It’s unlikely we’ll get a song as singular as Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” anytime soon, so best to linger on it, feel out its grooves and curves, allow it to seep into the pores.
Mr. West’s recent performance of it on “Saturday Night Live” captured its reverent tone well. He began singing through an Auto-Tune-like effect, an old trick but one that he destabilized, using it to exaggerate his imperfections, rather than mask them. Behind him, a choir delivered stabs of vocal religion. Behind them, a scrim angled up to the sky played what appeared to be heavily pixilated clouds and flames.
The whole thing was oozy, deliberate. Its intensity came from its measured approach. The juxtaposition between Mr. West’s unsteadiness and the gale force of the choir was pronounced.
When he ceded center stage, though, the song began to swell. First came a pair of bracing R&B singers: The-Dream, restrained, and Kelly Price, soaring; both deeply grounded. Then, Chance the Rapper, an astonishingly nimble and emotionally mature rapper, delivered a verse cum sermon while Mr. West stood at the side of the stage, beaming. When he finished, Mr. West retook the center, then lay prostrate on the floor as Kirk Franklin, the gospel maximalist and bridge-builder, emerged to give a benediction.
It was stirring, a performance of uncommon intensity and vision. And then, the second it was over, Mr. West jumped to his feet, announced that his delayed album was now available for purchase and streaming, and ran across the stage screaming, “Aaaarrrrggghhh,” like a child burning off a candy overdose.
Mr. West’s many contradictions are old news by this point — he is an activist who is also a capitalist, a penitent and gleeful sinner, a stubborn autodidact and an eager collaborator, a vessel and a pied piper. Is it not clear by now, with the release of his seventh album, “The Life of Pablo” (Def Jam), that these are not contradictions at all?
Rather, Mr. West — who calls himself a “38-year-old 8-year-old” on this album — has perfected the art of aesthetic and intellectual bricolage, shape-shifting in real time and counting on listeners to keep up. More than on any of his previous albums, “Pablo” reflects that rambling, fearsome energy. This is Tumblr-as-album, the piecing together of divergent fragments to make a cohesive whole.
“Pablo” doesn’t have the cool rage of “Yeezus,” his last left turn of an album, but it has maintained its sense of propulsion, while somehow echoing the soul-baptized sound that Mr. West made his name with, both as a producer for others and on his debut, “The College Dropout.” These are styles that don’t play well together, but Mr. West’s synthesis is almost seamless.
Many of the highest points on “Pablo” are the disruptive moments — jarring intrusions from guests, or unexpectedly complicated song structures, or the interludes in other people’s voices. All together, the symphonic effect recalls his 2010 masterpiece, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the album that skyrocketed him beyond simple conversations about his pop effectiveness and instead laid the groundwork for the eccentric part of his career.
And so, now, you can only measure Kanye West against his own audacity — even the artists whom he’s inspired and influenced don’t operate on his scale.
Mr. West’s primary subject matter remains himself, both his internal life and his external character. On “Pablo,” there is genuine pathos on “Real Friends” (“When was the last time I remembered a birthday?/When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?”) and “No More Parties in LA.” On “30 Hours,” over a frail Arthur Russell sample, he raps about how hard he used to work for love, or something like it. And on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” he recalls the family problems that steered him off course, and tries to make amends: “Up in the morning, miss you bad/Sorry I ain’t called you back/Same problem my father had.” Also the Christian streak that runs through the work of Chance the Rapper, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar — the one that Mr. West is a progenitor of, dating back to “Jesus Walks” — is here on “Ultralight Beam” and “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.”
This sort of vulnerability usually comes without self-awareness, but Mr. West can be whispering dark fears one minute, then beating his chest with pride the next — even his exaggerations are intimate acts. Here is a guy who slips a rhyme and hubris exercise like “I Love Kanye” in the middle of his album, an interlude that’s also a rant that’s also a barometer of public opinion that’s also a wink: “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye/Called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye?’/Man that’d be so Kanye.”
“Facts” is an elongated tirade against Nike, the sneaker company he once collaborated with, before Adidas offered him a boatload of money and creative freedom. The delirious “Highlights,” featuring Young Thug, is a tabloid boast about Mr. West’s extended family — his wife is Kim Kardashian — calling them “the new Jacksons.” And “Famous” is vintage West braggadocio, full of spite and cheek, though the conversation about that song has been limited to its mention of Taylor Swift: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.”
The line is both tacky and hilarious, a piece of celeb-slash-fiction that’s both casual boast and extravagant provocation. (Depending on whom you believe, Ms. Swift either did or did not sign off on this line.) Ms. Swift and Mr. West healed their yearslong feud last year, but Mr. West’s willingness to rap about her in this way is a reminder that nothing is more important to him than his right to his excesses.
That is true in the music on this album, as well. Like many West albums, “Pablo” is a group effort. It’s also a hybrid of approaches. “Facts” suggests he has fully internalized Drake and Future’s “What a Time to Be Alive” (as do the collaborations with the Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, a new signee to Mr. West’s label who raps with the callous distance of Future). “Feedback” and “Fade” show a comfort with accelerated tempos, while the digital steam bath on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “30 Hours” accentuates Mr. West’s softer side.
What’s also striking on “Pablo” is the way in which Mr. West steadily induces others to greatness (to say nothing of getting them to work on his clock). He has Rihanna singing Nina Simone lyrics on “Famous,” André 3000 doing some fuzzy crooning on “30 Hours,” Frank Ocean delivering signature stoic cool on “Wolves.” The verse from Kendrick Lamar on “No More Parties in LA” might be the most striking of the year thus far, were it not for the one Chance the Rapper delivers on “Ultralight Beam,” a master class in texture, content and form.
There are places on this album where Mr. West raps with that sort of fervor, but more often he is showing restraint. On his earlier albums, he agitated to be heard, and that was reflected in his manic rapping. These days, his anxieties are elsewhere — can he establish himself as a key player in fashion? Can he infiltrate the tech world? Can he make a hotel in his image?
Now his rapping is sparser, more pointed, less imagistic and more emotional. And when he truly needs to be heard, he can corral a dream team of collaborators. He’s so fluent that he can use others to speak for him, and be understood clear as day.