From brand worship to the cultish event at Madison Square Garden, Yeezy’s new album is covered in religious references
First things first, I am not a religious person, nor have I ever been. I have never read the bible, I have rarely stepped foot in a church, and the closest I have come to divine inspiration is at 4am in questionable circumstances. So when Kanye West released his long-awaited seventh album The Life of Pablo this weekend, it naturally took a while for it to truly sink in. This is an album so steeped in religious ideas that Kanye thinks it’s literally the work of God – a gift that travelled from heaven and into our speakers. “I’m only doing two percent of the work,” he commented before the album’s release, “God is doing the rest of the work.” If there was any confusion, he also clarified on Twitter that “this album is actually a gospel album.”
This last claim is hard to deny. From the first words that he sings on the album “I’m tryna keep my faith” (on “UltraLight Beam”) to the last words “Oh, I get lifted yes” (on “Fade”) this is a pure gospel album through and through. And while you obviously don’t have to understand every religious reference in The Life of Pablo to appreciate the music, it’s definitely worth delving into in order to comprehend the piece as a fully realised piece of art. With that in mind, I dissected each religious connection within the album in a bid to get to grips with Kanye, and get to know his latest creation a little deeper.
THE ALBUM TITLE
After a whole load of drama, Kanye plumped for The Life of Pablo, an album title so unexpected we didn’t initially think it was real. But what does it mean? Who is Pablo? While early reports focussed on famous artist Pablo Picasso and infamous criminal Pablo Escobar (both acting as the two dichotomous Kanye selves), the rapper has since compared himself to Paul the Apostle, tweeting: (sic) “All memes are wrong... The Life of Paul... The life of Pablo... Ultralight beams... Moms dads daughters sons stand up...”, explaining: (sic) “Paul ... The most powerful messenger of the first century... Now we stand here 20 centuries later... Because he was a traveler...” If you, like me, had no idea who Paul the Apostle was before now, he was apparently the most important disciple of Jesus, and he basically invented Christianity in its current form. Also, ‘Pablo’ is Spanish for ‘Paul’. So Kanye is essentially saying he is the most important disciple of Jesus, delivering his message through lyrics such as “Now if I fucked this model, and she just bleached her asshole, and I get bleach on my t shirt, Ima feel like an asshole.”
THE PUBLIC UNVEILING
I can’t have been the only person who thought the unveiling of Yeezy Season 3 and simultaneous album reveal felt kind of cult-ish – Kanye, standing there with his arms uplifted as if in worship, while his followers looked on in awe. Saying that, fashion, music and celebrity could all be described as cults in different ways, and Kanye embodies the current state of all three. Streaming the public unveiling of the album via TIDAL reminded me of clips in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief when their leader David Miscavige addresses a stadium crammed full of people who are pumped up by his mere presence, and deeply enraptured with their own belief system.
THE BRAND ICONOGRAPHY
Kanye is obsessed with Adidas. Rarely does a day go by where he doesn’t tweet about the multinational sports corporation, who have pumped bucketfuls of money into his designs (money that Kanye has probably pumped right back). “Adidas has really made all the difference,” he posted this morning. “Thank you Adidas for supporting my creative vision.” At the unveiling of his album, he also prompted the crowd to start chanting “fuck Nike!” – a chant that might make sense if he was a brand-hating anarchist, but conversely, it actually shows his intense, worship-style fixation on corporate monopoly. Listening to The Life of Pablo can feel so smattered with confusing, hyper-capitalist ideas that you’d be forgiven for thinking Kanye had made a vaporwave record. Is there a hint of post-ironic intellectualised sadness in “Famous” for instance? Yes, probably. Sure, Kanye idolises God, but he also idolises Adidas and Tidal.
Nike v Adidas, Apple v Tidal - no wonder TLOP is a vaporwave record: stark, confusingly sad interludes inspired by corporate monopoly— Thomas Gorton (@AngstromHoot) February 15, 2016
THE FAMOUS FAMILY
There’s this incredible lyric in “Wolves” where Kanye sings “What if Mary was in the club, when she met Joseph around hella thugs?” adding: “I impregnate your mind, let’s have a baby without fucking, yo.” It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Kanye, in a round about way, views his family as the modern reincarnation of Mary and Joseph, having named their children “Saint” and “North”, and staking a claim as the most famous family in the world. Of course, there are subtle differences between Kim and Kanye and Mary and Joseph. The latter didn’t take selfies or go on Twitter rants, and they probably had to have sex to conceive.
THE ACTUAL SOUND
Kanye has always utilised hugely talented producers for his work, enlisting names from the underground as well as the mainstream. The Life of Pablo is no different, and the album features super-producer Madlib, Hudson Mohawke, Charlie Heat, Boi-1da and Cashmere Cat amongst many others. The result is a beautifully warped mish-mash of genres, where classic gospel choirs are cut, spliced and reworked to sound like something new; the old sound of religion reinvented to reflect its new incarnation. It’s also worth noting that “Fade” samples two iconic throwback house tracks – Mr. Fingers’ “Mystery of Love” (1985) and Hardrive’s “Deep Inside” (1993) – and, needless to say, the parallels between religion and house music are so strong they’ve become a cliché, with the genre representing a need to come under one roof and reach a higher place.
THE SONG LYRICS
Every track on The Life of Pablo is positively dripping in religious imagery, from the moment the music beams out of the speakers. “I’m tryna keep my faith, we on an ultralight beam, we on an ultralight beam, this is a God dream,” he sings in glimmering Auto-tune on “Ultralight Beam”, a track name that references how God appeared to Paul the Apostle via a beam of light. A choir then bursts in with the words, “I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more, somewhere I can feel safe, and end my holy war.” These religious ideas are prolific throughout, scattered throughout “Feedback” (“Follow our Father”), “Wolves” (“You gotta let me know if I could be your Joseph”), “FLM” (“God I’m willing to make this mission”), “Faded” (“Oh I get lifted, yes”), and the list goes on…