Kanye West has consistently proven himself beholden to — or, at least, fond of — themes and threads.
It started early on with his album titles: The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. Even when he broke that trend, on 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, there was a sonic and emotional cohesion within that album.
With his latest, The Life of Pablo, ’Ye has again delivered a through line — this time, with song titles calling back to his earlier work.
Beginning with 2007’s Graduation and continuing through this weekend’s T.L.O.P., ’Ye has released six tracks (and an interlude) whose titles share an essential element, incorporating “light” or “lights” in some way.
Often, these lights are a neatly distilled metaphor for what he’s going through, as he explains, explicitly, on 808s’ “Street Lights.”
“Seems like street lights, glowing, happen to be/ Just like moments, passing, in front of me,” he emotes somberly on the song, whose tone largely matches that of the genre-shifting album, released in the aftermath of the death of his mother, Donda.
This affinity for songs with “light” titles dates back a year earlier, though, to Graduation standout “Flashing Lights.” The track’s raps are relationship-focused, but Kanye closes the opening verse with a reference to the sorts of flashing lights that, in his pre-Kardashian existence of 2007, he couldn’t have fathomed would be as prevalent as they’ve become. He raps about getting “flashed by the paparazzi,” complaining, “I hate these n—as more than a Nazi.”
This idea resurfaces on 2010’s “All of the Lights,” and is expanded to touch on the many lights prevalent in his life: “Cop lights, flash lights, spotlights/ Strobe lights, street lights/ All of the lights, all of the lights.” His fame and his blackness are woven together, making cop lights and spotlights an equal reality.
There’s a bit of a shift on The Life of Pablo, though. Yes, we encounter “Highlights” — where ’Ye and Young Thug enjoy the kind of life where they’re “makin’ the highlights” — but the majority of the lights we experience are the in line with the album’s gospel theme ’Ye mentioned in an interview earlier this month.
Appearing one track earlier, “Low Lights” is a Kanye-less offering, where a female vocalist proclaims, “Oh lord thank you, you are the joy of my life.”
In this vein, the first light we encounter is on the album’s opener, “Ultralight Beam,” with a focus not on fame, but faith. From Kanye’s continued mention of “a God dream” and request to “deliver us serenity” to Chance the Rapper’s “foot on the devil’s neck” and “glory be to God” lines to the appearances of a choir and gospel musician Kirk Franklin, the light here is a far cry from the one coming from the cameras of papz.
I put Lowlights on my album just thinking about all the moms driving they kids to school then going to work…
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
Kanye hasn’t spoken about the specific choices, past or current, to use “light” as a recurring aspect of his song titling. It seems unlikely, though, that its merely coincidental. He’s far too detail oriented for that to be the case.
If nothing else, the thread is a nod to Kanye’s adaptability. He’s found one word — in concert, in the titles, with one or two others each time — to encapsulate an array of emotions and experiences: His celebrity; his loneliness; his faith; the passage of time; the strain of relationships. All of the lights.
Now the only question is, where will his light go next?