The last era-atomizing, margin-stalking, race-commentating auteur to commandeer local movie theaters with an unprecedented event ended up falling flat. That was Quentin Tarantino during the 2015 Christmas holidays, with his 70mm Panavision Roadshow engagement of the slight genre exercise The Hateful Eight, which did not cause much of a ruckus at the box office or on social media or anywhere else, for that matter. Such was not the case with Yeezy Season 3, Kanye West‘s livestreamed Madison Square Garden debut of his new album, The Life of Pablo.
Kanye’s theater takeover — I watched with a full house at the Regal Brier Creek Stadium 14 in Raleigh, North Carolina — was far more festive. In fact, as I got out of my car, two young white gentlemen who appeared to be college students put their arms around each other and shouted, “All Hail Yeezy!” The anticipation of hearing actual new Kanye West music had wiped clean the offensive inanity of West’s recent outbursts on Twitter, America’s national dry-erase board of brain farts.
Intro-ing the album, which he played from a laptop next to the soundboard on the Garden floor, West said that if we liked any of the songs, “please feel free to dance,” but that might’ve been the strangest thing he said all night (even more strange than that whole winged-mom video-game digression) because Pablo, except for one outlier — the house-music blur of “Fade” — is a stark, sparse, ghostly journey of mourning (and weakness) from a wounded, searching artist who insists on painting himself as a Barnum-blowhard marketing genius and martyr. As demonstrated on Pablo, he remains a peerless, fascinating retro-futurist romantic who practically yanks feels out of drums and wires.
Like Yeezus, the album has 10 songs and clocks in at around 40 minutes, but the mood it carefully sets is decidedly less abrasive or declamatory. West contends that it’s a “gospel” album, and the opening track, “Ultra Light Beams” even enlists gospel crossover superstar Kirk “Stomp” Franklin to heighten the intensity of the occasion. But for West, gospel basically means forgiveness and family, regret and betrayal. He’s the sinner who’s always “apologin’,” as he once put it. And as a result, there’s a somber, swooning ambience to The Life of Pablo.
What’s striking throughout is the swirl of voices, both colliding and collaborating. On “Ultra Light Beams,” a little girl deliriously testifies, a female congregant responds (“Yes, child!”), West himself speak-sings, “This is a God dream,” answered by a choir, as bursts of synth and bass circle. He overtly says, “Pray for the parents”; The-Dream croons about persecution and God’s protection. Honestly, it’s pretty startling, and discombobulating, this immediate, solemnly spiritual call engineered by a guy who was slut-shaming Amber Rose and exposing a child to reckless slander just two weeks ago. But that’s Kanye — he’ll repeatedly spout dumb shit about women, while asking forgiveness in the same breath. Luckily for him on Pablo, he’s got the music to persuade you to empathize.