A Deep Dive into The Religious Symbolism in Kanye's 'Life of Pablo'
When you’re a larger-than-life pop icon like Kanye West, your every action is followed by an immediate reaction from press and fans alike. Whereas artists like Drake and Beyoncé released their latest albums unannounced, translating hype into sales as soon as fans checked their inboxes, Kanye West’s promotional cycle for his new album, The Life of Pablo, has been as long-winded and dramatically staged as his wife’s reality television show. The album has had a two-year lead up, three hard-to-read track listings, and four album titles—culminating in one incredible release party at Madison Square Garden that featured a flock of blank-faced models showcasing Yeezy Season 3 while Kanye and crew passed around the auxiliary cable, bumping tunes like it was a basement house party.
Against all this immediacy is an album that addresses eternity, and one that stands out as Kanye West’s biggest religious statement since “Jesus Walks.” Here at Milk, we briefly stepped away from the twists and turns of Kanye’s Twitter feed in order to bring you these Pablo-vian insights.
This is all all is fun all in good feelings… We will all be gone 100 years from now but what did we do to help while we were here!!!
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016
“Which / One” Serves as Pablo‘s Thematic Guide
The two photos that visual artist Peter de Potter includes in his stark album art for The Life of Pablo—a quaint marriage photo on one side and a faceless woman’s bountiful bottom on the other—set up the album’s central dichotomy: do we chase security in marriage, or do we find pleasure in the swinger’s lifestyle? The images are accompanied with a slashed prompt, “Which / One,” suggesting that we could choose one, the other, or, as Kanye seems to do over the course of this album, try for both. It is a question as old as original sin, but seen through the slats of Kanye West’s shutter shades, the story takes on a different tone.
Will the real Pablo please stand up?
“Which / One” also refers back to the title, The Life of Pablo. Kanye makes reference to at least three different historical Pablos—Escobar, Picasso, and Paul the Apostle—and leaves it to listeners to decide “Which / One” most represents Kanye, and which one most represents themselves.
First, we’ve got Escobar. On the track “Feedback,” Kanye raps “Pablo bought a Roley and a Rottweiler/Seems like the more fame, I only got wilder,” specifically referring to two purchases Escobar made at the height of his empire. This Pablo represents the corruptible influence of infamy. Yeezus-era Pablo.
While giving a lecture at Oxford, Kanye West said, “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater.” We’ve all heard of Picasso. He’s only the greatest artist of the 20th century. Both artists have resisted normalcy, pushing further and further into the avant (and getting more and more oddball in the public’s eye) as their careers progressed.
The final Pablo is Paul the Apostle, en español. Paul, one of the first teachers of the gospel of Christ, is felt musically, since a large chunk of the album borrows vocal tracks and techniques from gospel choirs. But his influence is more direct, too. Album opener, “Ultralight Beam,” seems like a direct reference to Paul the Apostle, who converted to Christianity after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, striking him blind for three days with his aura—an ultralight beam.
Paul … The most powerful messenger of the first century… Now we stand here 20 centuries later… Because he was a traveler…
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016
The Resurrection of the Gospel Album
We are introduced to The Life of Pablo by the voice of a child emphatically praying in the backseat of a car. “We don’t want no devils in this house!” she yells. The track that follows, “Ultralight Beam,” is 100% nu-gospel, placing esteemed belter Kelly Price and church singer Kirk Franklin center stage. It’s a daring song, unlike anything else in Kanye’s discography, and is the album’s clearest letter of intent.
Error: Message Not Sent
The album’s religious potency is diluted by—who else?—Kanye West. The album is messy, featuring skits, freestyles, and no clear sense of plot (at least on the first listen). But just a month ago, back when we still thought the album was named Waves, the track list was laid out like a play. We had Acts I-III to guide us along Kanye’s journey of spiritual enlightenment.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 27, 2016
The album would start off with “Famous” (formerly “Nina Chop”)—the now-infamous track that digs at Taylor Swift by suggesting Kanye could sleep with her since he “made that bitch famous.” The oversexed lyricism is gross, yes, but it’s gross by design. By Act III, we’ve reached a more sincere, emotionally-raw Kanye. Tracks like “FML,” “Real Friends,” and “Wolves” all focus on Kanye’s own insecurities, and, unsurprisingly, are among the album’s standouts.
If these religious themes fell by the wayside—if he didn’t clearly put theater and thoughtfulness into his art—he’d be another Instagram-famous Shia LaBeouf holding onto the concept of performance art as if it kept him afloat. But, in his music—from the blissful fade of “Waves,” to the angelic piano loop that drives “Real Friends”—Kanye finds temporary redemption in a sea that threatens to swallow him whole. “This is a God dream/This is everything,” he sings on “Ultralight Beam.” And, in that moment, we’re converted.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Kanyology.
Images courtesy of Consequence of Sound, VikiTelenovelas, Hablatumusica.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Wikipedia.