We're really trying here. We've added a number to our group, the venerable Ann Powers, and yesterday we fanned out on both coasts to put ourselves in position to receive the latest Kanye album in a handful of different circumstances. We had people watching the livestream at work and at home and at a friend's house, two in LA watching the satellite feed in a movie theater, one person in Baltimore doing the same thing and one of us at the Garden. Kanye has a lot going on, and our strategy for deciphering it all is to hit it from several angles. We haven't reached consensus on what we actually saw — Erika says it worked like a focus group, Chanelle is calling it karaoke and only half-kidding, kris and I overheard a kid telling somebody on the phone that it was "the best album listening experience ever." We beg to differ. We do agree that, as always, a Kanye entrance is an excuse for us to talk about the state of almost everything. If you missed it, what happened was Kanye yanked a tarp off two tiers of models outfitted in his third collection for Adidas, and then he plugged his laptop into the sound system at Madison Square Garden to play his seventh solo album. He was smiling big pretty much the whole two hours the happening in New York was simulcast to theaters around the world and all y'all's phones via Tidal.
The writers below debated and noted and laughed before and during and after on an email thread and over lunch and text and twitter. As much as we tried to account for the separate ways one could hear something for the first time, all our experiences of the album will be colored by this group's interactions. Our allegiances and affections and competition. And it don't stop. Speaking just for myself, Kanye albums change drastically over the first six months or so after they're released. Listening in my car, or while I'm folding laundry, or with white friends, or gay men, or in mixed company, or just with my girls, or playing it for the first time for some dude who doesn't have to deal this industry or putting my dad on — the songs will reveal what they are to me slowly, as my life bends around and eventually incorporates them. So take this for what it is: eight people on mile two of a marathon. Join us.
As I watched the sometimes stuttering stream of Yeezy Season 3 in my shades-drawn home office in Nashville, tweeting like a madwoman, I noticed another hashtag trending while the simulcast unfolded: #WeirdQuestionsToAskGod. For a moment I thought this might be the latest title Kanye was using to contain his latest outpourings of sacredness and profanity. "This is a gospel album," he announced at the Garden, ensconced within the sanctuary of his crew. He'd made the remark before, adding the phrase "with a whole lot of cursing," and the stream showed that he meant it literally. For every exquisite testimonial or heavenward chorus sampled (Kelly Price, I think, on "High Lights," or the antiheroic Pastor T.L. Barrett on "Father, Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 & 2), this music vomited a stream of obscenities, lewd gestures, porno brags. Kanye has that scene in The Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus gets down with Mary Magdalene on loop. But that's the beauty. As truly offensive as his rash statements may be, Kanye's obsessive need to face his own baseness as he strives for transcendence – musically rendered as lush hosannas pressing against weird industrial gurglings and bleeps – generates a pathos that keeps expanding and pulling skeptics back in.
That's what great gospel does, too, for despite the judgments passed by many a preacher, its key artists have always acknowledged sinfulness, felt it in their bones and loins, and pulled from its energy even as they flew beyond it. I watched Twitter and noted that some people were wondering of Life of Pablo is the story of Saul becoming Paul — a man who thought he was beyond God, struck down on the road to Damascus, trembling, astonished and finally anointed to a new path, scales falling from his eyes. If that's the case, Kanye's still on that road. No one who's truly transcended would still sexually belittle Taylor Swift or long for hate sex the way Kanye does in these new songs. He wants to fly to heaven with his mama – the most poignant moment during the stream was the unveiling of the video game he designed to take her there – but he's still on the ground, Adidas sticking to the Garden floor. —Ann Powers
It's always an event with Ye, and this time was no different. It felt as if most of those at MSG stood through it all. And there was always something that heightened whichever song was on: people noticing it was sleepy Thugger on one of the podiums, Travis Scott jumping up and down, Naomi Campbell doing whatever she wants. It was crazy to see how personal it was in different areas of MSG: Ye and co. (Travis Scott, Pusha, 2 Chainz, Mike Dean, Frank Ocean, Lamar Odom, Virgil) were all so hype, almost in their own world. KTT was at MSG IRL, all of them wearing Yeezys. The merch lines were super, super long. His following was in full in effect, which is why when Ye rapped "Now I look around and there's so many Kanyes" it was a bit surreal. People listened carefully, even though there's only so much you can catch when listening via a aux in an arena. I'm excited to hear the album through my headphones to catch the lines some people at home did. —Erika Ramirez
kris and I were the oldest people in Theater 11 at the Woodland Hills AMC. By 10 years, easy. We were also the last people to show up because we have been here before and we've run out of illusions regarding start time. So we had to be in the very first row, crunched necks and everything, because that room was totally full. So was Theater 10 btw. I haven't seen a movie theater like that since the Court Street UA when Borat came out. That's not true. These kids were sober and took every minute seriously. I kept lamenting my lack of flask. —Frannie Kelley
Please don't mistake my words as some type of review of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo; it's still team #tuckyourreviewsin over here. This is more my reaction to Kanye's grandiose fashion show/album release party at the world's most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, which I got to listen to quite comfortably on my Apple computer, courtesy of Tidal's 240P resolution live stream. While watching people fawn over the Kardashian clan as if they're America's version of the Royal family was cute, I'm only here for the music (though it was good to see Ye walk out with Lamar Odom, thank God for his recovery). The album started off scrongg, as he would say. I remember thinking, "Are those organs?" It was gospel, Auto Tune, soul-satisfying church at the Garden absent pulpit pimps named Creflo Dollar — you can say amen. Suddenly Chance the Rapper comes on and he's rapping like I'm not sure we've heard him rap before. It felt like Ye was passing Chano the torch for Chicago and then Kirk Franklin blessed the track. I'm not sure if the music gave me chills or it was cold in the office, but I was affected. Some of the themes Kanye touched on and the music he was rapping over had this spiritual aura.
The production sounded like the Kanye I wanted to hear. There's a Nina Simone sample on TLOP that just took hold of me. Miss Simone has that effect with her music and Kanye used her gift just right. Some of the ish talking was the Kanye I miss, like Kanye making a song about Kanye — loved it. And some of it was grossly immature for a 38-year-old father of two. Referring to your wife as a b**** just isn't cute to me. Maybe I'm soft — I'm a new father and I'm trying to bathe in less misogynistic rap waters so it didn't sit right with me. "No More Parties in LA" was noticeably missing. I thought Drake might make a surprise appearance on that one and I was hoping for a Jay Z verse but that didn't happen. When the jam session was over I was left wanting more. I was hoping Tidal released the CDQ right then so I could soak up the music, lose myself in those verses and production again. Watching Kanye unveil clothes that I wouldn't even wear to the gym in front of his adoring fans and celebrities alike while simultaneously playing his new album it felt like he raised the bar yet again. —Cedric Shine
I couldn't go see Yeezy Season 3 live because I was in a meeting. Because it was 4 pm ET on a Thursday, and I'm an adult, with a regular job. Just wanted to say that first. By the time I got out of said meeting, it was about 30 minutes into the (delayed) exhibition; a group of coworkers had gathered around one of our desks and had the event up on one monitor and a Twitter feed up on another. To me, the unpredictable stream ended up pretty accurately reflecting the show itself. I thought the event as a whole was distracting, as I've found the entire rollout for TLOP. In this instance, instead of focusing on the music, I instead had a series of random thoughts about a multitude of random things: "Is that the Lil Yachty onstage?" "Why did Ye insist on styling the Kardashians after Skips from Regular Show?" "WAIT — can you run that Thugger track back one more time?" Maybe if I had come into it from the top, I would have been more committed. But watching it how I did (in an office, surrounded by people who were just as befuddled as I was), when I did (at the end of a work day) made me take the album, at that moment, a lot less seriously than I was expecting. I'm hoping to wake up to the real thing. —Kiana Fitzgerald
I just left The Charles Theatre in Baltimore. The hype was as expected. As I'm trying to focus, the group in the row behind me are pulling a very virtual finesse by FaceTime-ing their homegirl into the theater. With every glance of a standout model, she screamed "YAAASSS!!!" through the phone. I would've been annoyed had I not been screaming the same thing in my head, nervously scanning the screen, hoping the album would just play already.
When that organ hit on "Ultra Light Beam," I got shaken up. Going off the hardcore trolling Ye's been doing, I thought the "gospel album" thing would come through in a way more off-kilter, gospel-inspired way. It's the real deal, though — like sitting in the pew smelling peppermint candy and cardboard from the handheld fans. The Kelly Price to Chance transition was probably the most unexpected shift in my music memory. I fought back a tear. When Chance said "I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail," the affirmation hit hard, as it successfully translated his joy while still getting across "I'm finally here and I'm not gonna f*** this up." The following tracks don't disappoint either: Kanye admitting his craziness but not before comforting himself, assuring us that all geniuses are nuts, boasting over the boost he gave Taylor Swift's career, taking a jab at the police, a freestyle about himself, sliding the Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian card onto the table. This album couldn't have been completed too long ago with these references. And, oh yeah, Rihanna is doing a f****** Nina Simone cover. On first listen, The Life of Pablo is what I hoped for even though I selfishly wanted to hear more gospel. As I'm leaving the theater, a friend remarks, "That s*** was so good it already got people forgetting about that Cosby tweet." Very true. —Lawrence Burney
Idk, man. I have to admit, the video game freaked me out a little bit. As someone who's lost a mother, it's an interesting and well-intentioned concept. But the idea of his mother trying to get into heaven says to me, "Why is this such a task for her? Shouldn't she get right in?" Unless the idea is Ms. West frolicking through the gates of heaven, then that's completely different and I love it. But those are two completely different things. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Yeah, what are her obstacles? —Frannie Kelley
I took it to be the latter, Kiana. Later he could be seen wearing a shirt in honor of his mom and Kim's dad on the back. I can't imagine the pain of having to deal with those emotions in today's paparazzi crazed world. Remember when Scott Disick's mom died and those fools called them "the mother's brothers." Just a-holes. Seemed like a sweet gesture but not a game I would want to play. —Cedric Shine
The video game made me hella uncomfortable at first but it's because I don't relate to those emotions or experience right now. I think the intent was beautiful though. Kinda like how I couldn't listen to "Only One" without crying for like a month straight after it dropped. —Lawrence Burney
Right, Kiana? I think he's more worried about himself getting into heaven, especially with so many songs confessing with justifications. Kanye's obsession with approval of his authentic self is really raw and there's so much that can be said about it. —Chanelle Adams
My pocket-psychology read on the video game is that Kanye feels profoundly guilty about Donda's death and he'll spend the rest of his life trying to work that out. I read it as not making her work to get into heaven, but making a way for him to be able to work to get her in, thus redeeming himself. Sad kid. —Ann Powers
I'm expecting this album to materialize sometime around 5am PST Saturday. And, in spite of my spite, I'm excited and curious and eager to hear the finished product. Kanye is a sorcerer of spectacle — unpredictable, captivating, pulling us in, even as we previously stood with crossed arms, sided eyes, rolled eyes and yawns. There's a magic here: Is he in on it? Is this calculated? Will he lose it? Today? Is the today the day he goes off? Is ... oh, wow: Music. Rich and thick with things that drags across your chest, dare you to stand still (those poor models, my heart weeps for them so; real talk, I am incensed) and to not feel some feels. Be joyed, be angry, be chagrined at your wrongness, smug in your repaid faith. Even being annoyed is a win. Is he in on it? We don't know, but we'll keep coming back.
We will listen to the music. We will be repulsed and rewarded. We will wrestle with big ideas about life and what it means to be a human being in need of the acceptance of other human beings. We'll point out his numerous contradictions; or we won't see them at all — because we are living in our own glass houses of contradictions, complete with swimming pools not as big as Drake's.
We will use his words as memes, as swords, as gates into what we think we know about this man, his motives, his actions, his families. We'll say this is this, and that is that because of this lyric and that choice. We'll inspect him as a surrogate for ourselves. Because this is what his music, his conceit, and his transparency do to us.
Is he in on it? Are all geniuses crazy? Does crazy make one genius? I believe it was Einstein (or maybe Shakespeare; pretty sure it was an old dead white guy) who said something about thinking in analogies being a hallmark of true genius; this idea of connecting things that may not be connected in the eyes and minds of others. (Or maybe it was the guy who wrote How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.) What is seen as Kanye's hubris and lack of self-awareness — the steel-eyed self-comparisons to some of the greatest creators and capitalists of recorded history — may be a strong argument in favor of his genius.
Genius isn't necessarily moral, compassionate or even evolved. It just has to be able to go forward where and how others cannot imagine. It creates spectacle. It says that not just any spectacle born of embarrassment is genius, but it makes spectacle marketable and profitable in terms both human and financial. It inspires us. It causes us to take inventory. And it makes us ask, what are we mastering as this album is being mastered? What are we rearranging in ourselves as he shuffles his playlist? What are we separating and equalizing? Because if we love ourselves like Kanye loves Kanye, we would not be mastering the art of waiting. —kris ex
You can't help but feel a way, whether love or hate, for Kanye. And, at times, it's both. I walked in to MSG and felt proud of him in a way, because he held a listening session, a party almost, and a dream of his, a fashion show, at MSG, and then, I'm wiggling and bopping my head, and hear lines like him saying he'd still have sex with Taylor Swift, and refers to her as a "b****," and then tweets that "b**** is an endearing word in hip-hop." Like, what? I do agree that you have to be a little crazy to be a genius, but also a little crazy to keep going. —Erika Ramirez
kris, your meditations on the place of genius are exceedingly relevant in light of several other key conversations happening via popular culture right now. First, there's the ongoing celebration of "black excellence" and ensuing concerns about how embracing exceptionalism can derail political struggle to fortify multifaceted communities, not to mention demanding conformity to a set of ideals determined by the powers that be. The hot sauce in Beyonce's bag is a signifier of her current attempt to change the terms of her own exceptionalism, to infuse it with a sense of community and, in doing so, to follow the century-old path of "racial uplift." Some have ecstatically embraced her moves, while others have questioned her right to claim the charisma of the margins (and crucially noted that little to no actual elevation takes place through being mentioned in a billionairess' music video.) Still others have reminded us that authenticity tempts with its promise of wholeness, but inevitable exacts limits. On his Facebook page, our friend Jason King wrote:
I'd be willing to accept that black people concealing/carrying hot sauce in their bag and eating at Red Lobster after a sex romp could constitute "very black" activities — or whatever these supposedly humorous websites and thinkpieces are peddling as "the blackest thing this week" as they implicitly police who is or who isn't "Black AF" in any given moment. But I'd only be willing to accept that if Black people NOT carrying hot sauce and Black people eating sorbet and Black people listening to Blue Oyster Cult and Black people learning to speak Mandarin and Black people discussing the political climate in contemporary Khartoum could also be considered in the scope of what constitutes this week's "very black" activities. Because, otherwise: the joke's on us.
The clarity of Jason's stern but compassionate corrective enlightens Kanye's convolutions, too. If Beyonce's sense of political culture is grounded in graciousness and paper — not money, per se, but the imprimatur of certified legitimacy that comes from hanging out with heads of state and, yes, corporations, Kanye keeps swag unbottled and his affectations prickly. He;s way more black-turtleneck Steve Jobs than black Bill Gates. Beyond the legacies each tap into as African-Americans, however, there's also the 21st Century world of virtual floating identity, and for me that's where Kanye enters in ways that that are most transformative. Back to the video game. In cyberpunk film and fiction, a deep sadness pervade the attempts of both humans and humanoids to harness the technology that seems to solve everything but which can't defeat the base conditions of life in a body: the loneliness of being singular and the terror of knowing that one day, perhaps today, you will become obsolete. This century has brought the age-old struggles defined by the central dominance of one people (one drop-defined set of bodies) over numerous others into a technological space where we supposedly can shed that flesh. People grow wings when they become avatars, but they still fall in the streets when their oppressors shoot them. What ceaselessly intrigues me about Kanye's earth-toned, pixelated maximalism is its attempt to both do away with body limits through technology and its devotion to body tics — the cussing, the genital fixations, the way the child's tongue keeps defeating the master manipulator's filters. In this way, the Kanye projected within his music is more like a Picasso painting than Picasso himself: cubist, collapsing perspectives, the latest explosion of the new. I think that's Kanye's biggest commitment — to the new. It's why he loves fashion, too. But he can't escape into the future. He's stuck with the past, with his mom's memory, with us. —Ann Powers
Yeah, that's the part that I'm stuck on. Because even if his commitment is to the new, what he's trafficking in is the now. Writing up until the very last minute, having people vote on your album title, drafting Thugger — it makes business sense, but it also has this amnesiac effect. We're losing perspective. As Lawrence's friend pointed out, it's looking like we're all giving him a pass on the Cosby tweet. I've given him a pass on misogyny for YEARS. And it's thought through; I'll defend it. Ann and I talked about this when Watch the Throne dropped — that line "meet me in the bathroom stall, and show me why you deserve to have it all" still physically hurts me, but I understand that if there were no desecration that song would be a lie and that me feeling betrayed in those moments is the art working. I also think that song broke only because they played it over and over and over again. When I saw that tour they did it four times, but I know people who saw them do it way more than that. And they rammed it down radio's throat. But I think more important is the way that Kanye's insistence on the present seems to make people forget that HE'S SAID ALL THIS BEFORE.
Sometimes I think he isn't moving ahead but rather reiterating, looping back around, refining, rephrasing, revoicing, editing, resituating the same ideas. Repeating himself. Picking scabs, like Ann said. I don't think that's a knock on him, I think that's how career artists work. And it's not clear to me how effective each instance of his words have been, if you don't count the way his affirmations can be grafted on to yours. His indictments can chip away but they haven't exploded anything yet (just because Kanye can go to San Fran and get a video game made doesn't mean Silicon Valley isn't hard coding the racism and sexism and ablism and homophobia and classism of our daily lives into our futures). He has to keep saying this s***, and he's not the only one, because y'all don't hear me though.
A couple of my friends were inspired by what he did yesterday as proof of the value he's created, the transformation of what I hear as the travails of self investigation expressed in real time into the Number 1 Christmas present. Since, as he said, Adidas paid for everything yesterday, I think TLOP is the first debt-free Yeezy album. As happy as I was about the melodies and the jokes and all his smiling we took in yesterday, I'm surprised this is where he is even after that weight has lifted. I thought he would go further. I bet the models wish he had gone further. —Frannie Kelley
Chance summed it up perfectly: "This is my part, nobody else speak." Kanye called church early this week. He asked us to meet him at 4PM on a Thursday, just a couple weeks after Rihanna released ANTI, her first album that isn't completely singles. It's black history month. We're being trained how to make an event out of albums again.
I was grateful to be in a room of friends with good ears for musical changes, recognizing guest vocals and veiled references in the lyrics. We sat in a dark room waiting for the Tidal stream to load. Whatever it was that we were about to witness, we were here for it. We laughed nervously that maybe Kanye had set us up, maybe people without tickets like us wouldn't be able to watch him reveal his album exactly the way he intended. Turning down the quality of the video so it would quit buffering was a bummer and the visuals definitely suffered.
"We don't want no devils in the house," no devils advocates, no non-believers. Like a maestro, Kanye signaled at a tech bro with the headphones to reveal the veil over his models, who made a warm, grainy landscape on the screen. His flashed his signature I-just-got-my-wisdom-teeth-removed-lookin' Ye smile and bounced between Bible references, brags about sexual escapades and references to his madness as genius. "This isn't regular," he reminded us when the crowd cheered wanly at one point. "Y'all think this is easy to do?" As as an audience, have we become numb to the spectacle? "Wake up n****, wake up!"
Or was Yeezy Season 3 exactly what we anticipated? Does it matter? Or was this really about process and Ye proving his creative madness: "I've been out my mind a long time. ... Name one genius that ain't crazy." —Chanelle Adams
I really don't care about propriety when it comes to Kanye. For me, the way he constantly picks at the scabs of a nation not at all healed by our attempts to be politically correct offers valuable insight into the anxieties and other negative emotions that can't be ameliorated by polite talk. He's not a role model in any way, but for me, that's what's valuable. Show us your ugly. If anything is authentic about him, it's the mix of ugly and beautiful. —Ann Powers