Listening notes: Life after Pablo

Genius is overrated and so is crazy, but that doesn’t mean either can’t make for great music, or that their absence can’t hold back good music.


Kevin Gates
Isiah (Deluxe edition)

On his first commercially available album, this Baton Rouge hustler reminds you why they call it a grind. He’s stressed out because he can’t hold back, and though his melodic moan sounds nothing like Ghostface, he powers forward with the same hysteric thrill, sorting through life’s hassles rather than bawling for sympathy. When he rhymes about setting firewalls in place between the separate aspects of his hectic life on “Two Phones,” he’s bragging, but you can almost picture six sweat beads shooting forth Cathy-like his head. Though I suspect I’d be even more icked out by the way he pronounces “pussy” if my body came equipped with one, he enjoys sex as something more than a metaphor for dominance. And if the “respect yourself, queen” double standard bullshit on “The Truth” is beneath him, could any other contemporary MC could get away with a line like “How could someone call me those things?” Don’t push him, ‘cause he’s close to the edge.



Kanye West
The Life of Pablo

Ye needs an editor, a cold shower, a hug. But mostly, the guy just needs. I’m not about to slide into his DSM with a diagnosis, but there’s an emptiness at the core of this intermittently stunning album that no amount of gospel choirs or shitty Future impressionists or love for family or mass hatemiration can fill. I’m relieved that his concept of “beauty” has evolved from Bon Iver and Jon Anderson to El DeBarge and Kelly Price (for both color of skin and content of character reasons) but he still mistakes grandiosity for greatness, aspiration for inspiration and, most of all, taste for genius. That his taste is both broad and fallible is his — well, not his saving grace, because grace, spiritual or secular, is what Kanye so notably lacks. He strives to channel one of the richest musical heritages on the planet through his own considerable individual talent, but he can’t get the fuck out of the way. Maybe that’s his point — he may be an asshole but he’s a black asshole, not a bleached one, and it’s his birthright to exploit as he sees fit, fuck you for asking — and may he forever remain the sand in our celebrity culture’s swimsuit area, rendering black defiance so uncool that it denies white idiots their vicarious thrills. But whatever conceptual cartwheels I spin in defense of his imagined intent, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to hear him jizz stupidly over a brilliant suite that bridges Rihanna and Nina Simone with Sister Nancy, and that “Ultralight Beam” was spared a similar fate almost makes me believe in divine intervention. As a public artist, after all, what Kanye really needs is for the rest of us to make sense of the brilliant mess he makes. Me, I get distracted long before he starts yammering about his sneaker deal.



BJ the Chicago Kid
In My Mind

Like a lover summoning the stamina for one more late-night round just when you thought he’d be snoring, Bryan Sledge has a gift for fluffing a tired sex metaphor. “Hopefully we can go to heaven” he tells the party girl he hopes won’t make him late for church. “Can I work that body like it’s a 9 to 5?“ is the stated career objective on “The Resume.” Nice, nice. But “I want you to feel the love I have inside me / Inside you tonight” is what Marvin would call beating around the bush. And ultimately The Kid’s hedonistic and spiritual sides are too sanely balanced — a recipe for a happy life, maybe, but offering no insight into why we’re drawn to either extreme.



2 Chainz
Felt Like Cappin

Over a half-dozen inessential, memorable cuts, he demonstrates just how little effort he has to put in for his self-satisfied spite to win you over — even makes a hook out of “Told that bitch you motherfuckin’ right” just by clenching his jaw. Notable guest: Lil Wayne, who knows a little something about not trying. I also feel like cappin — cappin all rap albums at six tracks, that is. (Sorry. Had to.)



Wiz Khalifa

Deliver us, Lord, from ambitious stoners. I’d hoped that his medical marijuana branding gig would sideline this overachieving underperformer, but somebody keeps driving him to the studio — as last year’s megahit Paul Walker tribute/high school graduation theme song proved, the industry considers Wiz too big to fail. Pretty sure this is what all rap sounds like to racists.

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