Kanye West says a lot of things. (You know, just a reminder in case you’ve been AWOL the last few weeks, or the last decade and change.) There’s a lot of thinking out loud happening with him, some of it brilliant and inspiring, other times troubling and offensive, and quite often endearingly batshit. He’s got a long history of rattling off wild successions of thoughts in interviews where you have no idea where he’s coming from or where he’s going, but it’s fun to be along for the ride anyway; the kind of off-the-wall Point A to Point 35 that leads to an interviewer — perhaps Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club — responding with a simple, “What the hell are you talking about?”
The particular Breakfast Club interview I’m referring to happened in late 2013, and it was a far-reaching look at everything rolling through Kanye’s head in the months following his brilliant and divisive Yeezus, from the album to his fashion ambitions and another example of him comparing himself to Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, etc., etc. But there was one line that stuck out: “Bruce Springsteen dropped this album called Nebraska and right after that he did Born In The U.S.A.,” he told Charlamagne. “This next one, I have a feeling, because of what we did right now, has to be Born In The U.S.A..”
Back then, he was saying that Yeezus’ successor was going to be out in summer 2014. (LOL.) Following a very public editing process, West finally did (sort of) release that new album, now titled The Life Of Pablo, last weekend. By this point, the Born In The U.S.A. quote is probably just another one of those things Kanye said, one more piece of debris out there in the ether more so than something that significantly impacted the long-gestating new album. Who knows if any fraction of The Life Of Pablo is actually rooted in whatever Kanye was working on back in late 2013. (Remember when James Blake was supposed to be involved? “If he wants it to sound like Born In The U.S.A., then I’m not sure if I’m the one to ask,” he’d said, probably wryly.) Based on the fluctuations we saw the album go through in just these past few weeks, who knows what fraction of the album is even rooted in whatever he had a year ago, when he debuted “Wolves.” (Which, at the time, was identified as his forthcoming album’s opening track.) He might have jettisoned the idea that Yeezus needed its Born In The U.S.A. companion in the ensuing two and a half years since that quote. He might have entirely forgotten he said that in the first place.
My guess is plenty of fans forgot he said that, too, because while it took a while for The Life Of Pablo to materialize, it’s not like Kanye was ever MIA; there have been plenty of other Kanye moments to distract us in the time since. But while it might be one of the more counter-intuitive comparisons ‘Ye has made regarding his music, I’ve been dwelling on it every time some new kernel of information about the anticipated album came out. With Springsteen, we’re talking about my favorite artist, and one of the most important American musicians ever. With Kanye, we’re talking about a guy who’s well on his way to that kind of status, arguably the most important American musician for my generation. Looking for parallels between their careers isn’t something I would’ve thought to do in the past. But Kanye brought it up, so why not?
So, here’s a thought experiment. Did The Life Of Pablo turn out to be Kanye’s Born In The U.S.A. after all? Does the comparison of Yeezus and Nebraska hold up? And while we’re at it, what happens if you take Kanye’s already-classic seven-album solo run and place it against the first seven albums of Springsteen’s classic run? (Technically I’d probably consider Springsteen’s debut, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., a prologue to the peak of 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle through 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, but this is going to be tangled enough as-is, so let’s keep it to each artist’s first seven albums. For now.) Did their careers progress through similar arcs? I’m going to put their albums side-by-side and compare them based on themes, scope, where each fell for them in terms of artistic development or personal narratives, how the albums interacted with the broader culture and/or social circumstances of their respective moments. Throughout, the point here is to consider those factors relative to Springsteen’s and Kanye’s individual careers and see where there’s some connection, not to make the argument that they’re doing the exact same thing in those moments. Yeezus isn’t actually similar to Nebraska, per se, but it could be Nebraska in the context of Kanye. And so forth. Let’s get started.
While we’re talking about two musicians who work in different traditions and who defined separate times, there are some ways in which they are artistically similar. Although both of them have a slew of definitive songs, both Kanye and Bruce are heavily driven by the album-as-artwork approach. Looking at Springsteen’s peak alongside Kanye’s seven albums, each arc sees an artist operating so that each album has to be its own thing — distinct stylistic evolution alongside thematic uniqueness, chapters with specific identities amidst the novelistic whole they’re building toward. And they’ve each been known to have a perhaps-extreme degree of obsessiveness to get to that point. Springsteen is a perfectionist on some level; Kanye is definitely a perfectionist. Springsteen has opened up his notebooks to us in hindsight, through archival releases like the Tracks box set or the expanded reissues of 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town and 1980’s The River. For devoted fans, this stuff becomes part of the lore — the jangly R&B-inflected pop album that could’ve been between 1975’s Born To Run and Darkness, the multitude of directions 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. could’ve leaned harder into. A lot of this stuff is of just as high a quality as the albums Springsteen did release — at times, the secondary material can be of a higher quality than what made it onto the albums. But the point is that he went through vigorous self-editing processes to get to the statement, to the work that moved his identity forward, alongside the topics that drew his attention.
And Kanye has done the same thing over the course of his seven albums. Working over ideas, abandoning projects in favor of previously unforeseen left turns, often shooting off into some direction nobody really anticipated. All in service of that same end: the new chapter, discrete from the last ones, the next step in Kanye West becoming whatever else Kanye West can become. In the lead-up to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he gave us weekly (mostly excellent) songs through the G.O.O.D. Friday series. But the process has never been more obvious or real-time than with The Life Of Pablo. Remember when he was collaborating with Paul McCartney? Were “Only One” and “All Day” supposed to make it? Before it was The Life Of Pablo, the album was publicly announced under three other names. The tracklist seemed to be in near-constant upheaval, even after the album premiered at Madison Square Garden last Thursday. Kanye basically gave us a slightly more unpredictable and very open modern-day glimpse into the kind of process Springsteen went through with The River: submitting a single album with a different name, pulling it back and taking another year to make it the double album we now know. In the instance of Kanye, it almost came off as performative. It seemed to make fans either throw up their hands and laugh in “well, whatever” disbelief or lead us to doubt ‘Ye. There were plenty who believed (and, still believe) that he lost the plot. We’ll get to The Life Of Pablo itself in a bit, but, the thing is, the process worked on some level again: The Life Of Pablo wound up being another individual chapter, another moment where Kanye surprised us.
When you consider the exacting nature of each artist’s approach to a particular album, and when you consider the way each of them transformed over the course of their first 10-12 years of releasing records, it makes each of their debuts feel a little more quaint in hindsight. Of course, the circumstances of their careers were very different. Kanye was already a successful producer, but wanted to prove himself as a performer. The underdog qualities of Kanye’s earliest work are somewhat illegible now, but they are the roots of one strain of his ethos: Even in The Nucleus mode, Kanye’s always fighting to get into the next room, railing against people who haven’t given him a fair shot at fashion, or
design, or video games, or wherever else his muse takes him. But when it came out in 2004, The College Dropout did make him a star. It had four very successful singles, at least one of which (“Jesus Walks”) is still a major cornerstone of his mythology. (“All Falls Down” and “Through The Wire,” an important piece of the Kanye origin story, both factor as well, but increasingly feel like the work of an entirely different artist.)
You’ll still find fans who say, ahem, “I miss the old Kanye.” The ones who like his first two or three albums and miss that more affable, more pop-minded version of him. But it’s likely a smaller percentage of Springsteen’s fanbase that would argue Greetings is underrated relative to the heights Springsteen would reach soon after. It’s a sketchbook of things to come, themes and images of a youth spent in New Jersey that would come into fuller form later. The College Dropout is the same, but it’s a more thoroughly realized sketchbook. That “Next Dylan” moniker attached to Springsteen could be wielded derisively after Greetings, even if there was a whole lot of Van Morrison in its jazzy folk-rock, too. Springsteen was carving out a then-small niche in existent traditions, but he hadn’t made them his own quite yet. Kanye’s debut, by comparison, was the first installment in a career built on opening the limits of his genre, of more or less creating whole new sectors in the rap landscape with each shift in his sound. He was completely out-of-step with the gangsta rap that then ruled the mainstream, but he succeeded in defiance of that and altered the shape of things to come.
Despite the gap in influence and level of realization in the debuts, however, one parallel they share is a lighter, scrappier tone. There are certain characteristics each album maintains more consistently than any later work in either artist’s catalog: sprightliness, casualness, and jocularity. And because of that, both can be enjoyably innocent first-steps to return to, but they also feel so much smaller than what either Kanye or Bruce would tackle in following years. Case in point: Both of them would follow these debuts rapidly with albums that traveled similar sonic terrain, but much more confidently. This might be an unpopular opinion, but: The College Dropout feels the same as Greetings in the sense that, even if Kanye’s introduction was a little more fleshed-out and successful than Springsteen’s was for him, each album comes off as less refined when placed next to its successor.
The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle and 2005’s Late Registration are the baroque expansions on the templates laid out by each artist’s debut. Springsteen was still more of a Romantic at this point, honing a kind of street-poet Beat-Bohemian persona between the Jersey boardwalk and the streets of Manhattan. The music on his sophomore LP has much of the same DNA as his debut, but it’s far more intricate, with songs like “Kitty’s Back,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” and “New York City Serenade” moving through varying passages. There’s a sonic mysticism underlying the album, fitting for the one moment in his career where he was in full-on Tri-State fable mode. He took what worked about his first album and made it work much better. And that’s true of Kanye, too: The sequel to his sprawling debut was another sprawling album that had even more unshakeable hooks and a far more extravagant sound. As Springsteen went simultaneously more intricate and more muscular on his sophomore album, so too did Kanye. As good as “Get Em High” is, it’s small-time compared to the gilded surfaces of “Touch The Sky” and “Diamonds Of Sierra Leone” and “We Major,” the same way Greetings’ “Growin’ Up” sounds like Bruce at the local bar and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle’s “Incident On 57th Street” is when he’s out in the night air, learning how to grasp more of America.
Most importantly, Kanye and Springsteen’s sophomore albums were the moments where a crucial bit of foundation was set for whom they’d each become. These were the albums where the sound started to become monumental enough to anchor the personalities and ambitions that would soon flourish in each. Kanye might’ve already been in self-mythologizing mode on College Dropout closer “Last Call,” but it was on Late Registration where his early aesthetic became huge and magnanimous. Kanye the Maximalist was coming into his own, an integral part of his development into an important artist. As his persona became more larger-than-life, he needed over-the-top music to match it, and it was that maximalism that made him such a daring and inspiring figure in an era where too much of the music we paid attention to settled for small stakes. For Springsteen, portraits like “Rosalita” and “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” became more vivid, setting the stage for the mythic Americana that’d characterize the characters and settings on Born To Run. In a larger sense, his voice was becoming sharper, gaining more direction. The sketches of Greetings turned into paintings, leading him closer to the cinematic scope he’d achieve over his next several albums, even when the stories became intimate and personal on albums like Darkness On The Edge Of Town or The River.
In terms of their specific career arcs, Kanye’s and Springsteen’s respective third albums both arrived at turning points. Springsteen had thus far failed to become the success his label had expected, and Born To Run was a last-shot, make-it-or-break-it moment that he accordingly poured absolutely everything into. This time, it was noticed. This is when he wound up on the cover of Newsweek and Time in the same week. While Springsteen hated the whole “future of rock ‘n’ roll” line that was being pushed, and he chafed at some writers’ doubts about his authenticity amidst the hype, he had arrived. Again, by his third album Kanye had already experienced significant pop success. But it was still a major turning point for him and for rap in general. With 50 Cent’s own third album, Curtis, slated for release on the same day, a rivalry erupted. The results were not close. Graduation outsold Curtis by almost 300,000 units. Born To Run is one of the iconic albums, the first coronation in Springsteen’s career and an album that’s inspired who-knows-how-many artists since 1975. Graduation was the definitive moment where Kanye changed the rules of what seemed possible in mainstream rap. You could sample electronic music and Can alongside soul and maintain the loyalty of a diverse fanbase from different musical backgrounds. You could rap about your personal life and become insanely popular without adhering to stereotypes.
Graduation is Born To Run, because Graduation is a culmination. Each of their careers had been building to this point from the debuts. The eight tracks that comprise Born To Run have the heft and reach of a double album. Like the genre meld occurring on Graduation, Born To Run is crammed with musical information. These are heavily anthemic albums, each with a still-paradigmatic anthem: the title track for Springsteen, “Stronger” for Kanye. But underneath those anthemic qualities were also a lot of questions and reckonings. West was looking at the success and fame his preceding two albums had given him and processing what his life now looked like. Springsteen’s third album was one more desperate grasp for that romantic ideal of the American highway and all the escape it supposedly promised. But it’s shot through with compromise and doubt creeping in at the edges, the sound of self-aware desperation and the approaching maturity to face life in whatever form it takes in whatever time and place you find yourself. There is a cathartic kind of yearning blown-out to insane proportions on Born To Run, with a sense of finality that this chapter of youth soon had to pass. The directness and pop-savvy nature of Graduation might, at first, make it come off as simply triumphant on the surface. But now knowing where Kanye would head next on his subsequent albums, there’s some sadness and yearning there, too; the luxe synth layers of it all yield to decadence, especially on a track like “Flashing Lights” or even something as celebratory as “Good Life.” That cover, with Kanye’s erstwhile teddy bear mascot shooting off into the sky, never to be seen again after this album? That’s the same acceptance of innocence passing that happens over the course of Born To Run.
Both Springsteen and Kanye introduced themselves with linked sets of albums, effective trilogies from which there was nowhere to go but undiscovered places. Graduation and Born To Run both complete an arc while beginning to look beyond it. Because of the success these albums garnered, and the way each artist resolved a thematic portion of their career here, left turns were ahead. Both these artists would soon harden in their respective ways. They had closed a lot of loops with their trilogy conclusions, and each of their careers were about to get a lot more complicated. Neither artist would ever look the same after this point.
This is where the parallels start to get messier.
The point here isn’t to read too far into an offhand Kanye quote, of course, but to play with it. Obviously, it’s not like Kanye was modeling his first seven albums off the steps taken by Springsteen in his day. Even as their opening-salvo trilogies completed their respective initial arcs, the circumstances were always different given where each person was at in their careers at the time. Because Kanye did storm out the gates a star, the rules of this game start to shift once you get past Graduation. You can still find moments that resonate between their two careers, as their increasingly album-oriented approach deepened their work, and as darker moods redirected their focus. Once you hit 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye’s chronology starts to jump around Springsteen’s.
Kanye’s and Springsteen’s respective fourth albums were dramatic shifts from the victorious LPs that preceded them. Darkness and 808s were both bleak albums born from personal strife. Between Graduation and 808s, Kanye’s mother died and his engagement to Alexis Phifer ended. Springsteen’s trials were more career-oriented. He spent three years reacting to the greater degree of exposure after Born To Run while being forbidden from releasing new music due to the legal battle between him and former manager Mike Appel. As a result, Darkness was a harder-edged, rawer album, where cold realism had all but supplanted the romanticism of his earlier work; any time that American Dream iconography came up, it was far more hollow and fractured than before. 808s, similarly, stripped away the grandiose glitz of Graduation for a chilly, comparatively minimalist set of ambient synths and detached, altered vocals. Kanye’s decision to sing through Auto-Tune on much of the record was a famously controversial decision that proved to be another wildly prescient aesthetic conceit.
One of the tricky things in playing with the idea of what qualities a given Kanye or Springsteen album might share is the inherent difference in who they are as artists. Springsteen is a master songwriter and a goddamn American bard, but he was never a sonic innovator in the way Kanye is in his milieu. 808s is emotional desolation to Darkness’ cultural desolation, but it also changed the pop game in ways that Darkness didn’t. You could make a fair argument that 808s was actually Kanye’s Nebraska, an album that turned way insular following increased fame and success. Aesthetically, speaking, there’d be justification for that on two levels. First, there’s the idea that both artists reduced their sounds to core elements (Springsteen to voice and guitar, Kanye to voice and synths and drum machines) to craft spare albums where haunted anguish in some form or another filled in the role of lost instruments. In Springsteen’s context, Nebraska might arguably be one of his most sonically groundbreaking albums. It’s a ghostly folk album at its heart, but it’s also a major rock star ignoring expectations in favor of releasing a grainy, nocturnal album of 4-track demoes. Its influence has lived on in lo-fi music as well as, somewhat perniciously, the “cool Springsteen” album touchstone in indie rock.
But the way Kanye directly struggled with romantic discord was something Springsteen wouldn’t do in quite the same way until Tunnel Of Love. Sure, there are crushes and grand romantic gestures in his earlier work, and more realistic depictions of relationships in strife amidst hard lives throughout his late ’70s and early ’80s work. But Tunnel Of Love was the one where Springsteen was approaching two divorces — one from his first wife, actress Julianne Phillips, and one from the E Street Band. It’s the sound of Springsteen having achieved much of what he’d set out to do and yet existing in isolation, which is exactly what 808s is for Kanye. While the brooding fourth album left turn keeps Darkness and 808s aligned in terms of each man’s story, you could make justifiable argument that Kanye had skipped to either of the two later records, or that he’d made a record that, if you’re drawing comparisons to Springsteen’s career, is most aptly described as a fusion of the three.
What does that mean for Kanye’s original assertion, that Yeezus was the analog to Nebraska, in need of its Born In The U.S.A. follow-up? Whatever stray elements that could link 808s and Nebraska are more intensely present on Yeezus. Just as 808s is the unexpectedly somber follow-up to Graduation as Darkness was to Born To Run, Yeezus is the deeply dark artistic statement sandwiched between two albums that, in some fashion, sum up everything the man is about in a more wide-ranging, pop-minded manner — just like Nebraska between The River and Born In The U.S.A..
Kanye could have continued to dissect himself in a format similar to the grand exorcism of the maximalist pop masterpiece that was Dark Twisted Fantasy. Instead, he went abrasive and polarizing, finding a caustic sound in which to battle the deepest-sown demons in the most violent way. And Nebraska did something similar for Springsteen: There’s a violence to his process, too, though subtler. After finding one platonic ideal of the E Street sound on The River, Nebraska was an album that eschewed most of the trademarks of Springsteen’s music up until that point, instead choosing a sparse format in which the same highways that promised rebirth in his earlier work had now become simply threatening. There are crises of faith on 808s and Darkness, but Yeezus and Nebraska go further and fight with the more sinister flip-sides of their respective Americas. And their voices approached this in the purest way for each of them at that moment: Kanye’s fury, Springsteen’s semi-defeated meditations.
So, where does that leave us with The Life Of Pablo? By Kanye’s analogy, this should be the broader, pop-oriented album in answer to the more difficult predecessor. The album to sum everything up in the biggest way possible, in an aesthetic both encompassing of his past while also breaking new ground. And in some ways, you can hear that in The Life Of Pablo. There are glimpses of pretty much every version of Kanye. It’s funny, it’s tortured. It’s dark, it’s uplifting and full of joy. It has abstracted, weird songs alongside some of the more direct and friendliest music he’s made in recent memory. When you mix all that together, it both reiterates and expands his identity: the fragmented gospel that flits through the album’s first half is again a moment where he’s established a sound not quite like his past (or anyone else). That’s similar to what Springsteen did on Born In The U.S.A.: following up that difficult record with an album that feels massive. Born In The U.S.A. had personal and political songs and songs that mixed the two; it had realism and romanticism; it had classic-sounding Springsteen tracks with a new kind of muscle and a new kind of ’80s sheen. But The Life Of Pablo is too chaotic, too conflicted to truly be a Born In The U.S.A. analog. Given, the parallel remains a bit different given their different career circumstances at this point. Born In The U.S.A. was the album where Springsteen truly became a pop force, and the superstar we now know him as. Kanye’s beyond that point. He’s in more of an experimental, figuring-out-where-we-are kind of place a few steps beyond that, and you can hear that all over the album.
And here’s the real issue: Kanye already made his Born In The U.S.A., and it was called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It was a transformative moment for him as Born In The U.S.A. had been for Bruce. It was when he truly came into his own as superstar and iconoclastic pop auteur. It was an album that did everything Born In The U.S.A. did for Bruce, in terms of career scope. Kanye turned his sights brutally inward and outward, dismantled his ego and id alike across “Power,” “Monster,” and “Runaway.” It had glimpses of the old archetypes in Kanye’s music — it isn’t hard to imagine slightly different versions of “Gorgeous” and “Devil In A New Dress” and a (much shorter) version of “Blame Game” on his first two or three albums — within an incredibly dense album that was loaded with new visions as well. As Kanye journeys deeper into himself in his later work, he’s also traveling deeper into the 21st century American psyche — and that mapping of the personal onto the political might be more incisive on Yeezus but it might never again be as dramatic as it is on Dark Fantasy. Born In The U.S.A. opens with its title track, a grim song that sounds like a rallying cry. Kanye found his own version on Dark Twisted Fantasy in the one-two closer of “Lost In The World” and “Who Will Survive In America?”, an aesthetically beautiful and overwhelming conclusion to the album whose halves directly pit the personal search against larger, cogent questions about the American landscape at that moment.
Both Kanye and Bruce have a few albums that are definitive in the sense that you could point to it and say: Here’s the album where Bruce or Kanye became the Bruce or Kanye we most remember them to be. At one point, that would be Born To Run, or arguably any of Kanye’s first three records. But both of them moved well beyond that. And Born In The U.S.A. and Dark Fantasy seem destined, at this moment in Kanye’s career, to occupy the same space: This is where the various definitive versions of this artist come together into the apotheosis version. This is where they’re most complex while still wielding an insanely wide appeal and influence. This is where they are at the height of their powers, musically and as people.
After spending several days with The Life Of Pablo, it feels more like Kanye’s equivalent of 2002’s The Rising to me. Kanye was right in calling Yeezus his Nebraska, he’s just proceeded out of order — from 1984, back to 1982, up to 2002. From the largest statement it’s possible to imagine him making, to the fraught smaller record, and then leaping ahead to the sprawling late-career revitalization full of self-awareness. Now, Kanye didn’t need the career revitalization bit. But he did need an album that proved everyone wrong, after that public editing process and his focus on fashion and his increasingly erratic thoughts lead to thinkpieces about how this would be the first disappointing Kanye album. Whether amongst fans or critics, it was easy to feel an air of doubt by the time we got to the third name change to Waves. He was at the same weird crux that Springsteen was with The Rising, the first E Street band album since the ’80s, and a reclamation of his voice after the pseudo-wilderness years of the ’90s. These were moments where each artist was already operating on legend status, but had to prove themselves once more.
The mood of the albums they released at that moment is complicated and monumental, even by their standards. Aesthetically speaking, both borrow gospel as a mechanism for transformation and resolution amidst amidst depressing or grief-stricken circumstances. The Rising was Springsteen’s far-reaching and epic album in response to 9/11, his late-career classic that grapples with intimate scenes and large unanswerable questions in the wake of tragedy. Kanye West is his own 9/11. (Which is totally something Kanye would say, come to think of it.) Throughout The Life Of Pablo, he gets ugly, he seeks forgiveness. There is a lot of God and a lot of sin and a lot of banalities dressed up right within the sublime. While Kanye’s antics besides the album have made for many what-the-shit moments that lead you to wonder if the guy’s lost touch, the album itself might be the most self-conscious unpacking of his own confusion that he’s ever made. It’s intentionally this big, messy thing, an invitation to spiral deep into the blurriness of the creative process alongside him. (I mean, he straight-up references the Madison Square Garden unveiling on the album itself now.) To be clear: The Life Of Pablo is way more conflicted and all-over-the-place than even an album like The Rising, which dealt with mourning and transcendence in equal measure. But that’s what the analog looks like in the world of Kanye. It sounds like he shattered four different records and stitched them together in a huge collage. The result is an album as all-encompassing as The Rising was in Springsteen’s world, at that point in his career.
The way Born In The U.S.A. and Dark Fantasy mark the final establishment of their definitive ethos as artists, The Rising and The Life Of Pablo are both the first albums where each artist truly counters what it means to be them, at that place, while still trying to push their music and their narrative forward. Kanye at this moment — as Bruce did with The Rising — knows exactly who he is and what sort of power he wields. (Kanye often overstates these qualities in the context of his career, but I’m not convinced he really thinks he’s 50-percent more influential than the Apostle Paul; if you consider the war between his ego and his insecurities, it strikes me more as hyperbole as self-defense.) That’s a peculiar album to have to make, and one very few artists are able to actually pull off. It’s the album where you’ve already achieved way, way more than most other musicians, and you still have things to say. The question of what to say and how to say it, at the point in a career where many others would start to settle into a safe lane, can wind up giving us strange albums. Masterpieces made by people already at that legend status. Masterpieces far removed from the striving of youth, or even the maturation that comes after that. It’s stuff that stays hungry and questioning when the person at the center of it might have little reason to remain so. For Springsteen, that was rediscovering himself as a musician capable of issuing a string of state-of-the-union albums through the 21st century. For Kanye, the confusion and unceasing fight to break down every barrier ever are the motivating factors.
Who knows where Kanye will go from here. But even if The Life Of Pablo isn’t the Born In The U.S.A. he had promised, it confirms one more time that there’s reason to be excited about whatever he does next. Let’s just hope he skips over Working On A Dream.