Kanye’s Army of Unknowns (Mostly) Shines on T.L.O.P.

Well, it’s been a week since Kanye West unveiled The Life of Pablo, and whether or not we’ve actually heard the “final” version, the internet’s done a solid job covering every angle of everything worth saying about this beautiful mess: Chance the Rapper’s verse is one of the best he’s ever done, that “bleached asshole” line is awful, and everything after “Wolves” shouldn’t even be there.

There are enough small debates like those to easily cover six of these columns. Between Ye’s Twitter rants and Mike Dean’s last-minute Instagram mastering sessions, the frantic process behind this one has been almost painfully visible in a way that his prior works have never been. But like the albums that preceded it, one of its best qualities is the number of other artists it brings into the fold, whether it’s features or co-producers or samples. 808s breathed Kid Cudi into existence, and Yeezus was the first time the general populace was exposed to Arca or Hudson Mohawke.

Likewise, the cast of TLOP is a mish-mash of the wildly famous, like Chris Brown and The Weeknd (both of whom, in a stunning flip on expectations, actually make the tracks that they’re on) and the virtually unknown, such as Desiigner and Sinjin Hawke.

LA’s very own DJ Dodger Stadium, the duo of Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy, are some of the most prominently featured producers on the album, having helped with five tracks. I’m definitely speculating wildly here, but you can hear their soulful chops all over “Ultralight Beam” or the bassline from “Low Lights.” Coincidentally their new record, Stand Up and Speak, just came out, and it’s a slick melding of their sampling skills and a newfound love of live instrumentation, like Mr. Fingers meets Caribou.

Desiigner, featured on two tracks, is a bit of a weird one. His spot on “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” is actually ripped wholesale from his own track, “Panda” (which, naturally, also bangs). It’s a weird decision, but, like most of TLOP, it pays off. Sure, he sounds like a bad Future rip-off, but more importantly he’s got bars. He also managed to get signed to G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye’s label, with only two tracks, so he’s clearly got something big in the pipeline.

“Wolves,” which has been floating around for more than a year at this point in various forms, is an incredible cut, largely due to the lush production courtesy of Cashmere Cat and Sinjin Hawke. Cashmere’s been tearing up the festival circuit for years at this point, but Sinjin’s still kept it relatively lowkey. If you’re a fan of those deep 808 kicks on “Wolves,” though, you owe it yourself to check out Fractal Fantasy, the label/visual project he collaboratively runs with his partner, Zora Jones, where he regularly churns out incredible, cutting-edge club destroyers.

Then there’s the samples, which are certainly too numerous to deal with here, so I’ll just cover a few personal favorites. There’s of course the obligatory Nina Simone flip that makes the backbone of “Famous,” but it’s outshined by Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” repitched and rearranged to form the incredible hook that takes over for the last minute. It’s a stunning reminder that Kanye’s best friend is his sampler, and easily one of the best moments on the album.

Similarly stunning is the placement of Caroline Shaw, a New York composer most well-known for her violin work. She only shows up twice, but both are my personal highlights here. The first is the ten-second blip at the end of “Father … Pt. 2” that sounds a bit like Imogen Heap, and the second is the resampled vocal melody of “Wolves.” It’s tiny elements like these that make TLOP a great record, whether or not you think it’s any good.

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