It’s been a long time coming, but having endured two-and-a-half years in production, four different name changes, a revolving door of celebrity collaborators that has included everyone from Young Thug to Paul McCartney, and several Twitter beefs (not to mention an attempted last minute intervention by too-rich man-child Martin Shkreli), Kanye West’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, has finally been released to the public. However, even given all the bizarre incongruities and near-daily ramblings from the man in the lead-up to the album’s release, there was one detail which confounded his legions of fans — who is the namesake Pablo that West would choose to dedicate the name of “the greatest album of all time” to, and why?
While speculation ensued after West’s reveal of the album name on Twitter — centering on revolutionary artist Pablo Picasso and notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar as the most likely candidates — West again took to Twitter to clarify the identity of the real Pablo just hours before releasing the album stream on TIDAL. According to his tweets, Pablo is in fact the Spanish name of Paul the Apostle, one of the most important disciples of Jesus and responsible in large part for the spread of Christianity throughout Asia Minor.
So who exactly is St. Paul, and what of this historical figure does Kanye see in himself? We investigate below.
The Life of Pablo
Born in the year 5 A.D. in the ancient Turkish city of Tarsus, Saul (as he was then known) grew up in a family of Hebrew nationalists who tried hard to keep their children from the “contaminating” influence of anything non-Jewish. At 13 years of age, Saul was sent to Palestine to study religion under a rabbi before eventually becoming a Jewish lawyer. A religious extremist by this point in time, Saul made it his purpose in life to see to the eradication of Christianity from the face of the earth. Acts 8:3 goes so far as to state, “Saul was ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”
The turning point in Saul’s story came when, on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to deliver a message to the synagogues to round up and imprison Christians, Saul was struck down by a blinding light from the heavens. The voice of Jesus then talked to him, questioning why Saul was so bent on persecuting his followers. Blind for the rest of the journey, a deeply affected Saul finally arrived in Damascus where he regained his sight and was baptized, from then on taking on the Christian name of Paul.
Now the most fervent disciple of Christianity, Paul began preaching far and wide, but while the crowds were at first hesitant given his cruel reputation, they were eventually convinced by his impassioned arguments for the merits of “the Way,” as Christianity was then known as. Born as a Roman citizen but raised a Jew, he also took advantage of his dual identity to preach to both demographics. Paul would go on to make his mark in the formation of the early Church by spreading the gospel as far afield as Arabia, Cyprus and Syria, as well as writing a whopping 14 out of the 27 books that make up the New Testament.
The Cult of Kanye
What exactly does a founder of Christianity who lived two millennia ago have anything to do with a 38-year-old rapper in 2016? From the outset, West had always intended for T.L.O.P. to be “a gospel album, with a whole lot of cursing on it,” evidenced by the involvement of prominent gospel writer Kirk Franklin (whom he refers to as “brother Kirk” in his tweet) who sings a prayer towards the end of “Ultralight Beam.” The very name of the song itself is certainly a reference to the same holy light that struck down Paul the Apostle.
Traditionally sung in praise of a higher power, the gospel is appropriated and transformed by Kanye into a personal rhetoric in T.L.O.P. Speaking to guidance from a higher power, Kanye proclaims that “I’m only doing one percent, two percent of the work and God is doing the rest of the work.” In the process, he also likens himself to Paul — “the most powerful messenger of the first century” — but while Paul evangelized the teachings of Jesus Christ, Kanye chooses instead to pontificate the everlasting grace of adidas, who rescued him with mounds of money that allowed him to further realize his sweeping vision. And what biblical epic would be complete without the heretics, who in Kanye’s case includes the likes of Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian’s former partner Ray J, Amber Rose, Wiz Khalifa, and the devil himself, Nike.
In continuing to describe the life of Paul, West draws another comparison between himself and the saint, writing, “He was a learned man not of the original sect so he was able to take the message to the rest of the world…” It’s no secret that Kanye also views himself as an outsider in the music and fashion industries. Indeed, West has gone out of his way to construct himself as a pariah of sorts, most infamously taking the mic from Swift at the 2009 Video Music Awards ceremony.
His entry into fashion can itself be seen as a rebellion against the white-dominated hierarchy of the entrenched industry. This was his crusade against white middle America, and he threw everything into it, accruing $53 million USD in debt in the process by his own words. The clothes themselves are a rebuke against the inherent idea of fashion, having been criticized for resembling the garbs of homeless people, and it takes no stretch of the imagination to see the resemblance between the somber models at his Yeezy fashion shows and the emaciated early followers of Christ, permanently on the run from religious persecution.
In a way, The Life of Pablo is a proclamation of his triumph over adversaries. The cult-like imagery at the album’s reveal at Madison Square Garden was clear for all to see — the vast stadium packed with entranced devotees; the tribe of unkempt disciples on elevated platforms, standing erect in Yeezy Season 3; the auto-tuned gospels booming over the AV system; and in the thick of it all, Kanye West standing with outstretched arms, caught in a beam of light. Opposite him in the spectator stands sat his matriarch, Kim Kardashian, and the rest of the Jenner/Kardashian clan swathed in regal white furs, while Anna Wintour, who had previously said that West “can’t be taken seriously as a designer,” sat huddled and “diminished, like a Kardashian accessory,” according to The Cut‘s Cathy Horyn. The fact that the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show had become the event of New York Fashion Week was no clearer indicator of the rapper’s domination of the fashion industry, with Wintour, its long-accepted queen, seemingly abdicating her throne to Kendall & Co. for the night.
It’s certainly easy to escape into West’s self-constructed fairy tale that centers around him and his family. Having taken the worlds of music, fashion and pop culture by storm, his following has swelled in conjunction with seemingly growing tides of social disillusion, to some extent paralleling the uncertain times in which Paul the Apostle lived. But then again, given the man’s occasionally misguided lyrics (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous”), it’s worth taking a grain of salt before stepping foot into the hallowed church of Kanye.