The release of Kanye West‘s new album, The Life of Pablo, has been something of a clusterfuck. Everything, from its title to its track-list to its musical and lyrical content, has been revised multiple times, and quite a few of those revisions occurred after its official release date (14 February).
It would be easy to chalk this all up to a simple lack of planning, but many commentators have found a different angle on the whole thing:
Sources like The Guardian and The New York Times are suggesting that Kanye’s recent activity represents a big, brilliant shoulder-barge to the boundaries of what an album can be. Your average LP is a finite work with a beginning, a middle, and an end; when it’s released, we take it as read that the version we hear – the version sold in record shops, streamed on Spotify, and reviewed by critics – is the complete, definitive version, and that everyone who buys it will receive the same end product. The Life of Pablo – and all the conflicting takes, edits, leaks and bootlegs thereof – demolishes these norms, and whether by accident or by design, Kanye West may well have fundamentally changed the way we all think about albums.
I mean, the whole thing seems like kind of an awkward mess to me, but then it’s easy for me to snark because a) I haven’t heard the album, and b) all of this ‘death of the album as we know it’ talk is kind of terrifying for me.
It was bad enough when Taylor Swift offered us two different versions of 1989 – regular and deluxe – then released deluxe-edition-only track New Romantics as a single, thereby revealing that the deluxe version was the real one and that us poor suckers who bought the standard CD only got 81% of the full story. But this Life of Pablo stuff is a breed of chaos that I’m not sure I can even process; that we may eventually end up with a hundred different versions of this LP, none of them truly definitive, is an intriguing thought, but how can I properly appreciate an album if it won’t sit still long enough for me to even weigh it up? It usually takes me a good few listens to really get a feel for an album, and I suspect that this constant state of flux would keep me permanently locked out of the experience. If an artist I actually liked were to pull this stunt, my primary reactions would probably be disappointment and a feeling of alienation.
But, okay, I don’t want to be the stuffy old dick who’s so set in his ways that he’s willing to lay down in the path of progress. Tempting though it is to respond to these articles by shouting over them and thumping my copy of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, I appreciate that music is evolving, and that the album format must adapt in order to survive. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the arguments in favour of Kanye’s ‘art is never finished’ model:
It gives Kanye’s fans a deeper insight into his creative process.
Here’s an interesting point of view from that New York Times article I linked to earlier:
“Think of how we understand pop music titans like Dylan or Prince. Over time, more demos and alternate versions and live versions get released — officially or not — and our understanding of their process deepens. Given the speed and porousness of the Internet era, we may soon be able to assess and comprehend Mr. West in much the same way. Albums that seem to be complete will only get less so. Songs that sound fixed in stone will be revealed to be the product of much trial and error. The process will be laid bare, as fascinating as the end result.”
Okay, sure – it is sometimes cool to hear the rough sketches that begat the fully-formed bangerz we know and love. But it’s eminently possible to share those sketches with listeners without compromising the sanctity (ugh) of the album as a single, standalone piece. Tindersticks handled this well with the 2004 remaster of their self-titled debut; the reissued version came with a bonus disc containing twelve demo tracks, most of which were early versions of key tracks from Tindersticks itself. This package gave fans a sneaky peek at the flesh and bones of their favourite songs whilst still allowing them to experience the original work in full, sans tampering (remastering don’t count because this undertaking, generally speaking, doesn’t change the actual content of the album).
Or, if ‘bonus disc’ is too humdrum a treat for your listeners, why not do what PJ Harvey did last year and just let people watch you while you’re in the recording studio?
It allows Kanye to make continuous improvements, even after the album has been released.
Is that a good thing, though? That Guardian piece compares Kanye’s ongoing tweaks with the ‘patches’ that video game developers will sometimes release for their games, but the main purpose of a patch is to fix a bug, not to alter the artistic content of a game or airbrush a creative choice that people have criticised. An album patch only makes sense if the sound came out a bit choppy in the original master, or if one of the tracks doesn’t play properly, or something like that. As soon as we give artists the ability to chop and change their artistic decisions on the fly, we absolve them of all responsibility for what they create – after all, why put any thought into what you’re recording if you can simply fix it later?
This has kind of already happened with The Life of Pablo. A leaked demo of the song Famous – and, again, I haven’t listened to this album; the following is just what I’ve read on the New York Times website – reportedly contained a line suggesting that Taylor Swift owes Kanye sex:
“Two days before Mr. West played Pablo for the world at a Feb 11 fashion show at Madison Square Garden, he held a listening session for friends, family and representatives of his record label. The next day, a Reddit user began a thread titled, “Rumor: Kanye West is going to diss Taylor Swift on his new album.” The post went on to detail the opening lines from Famous: ‘I feel like Taylor Swift still owe me sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.'”
Apparently, a later revision of that song changed the offending verse, and for what it’s worth, I think Kanye did the right thing by making that alteration (even if – as has been claimed – it was an in-joke between West and Swift, it’s still a horrible, horrible line). Also, to be fair, we only know about Famous‘s original lyric because somebody leaked a demo online, presumably without Kanye West’s blessing.
It means that the album constantly remains fresh.
No argument here. But, as I’ve already suggested, it’s difficult to warm to a piece of art that’s constantly ‘fresh’; I can only speak for myself here, but the albums I listen to most are the ones I know inside-out, and The Life of Pablo will never reach that point (the point at which putting the album on feels like wriggling into your favourite jumper) unless either the listener or the creator eventually gives up and decides to stop at the current version of the record. As soon as that happens, the current version become the ‘real’ version, and the whole grand experiment becomes pointless, because all of the other editions were just works in progress, as opposed to being the equally important links in a never-ending chain.
(This is kind of what has happened with Sundries, the ‘living album’ from anti-folk hero Lach that, in its way, was a kind of a forerunner to The Life of Pablo. Each week, Lach would remove one track from Sundries and replace it with another, meaning that the album was constantly shifting and that the version you downloaded became obsolete almost straight away. However, Lach doesn’t appear to be updating Sundries any more, and while he’s nobly dubbed its final incarnation ‘The Last Version’ instead of ‘The Definitive Version’, it’s kind of hard not to view the set of tracks that’s now available on Lach’s Bandcamp page as anything but the ‘canon’ version of Sundries.)
But let’s give Kanye the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’ll keep updating and reimagining The Life of Pablo for the rest of time. In this unlikely scenario, there’s a fourth potential advantage to the idea of an ever-changing album:
It means that no single edition or reissue of the album can be held up as any more ‘definitive’ than any other.
Now here’s the one benefit of this model that I can really get behind. I hate it when I buy an album and, less than a year later, out comes the ‘Special Edition’ with more extras and incentives and inexplicable rewards for the people who were smart enough not to buy the record when it first came out. It always feels like a bit of a middle finger to the fans who bothered to go to the shops on release day – at least Taylor Swift was gallant enough to release 1989 (Deluxe) at the same time as the standard version, giving us the choice right off the bat rather than forcing us to re-buy or miss out further down the line.
So there, finally, is a harbour at which I may be willing to board this ship: if Kanye West’s model of constant change eradicates those dickweedy, cash-grab, come-on-at-least-wait-a-couple-of-years re-releases that seemingly aim to discourage people from buying their favourite band’s new album right away, then perhaps I’ll rethink my position on this matter.
For now, though, it all just strikes me as kind of cowardly. One of the hardest parts of any artistic endeavour is the part where you step back and decide that, yes, this is complete, this is An Art that I’m happy to share with the world. By coming back and tinkering with The Life of Pablo every time he thinks of something else he wants to change, Kanye West is unburdening himself of his duty to take that step, and I’ve no real interest in listening to his “unfinished masterpiece” until he starts acting like it’s actually ready.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.