While we're waiting for Kanye West to finish The Life of Pablo, here's what I heard at the Philly preview Thursday night - WXPN
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Kanye West | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Rapper / producer / nascent fashion designer Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 event was part conceptual art piece, part fashion premiere, part album listening party for his much anticipated 7th solo album The Life of Pablo – which, as of this writing, is still being finalized. The event Thursday gave us a taste, though, and it was simultaneously screened live in several cities around the world via Jay-Z’s TIDAL media streaming service.

And after a day of running errands, I braved the frigid February air Thursday night and made my way to the University 6 Theater (fka The Rave) in West Philly for the Philly edition of Yeezy.

After showing a pair of ushers at the front door a print out of my ticket, I stood in a long line of Penn students and casual hipster kids before having my ticket checked and verified again before taking a seat in the theater.

Pulling out a notepad and pen a dude sitting next to me asked “You taking notes?” with a smirk.

For the first 10 or 15 minutes sitting in this dark theater, I could see the image of two giant platforms elevated above the floor of Madison Square Garden, blanketed by large sheets. The whole scene looked still, dark, grey and lunar. For a fleeting moment I wondered if Kanye had trolled us all. Maybe we had all been tricked? Maybe this was it? A bunch of people, sitting in dark theaters staring at these dumb looking monolithic structures with no album to be heard until the official release date.

About a minute later, Kanye entered with his entourage and set up a laptop next to a massive soundboard manned by an older, grey haired engineer. “If you like the album, feel free to dance….cheer….whatever you feel.”

artwork for The Life of Pablo

The album’s opener “Ultra Light Beams” is a stunner. On top of a skeletal bed of plaintive synths and sleepy drums, Kanye and singer-songwriter The-Dream sing lines that evoke faith, spirituality and transcendence: “We on an Ultra Light Beam, We on an Ultra Light Beam….this is a God dream. I’m trying to keep my faith….but I’m looking for more…” From the gate, Kanye reminds us that outside of his dalliances in the more bizarre end of celebrity culture, he is still a composer with the power to create works of deep emotional impact.

As singer Kelly Price and Chance The Rapper step in and trade verses that are alternately tender and terrifying, a holy sanctified choir is raised up for the final chorus before we are left with a prayer by contemporary gospel music pioneer, Kirk Franklin. Straight out the gate, Kanye sets a pastoral but celebratory tone by tapping into the power of gospel, that infinitely deep and generous gift of the Black Christian Church, quite literally the mother of all American popular music.

As “Ultra…” swelled to it’s final climax, the giant sheets were pulled back on the Madison Square Garden structures, revealing dozens of models standing on and around two massive platforms and dressed in Kanye’s much maligned Yeezy Season fashion line. Most of the crowd at University 6 cheered, a few giggled as the full spectacle of Kanye’s vision for Yeezy Season 3 was revealed.

At this point I couldn’t help but feel like Kanye was dangling a carrot in front of us. Sure, you’ll get to hear the new music, but you’re also going to look at my new line of tattered, post-apocalyptic clothing. My immediate thought was that the clothes reminded me of something out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s goofy 1990 Sci-Fi thriller Total Recall.

Like all of Kanye’s work, The Life of Pablo is extremely self-referential. Songs like “Highlights”, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & Pt. 2″ and the album’s emotional anchor, “Real Friends,” obsess over themes of fame, power, self-control and faith. The heavily auto-tuned singing can be a bit grating, but Kanye’s raps are funny and deceptively clever throughout including a line about his wife’s former boo R&B singer Ray-J that will undoubtedly launch innumerable internet memes in the coming weeks.

You may ask, why premiere an album and a fashion line at the same time? I think that the spectacle that is the Yeezy Season 3 event plays, not only into Kanye’s perceived narcissism or even his desire to break into the high fashion world (at one point during the show he mentions to the crowd that he’d like to get a gig as the creative director of European fashion giant Hermes) it is an attempt to actualize his very real and grandiose ambitions for his own future creative trajectory.

Kanye views himself as a Walt Disney type character who “just wants to bring more beauty into the world.” But he is Disney without a Disney World so to speak. Or to put it simply, despite the fact the he is personally rich, he lacks the infrastructure necessary to create high art and media on the scale and magnitude that he desires.

Herein lies the tension behind many of his public outbursts including his famous meltdown interview with Sway Calloway as well as his beef with Nike, and it is ultimately why I and many others found ourselves on a cold Thursday afternoon, sitting in a dark theater with strangers. Yeezy Season 3 / The Life of Pablo is the opening shot in Kanye’s campaign to find freedom as he defines it. The freedom to make a big, sloppy and occasionally silly messes that could inspire us all.

“I just wanna feel liberated…..”
– Kanye West

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