Kanye West’s Brilliant ‘The Life of Pablo’ Is Often Sad and Embarrassing — So Why Are We Still Laughing?

Kanye West is frustrated. It’s probably the only thing made abundantly clear over the past few weeks, leading up to, during, and after the release of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. That he is an enormously gifted producer is unquestioned, and few would dispute his impact on pop music. But Kanye cleared that mountaintop years ago, somewhere around the debut of his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

In 2016, he’s convinced that his creative genius as a designer of sound extends far beyond music and well into fashion; a designer of sneakers, of sportswear, hotels, videogames… anything, really. He’s spent millions to prove it. But while Mr. West has no problem comparing himself to legends (Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, the apostle Paul), Sisyphus might be the closest analog of his latest non-musical endeavors. Each time he pushes that stone up the mountain (see Yeezy Seasons 1, 2, and likely 3), it comes rolling back down. And lord Yeezus is not pleased.

Kanye West’s dysphoria should be familiar to any talented, ambitious, and creative person; that infuriating feeling of being alone in your confidence in your abilities. Of repeatedly crashing your head into a glass ceiling before coming back with a sledgehammer, only to find that the glass is bulletproof. Part of his frustration is born of his history of bursting through ceilings, whether as a producer who wasn’t taken seriously as a lyricist, or as a writer who wasn’t taken seriously as a performer, or as a rapper who wasn’t taken seriously for his Gucci backpacker aesthetic.

The next frontier? The board room. He knows the difference between “rich” and “wealthy” now, and he knows that wealthy people stay wealthy because they don’t spend their own money on their businesses. He wants the power to spend millions of someone else’s money on his creative whims. For now, no one’s biting.

The spectacle of The Life of Pablo‘s rollout — from the Madison Square Garden livestream to the dramatic Saturday Night Live performance that almost wasn’t — was certainly absurd. And it won’t help sales that as of right now, his album can only be streamed on Tidal. (It’s also important to note that because he briefly sold downloads on his site, the album should still be eligible for next year’s Grammys.) But does that even matter? Do album sales even matter anymore in an industry that now includes streaming data when considering records for Gold and Platinum status? When Rihanna can clear $25m before selling a single album or concert ticket? To someone not named Kanye West, maybe. But if his sights are set on loftier aspirations, all of this — the tweets, MSG, making Taylor Swift “Famous” — is shrewd and calculating.

Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate a raise or a promotion knows that without any leverage (another job offer, executive influence) you’ve got nothing to negotiate with. Kanye has his beats. We love the beats. The performative nature of his tweets and actions aside, that’s his art. He knows it’s brilliant, he knows we crave it. He’s doing his best to use the leverage he has; our attention, his money, his sneakers that can’t seem to stay on the shelves. And he’s using it to force us to acknowledge his new art. He generated thousands of “news” stories about his fashion line from eccentric tweets about his new album. He got “20 million” people at home to look at his latest collection, because it was the ransom payment for the new LP he’d been holding hostage.

And what of that new LP? Its name, length, track list, album art, release date, and method of distribution have all changed — some several times — over the last few weeks. Just today, early versions of many of the tracks (and others that didn’t make the final cut) leaked online. In many ways, that’s the real story of The Life of Pablo, the reimagining of the album as a form, the transitive nature of our relationship with music in the streaming age, a glimpse into the creative process in real-time. The music is almost besides the point, but only just almost — without it, would we still be talking or thinking about Kanye West?

As a whole, The Life of Pablo is messy and scatterbrained. It’s as bi-polar and unpredictable as its creator’s tweets, shifting from gospel to trap to house, back to gospel, occasionally dabbling in the God-level crate-digging that first made him famous. Its opening track, “Ultralight Beam,” is a transcendent composition in which Kanye doesn’t even rap. Instead, he leans on a #blessed verse (2016’s best thus far) from 22-year-old Chicago native Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price’s powerful vocal chords, and Kirk Franklin channeling the holy spirit through a gospel choir. It feels earnestly spiritual and genuinely celebratory, reverent of the past as it’s updated for the future. And he follows it up with a track that opens with this line:

“And if I fuck this model/and she just bleached her asshole/and I get some on my t-shirt/I’mma feel like an asshole”

It’s one of the worst lyrics Kanye has ever released to the public. It’s sophomoric, illogical, and even worse… it’s boring. There’s plenty more evidence (“Sometimes I wish my dick had GoPro,” “I’mma have the laugh In-di-end, cuz I’m from the tribe called Check-a-ho”) that the lyrical decline so clear on Yeezus has only regressed further. West is certainly capable of lyrical brilliance, but it’s been some time since he’s had to prove his worth with dope rhymes, and mainstream hip-hop culture no longer values lyrics the way it once did. And without his old playful cheekiness, his misogyny, teenage locker-room humor, and the generally shitty way he talks about women becomes impossible to ignore—it dilutes the music more than anything else.

That the lyrics are so monumentally bad but don’t completely derail this sprawling work is a testament to his talent as a producer (and our ability to forgive reprehensible personal politics as we dance). His lyrics are often distasteful, but his taste in music is unfuckwithable. Where did he find the Iranian-Azerbaijani singer Googoosh’s “Talagh“? Or how did he flip Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” so that it sounds like he’s saying “30 Hours”? Would anyone else have thought to juxtapose The Weeknd’s medicated robot soul with a second-tier Factory records band? Even when he lifts beats, sections, or entire melodies, like Goldfrapp’s “Human” for “Freestyle 4,” or the Menace-produced Desiigner track, “Panda” for “Pt.2,” it sounds less like the meddling of an egotist and more like a respectful remix (and slight improvement). As his career has progressed, he’s taken on more of the Executive Producer role, a maestro conducting a symphony with an orchestra of virtuosos, assembling a pastiche of sounds and words from various contributors, both old and new. Of course, his transition has been made easier by his gender, which ensures his authorship is never questioned, even as other rappers claim writing credits for tracks on which they don’t appear. But it’s interesting to see the most egotistical lyricist alive use such an ego-free production style.

It’s hard to predict what the legacy of The Life of Pablo will be in 5, 10, or 15 years. There are certainly some classics amongst its 18 tracks — “Real Friends” is quite possibly the most honest thing he’s ever done — but what will endure? The social media and its attendant publicity? The Taylor Swift line? It certainly seems like the noise of the spectacle has drowned out what is almost certainly an important work of art. It’s telling that the public (or the press) seems more concerned with Kanye’s mental health than his lyrical decline, but they’re inexorably linked. Consider the following tweet from Rhymefest, a Chicago MC and former Kanye collaborator:

Is it a coincidence that the artist and friend who collaborated with West on some of his lyrically proficient work can no longer work with him in good conscience? Are those “yesmen” the same ones who gave Kanye dap when he brutalized Nina Simone’s version of “Blood on the Leaves” with lines like “To all my second-string bitches, tryin’a get a baby”? We’ll probably never know. We don’t know who that cousin who ransomed his laptop was, either, or who leaked the audio of the Saturday Night Live “meltdown” (which sounds more like privately blowing off steam than a Christian Bale tirade). Wealth and fame attract parasites. How many does Kanye have in his circle?

But whatever you think of West as a person and/or as an artist, it feels beyond cruel to laugh at his online or backstage antics when he’s rapping lines like “You ain’t never seen nothin’ crazy than/ This nigga when he off his Lexapro.” That the spectacle around this album has detracted from the music is one thing; but even more importantly, it’s detracted from the humanity of its creator. It’s not our place to counsel Kanye (or even judge him on anything but his art). But as human beings, we hear a cry for help.

It’s irresponsible and risky to attempt amateur diagnoses as to the mental health of a person you don’t know. Whatever the exact nature of what Kanye is experiencing right now, a few things are clear: He misses his mom; He’s going through some shit; He could probably benefit from better advisement. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that his influence is large enough to make people feel less afraid or unashamed to talk about their own mental health, just by name-dropping antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. Because, well, “if Kanye can do it…

Yes, the beats on The Life of Pablo are dope. But the spectacle of its release has often been sad and embarrassing. Kanye West might very well be happy to turn his life into a sideshow in the promotion of his music, and of himself. But is it really that funny? Richard Pryor may have gotten us to laugh with him about his own breakdown, but Kanye is no comic. Are you still laughing?