of Pablo however, that album was when Kanye’s career truly became defined by the many controversies he continuously generates for himself.
The Beginning Of The Downfall
His seventh studio album was a project chock full of contradictions. Up 'til its release, Kanye had declared full Tidal exclusivity for it and his subsequent releases (only to backtrack a month later). The title itself went through a number of changes before its finalisation two days before its iconic premiere at Madison Square Garden.
During its promotion, Kanye got into a short-lived feud with Wiz Khalifa on Twitter, who took offence to TLOP’s earlier title - Waves. He claimed a lack of appreciation towards Max B - a rapper who popularised the term ‘wavy’ in hip-hop. A few days later, Kanye then abruptly tweeted his support for Bill Cosby in the midst of TV legend’s many sexual assault accusations; a move that saw severe backlash from fans and detractors alike.
On TLOP, Kanye Speaks Out... In A Way People Didn’t Expect
Kanye’s recent albums exist as a byproduct of his deteriorating public image. ye was quickly remade after his slavery comments due to the overwhelming backlash; while JIK felt like a gospel record for the sake of being a gospel record, lacking an emotional anchor that gave fans a reason as to why he pivoted this way. These projects’ entire existence hinged on the absurdity of Kanye’s public image and how people assumed they would address the statements he made.
TLOP, on the other hand, had no such issue. It exists as a full body of work that’s a product of Kanye the artist, largely detached from Kanye the celebrity.
He did get Max B as a cameo on Silver Surfer Interlude to quell Wiz’s accusations, but that was the extent of Kanye addressing prior disputes. TLOP largely disregards the publicity stunts that came before it, choosing to start its own narratives instead.
How Did The Music Speak For Itself?
Named after Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar and Apostle Paul, Kanye claimed that TLOP was a “mix between message, art, and product”. An album that’s “just embracing the music, embracing joy, and being of service to the people”.
And it did just that.
Ultralight Beam and Wolves are poignant, religiously-charged tracks that detail the parallels he sees in his life compared to past historical figures. Real Friends and FML open up the can of worms in Kanye’s life that comes with his celebrity status, revealing a vulnerability that isn’t masked by bravado like on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 and Feedback rounds out the record as blood-pumping bangers.
There’s a little something for everyone. The hilariously self-aware I Love Kanye interlude makes it feel like TLOP’s haphazardness was by design, where the whiplash of sounds throughout the tracklist is a showcase of the marriage between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Kanye.
In The End, His Narratives Still Get Out Of Hand
The single most defining moment of the TLOP era, however, was Famous. A song that dragged Kanye’s feud with Taylor Swift out of its grave and gave it new life.
Despite its misogynist leanings, it gave us a peek into how Kanye perceives his relationship with Taylor and those who latch on to him for his fame. The track itself wasn’t exactly subtle with its message of feeling perpetually trapped by fame, but the surrounding media circus of the feud did it no favours.
Famous was framed as a petty diss track instead, though the blame also lies with Kanye. He knew what he was doing when he name-dropped Taylor. The publicity that it garnered for the record essentially rewarded Kanye for his provocateur behaviour.
Kanye’s well-known partiality to instigate controversy bleeds into the discourse of his music. The song was given a platform to push its narrative but for an artist who has lived out his career under the scrutiny of the public eye, it quickly got out of hand as everyone and their mother had their own interpretation of it.
Even when the music speaks for itself, the song’s narrative will always take on a life of its own - his public persona eventually serving to overshadow what was a stellar display of Kanye's talent.