I have been an avowed Kanye West stan since it became cool for skinny white people to do so. A friend of mine once said that him interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs changed his life without a hint of irony, and I can relate, as it was right before I would start exploring his first four albums. Since then he’s dropped two of the most acclaimed albums of this century, and they both live up to the hype. It’s pretty easy to see why many (myself included) have approached his latest project with trepidation. I haven’t heard the new album, hilariously titled The Life of Pablo, but I have seen the art and included it above.
Boy, is it awful — in the best way possible.
You don’t have to be a design expert to tell that the cover is bad. I genuinely think it was made in MS Paint in under seven minutes, and that’s being generous. That hideous shade of orange, the askew text, the out of place and certainly out of symmetry mystery of a wedding photo — it is, pretty simply put, not good. I wouldn’t be surprised if the CD art actually has JPEG compression on it, too.
But this isn’t Kanye’s first attempt at defying conventional wisdom. For the uninitiated, that’s the original art for his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and I don’t think I need to explain what it’s depicting. It was controversial enough to be adjusted for the release, where the central image is instead blurred. That’s a shame, because it fits the content of the album perfectly.
MBDTF was Kanye’s statement at the top of his fame after years of being demonized in the media, and so become a demon he did. The painting here is a strange mix between formally respectable and grotesque, and the music matches: it’s over-produced with a maximalist bent, but never crossing the line into Phil Spector weariness.
But anyone who thought that was ugly must have been furious when they saw what passed as art for the follow-up, 2013’s Yeezus. A few other images were circulated as the cover right up until its release, but ultimately it came to pass that Yeezus essentially didn’t have any art; the physical CD comes exactly as seen above, with an orange sticker over one side of the jewel case and nothing else. Again, it fit perfectly with the album’s concept. Kanye said he was taking his ball and going home out of protest, to the point where he would half-ass most of the music.
It’s deliberately harsh, off-putting and frequently under-produced. Kanye knows exactly what people want or expect but refuses to give it to them, as you’ll hear very deliberately in “On Sight.” The chipmunk soul that defined Kanye ten years ago is only given a scant few seconds in the song, before being replaced by harsh minimalism (at least, minimal by Kanye standards.)
The point is, this art is off-putting purposefully, and there’s no reason to assume The Life of Pablo doesn’t have shit art for the same reason. Even the laughable title seems to have a very specific significance to Kanye. This interesting piece at Highsnobiety puts forth the notion that it could be Pablo Picasso (my suspicion, given the frequency at which Kanye namedrops him) or Pablo Escobar, another larger-than-life figure that Kanye can probably find parallels to. (The fact that Escobar was a drug baron and guilty of waging war on an entire country and Kanye, at his worst, says dumb things on Twitter might not be relevant.)
To answer my own question, The Life of Pablo’s art may be ugly as sin, but I don’t think it’s what counts as bad. Like I said, I haven’t heard the album yet, so it could all be atrocious anyways — but I have my doubts about that.