The world has distracted from Kanye West's creative process – except, as he shows on The Life of Pablo, distraction is his creative process. This is a messy album that feels like it was made that way on purpose, after the laser-sharp intensity of Yeezus. It's a labored-over opus that wishes it were a mixtape, trying hard to curate the vibe of a sprawling mess, and that's because it's made by an artist who feels like a mess and doesn't care to hide it. "My psychiatrist got kids that I inspired" is the most brilliant line on the album: Ye can't even go to the shrink without getting his ass kissed about what a big shot he is, so he has to go to the studio instead. And dude knows he's got some issues to work on.
Pablo is an album he kept tinkering with, even after he gave it an official debut at Madison Square Garden – in the most stunning track here, "30 Hours," Ye congratulates himself on how well the Garden premiere went. It's designed to sound like a work in progress. "Ultralight Beam" sets up a gospel theme with Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, The-Dream and Chance the Rapper. But West rarely stays in the same mood too long. He brings in Rihanna to sing a Nina Simone hook, then duets with Chris Brown a few tracks later. For "No More Parties in LA," he puts Kendrick Lamar, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Larry Graham on the same track. High-profile guests play the role of Yeezy's sick conscience, whether it's the Weeknd in the marital-blues slow jam "FML" or Young Thug in "Highlights."
All over the album, West hides behind his douchebag mask whenever he gets scared he's exposed himself too deeply in the expansively emotional music. He wants the world to see him as an asshole because he gets terrified that the world might see him as a restless husband ("FML"), a guilt-ridden son ("Wolves"), a manipulative phony ("Real Friends"), a distant dad ("Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2") and all the other things he worries he is. "30 Hours" looks back on a failed long-distance relationship, over an Arthur Russell art-funk groove and with André 3000 joining in on harmony. But it sounds like West is actually mourning the long-running love affair between Kanye and Kanye. When he says, "You was the best of all time at the time though/Yeah, but you wasn't mine though," he's talking to himself in the mirror. That's why the freestyle "I Love Kanye" stings, especially the punch line "I love you like Kanye loves Kanye" – Kanye knows he always fucks over the one he loves, even the one he loves most, himself.
West is a genius who worries the world only likes him for being a clown. (St. Paul felt that way, too.) When he wears his clown hat on Pablo, as in his misogynistic jokes in "Famous," it's embarrassing – he's just aiming for cheap laughs, and not even getting those. (When he boasts about his wild and crazy antics at award shows nobody else remembers, he sounds like the dork at a high-school reunion who thinks that spring-break kegger was the peak of his life.) But that's part of what West is trying to figure out on Pablo – a grown man, not to mention a pioneering artist, wondering why he has to keep playing the "38-year-old 8-year old." Pablo doesn't go for any grand musical and emotional statements on the level of "Bound 2" or "Runaway" or "Hey Mama." West just drops broken pieces of his psyche all over the album and challenges you to fit them together.