"Which / one," Kanye West asks on the cover of his seventh album, The Life of Pablo. The answer is more complex than the burnt-orange digital sleeve can convey. An approximation of an answer – specifically, which Pablo does West seek to emulate? – has instead unspooled over time, an ongoing quest to define himself that has continued straight through Monday, when he cancelled the remainder of his current tour.
At an Oxford University lecture in March, 2015, nearly a year before the record's release, West told students that "My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso … or greater." Then came No More Parties in L.A., the single released with Kendrick Lamar this past January, which decreed West felt like Pablo when working on his shoes – his art – but also when seeing himself in the news, prompting Internet sleuths to connect the line of thought to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, too.
Then in February, on the eve of Pablo's release, came a series of tweets praising the Apostle Paul, "the most powerful messenger of the first century." West wanted to follow the life of Saint Paul – the life of San Pablo. "I am consumed by my purpose to help the world," he wrote. For West, the muddling is the message. Any of those answers works easily; in any situation, a suitable option is available. His work is less known for clarity of thought than the abundance of it.
It is this abundance of thought that has long given reason to celebrate West, though on occasion, it has backed him into a corner. The latter has happened again: A series of controversial in-concert speeches since last Thursday was followed this week by the cancellation of the final 21 dates of his Pablo support tour – including a Dec. 18 Toronto stop – and, later, reports that West had been hospitalized. It's hardly prudent to infer causation from correlation, but stepping down from his high-flying podium is a sign West may want time to collect himself after a politically exhausting and professionally manic year.
West has long used his records to circumvent the sound of the day, but The Life of Pablo cracked 2016 open by circumventing the very way albums are released. After a listening party – at Madison Square Garden no less – in February, West tweaked Pablo a few times until its digital release days later. Then, harnessing the power of streaming music services, he announced he'd be modifying songs and re-uploading them, stripping away the notion that an album needed to be a concrete thing.
For more than a month, he manically tweaked and added to Pablo, an album that already shifts in bursts from euphoria (see Waves) to darkness (see FML). It's still not yet clear whether the album is complete. The tour behind Pablo matched its bombast, with West riding a stage that soared over the audience, shining lights upon floor crowds as it tilted and shifted.
In concert, West likes to take a break from the music to give speeches, usually during the song Runaway. They're often decried as "rants" – a loaded word usually used to devalue other words – but as far as access goes, they can offer some of the best insights into his world. The 21-time Grammy Award winning musician was brief during his first Toronto show last August, highlighting his stage as an "experience that allows you to be closer to your friends," pleading fans to "be thankful just to be alive."
Last Thursday in San Jose, there was less mutual positivity with his audience. West used his speech to announce that while he didn't vote for a president this year, he would have voted for Donald Trump – prompting boos from the crowd as he said he admired Trump's campaign.
Then on Saturday, West ended his concert in just 30 minutes, after just two songs and another speech, assailing, among others, his friend and frequent collaborator Jay Z, a noted Hillary Clinton supporter. He offered takes against Google and Facebook, and radio as a medium, pleaing for more airtime for the likes of Frank Ocean. On Sunday, West took to Instagram to post a number of screenshots from Margiela lookbooks – on his Yeezus tour, he famously wore masks for the brand – as it was announced his concert that night in Los Angeles was cancelled.
There is much to parse. West once declared that Republican president George W. Bush "doesn't care about black people." But on Saturday, West gave a glimpse into why he admired Trump, another Republican who has faced accusations of racial discrimination: "I'ma just say how I say," he told the crowd.
West, who reportedly donated to Hillary Clinton's campaign, perhaps looks at Trump and sees at least one familiar thing: a man who speaks his mind. But it is also clear, as he said on Thursday, that the racism he accused Bush of still exhausts him: "This world is racist, okay? Let's stop being distracted to focus on that as much," he said, adding later, "not one or the other candidate was gonna instantly be able to change that."
Rather than pushing back against power structures that enforce racism, though, West seems tired of power structures altogether – he wants, it seems, to move beyond them, even if it means bypassing rather than fighting the social inequality he's long contended against. There is an echo here of Trump's anti-establishment mindset. As he said on Saturday: "The Saint Pablo tour is more relevant than radio and, if y'all keep following old models, your ass is going to be Hillary Clinton."
Much like how Pablo tried to upend the traditional power structures of music, West has been trying to use his stage to vent his frustrations with political power structures. The difference between the approaches is that one dismantles the powers at the top, and the other frustrates fans at the bottom, alienating more than half the electorate – and friends like Jay Z and Beyoncé, too.
TMZ reported Monday evening that West had been to the UCLA Medical Centre for treatment for severe sleep deprivation. When called by The Globe and Mail, a hospital spokesperson would not confirm or deny reports about potential patients.A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department told the Globe that officials responded to a call on the 900 block of North Laurel Avenue in L.A. at 1:20 p.m. local time Monday. While the LAPD would not disclose any names in connection with the call, Harley Pasternak, a personal trainer who has worked with West, has an address listed on that block.
But if West is at all unwell – and regardless if the past week's events are a symptom, a cause, or not connected at all – focusing on his health is a bigger priority than parsing his words.
It has been one of the most politically charged, as well as one of West's most productive, years in recent memory. Hard work and hard years can take a toll. Maybe no one man can have all the power of history's biggest Pablos. Fans will now wait for Kanye's next move – to see if he'll unmuddle his message, at least this once. Rest will only help.